Spotlight on train disaster near Pokhrayan

The rail disaster involving the 19231 Indore-Rajendra Nagar (Patna) Express may well be the worst railway accident in India in several years. As I write this, the death toll has crossed 130. Here is the very basic information put out by the concerned zone (North Central Railway):;jsessionid=zWOAqhsYgbGjIRyP0QZvmcOLGPzwD98YlnRGQYOyrPatB-bjyfg1!9620467?id=20161113001

The accident site comes under Jhansi division of NCR whose HQ is at Allahabad. It was earlier on Central Railway.

The location is between Pokhrayan and Malasa stations on the Jhansi-Kanpur section. It would be about 45 km south-west of Kanpur Central station and 175 km north-east of Jhansi. Though not a trunk line, it has heavy passenger traffic with numerous trains from southern and western India to Kanpur, Lucknow and beyond. The site falls in Kanpur Dehat district.

Pokhrayan and Malasa can be seen on the map here:,+Uttar+Pradesh/@26.3286985,80.0379633,11z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x399c4770b127c46f:0x1778302a9fbe7b41!8m2!3d26.449923!4d80.3318736

However, it appears that Pukhrayan is the more common spelling of the town.

A list of accidents with a death roll of over 100 since 2000

(This is from memory, so there may be minor inaccuracies):

2002: Near Gaya, 116 killed in wrecking of Howrah-New Delhi Rajdhani.

2005: Near Hyderabad, 116 killed as passenger train plunges into flood waters in Nalgonda district.

2006: 7 bomb blasts on WR locals in Mumbai result is the deaths of at least 186.

2010: Near Kharagpur: 150 killed as a goods train collided with coaches of the Howrah-Mumbai Jnaneshwari Express, which had been derailed due to sabotage.

(It is also noted that some false reports of major disasters in the 2000s have been entered in Wikipedia, with no reference. I will have to clean them up).

Here is the story of the ill-fated train’s trip:


It can be seen that the last scheduled stop was at Orai, about 50 km short of the accident site. The route continues beyond Kanpur via Lucknow, Faizabad, Varanasi and Mughalsarai.

As to causes of the accident-all which can be said at the moment is that there could have been a defect in the tracks, or the loco, or rolling stock, or possibly a combination of these. Apart from tampering with the tracks, rail fractures and fractures of welded joints have been observed as causes of major derailments in recent years.

While there have been a number of incidents of sabotage of tracks in recent years, they have usually been in areas where extremist groups are active. That is not the case here. Apart from extremist sabotage, over the past 50 years there have been at least a couple of cases where disgruntled railway employees have caused major accidents by tampering with tracks.

An odd train accident in the desert

Although the safety record of the Indian Railways has generally improved over the years, unexpected mishaps do occur-like this one in Rajasthan when a runaway coach ran 12 km over a light slope until it was switched into a dead end:

Fortunately there were no casualties (mainly because no one was in the errant coach). And this is a low-traffic route, but level-crossing mishaps could well have happened.

The official information sheet by the railways does hold the shunting staff at Barmer at fault, though they are yet to be punished. The link for this is not available now.

A nasty accident for the new year.

The new year has begun on a bad note for railway safety with a rather nasty accident near Jalandhar, which has not got much coverage in the national media. This clipping and picture tell the story:

JUC acc

For the record, this is the 74934 Firozpur Cantt-Jalandhar City DMU passenger and the accident is between Khojewala and DAV College stations on the Firozpur-Jalandhar section, close to the latter. This is a moderately busy branch line of the NR with a few long-distance expresses and several passenger trains (mainly DMUs). Fog was a factor, but then a loco pilot would not expect there to be a vehicle on the track near a manned crossing. Based on the report, the station staff had sent a message to the gateman who acknowledged it. Why the gate was left open is not immediately clear. Whereas accidents at unmanned crossings are almost invariably the fault of the road user, accidents at manned crossings are most likely to be the fault of railway staff. It could be the fault of the gateman or the staff at the controlling station. In some cases the train may not have followed speed restrictions and other regulations. Other things which have happened on IR include the road users threatening or otherwise persuading the gateman to open the gate, forcibly opening the gate themselves  and on rare occasions overspeeding and crashing through closed gates. If one looks through the records of the past 5 years or so there will be examples of all these events.

In this case a total of 3 persons were killed and 3 injured. Apart from the tractor driver, all the other victims were railway employees. Apart from the LP and ALP, the others may have been in the front portion which was badly damaged as you can see. In fact the LP and ALP are particularly vulnerable in EMUs and DMUs as they have little protection in the front when compared to a regular loco (even types like the WAP-4 or WAP-5). If a single tractor could cause so much destruction then some rethinking needs to be done. The Kakodkar high-level safety review had called for the elimination of all level crossings and progress is slowly being made in this, though the main lines would generally get priority over the branch lines. And the crashworthiness of the front cabs of this variety of DMU need to be reconsidered. One would guess that if the train had been hauled by a regular loco (such as a WDM-2) there would not have been any casualties from the train.

In spite of what the mass media may say, railway safety has shown a considerable improvement over the years with the accident rate per train km steadily declining over the past half-century or more. But the carelessness of one individual can put all systems to nought.

The casual reader may say that automated level crossings with automatic lowering of barriers may have prevented this. Some of us may have seen these in the US and other Western countries. But accidents happen even there when the mechanism is working fine. The classic case was this one in the UK:  where a slow-moving heavy load could not get through the crossing in the specified time before the train reached. And any complicated mechanism used by the railways and left unattended by the trackside would be vulnerable to vandalism and theft (even the 25 Kv overhead lines do get stolen).

Of course, the gateman may not have been the sole culprit and there may be some other cause. But this accident should cause concern to the higher levels of the railways even though the casualties were not spectacular enough to make headlines.

Looking into the history of aviation disasters in India-2

Getting a full record of accidents of the IAF and its earlier avatar RIAF is not possible from official documents. The results of enquiries rarely make it to the press. However, newspaper reports have been compiled into this resource: . It stops at end-2008, but more or less lists everything after that. However, the Warbirds data has been updated up to 2013 and can now be seen at . Apart from the IAF, there are a sizable number of aircraft operated by the Navy and smaller numbers by the Army, Coast Guard and the top-secret Aviation Research Centre. (But then, many top-secret organizations have articles about them in Wikipedia).

Regarding civilian crashes (Passenger and freight airline flights, general aviation, some government and paramilitary aircraft) we have the DGCA which investigates them and there is some record of the enquiries. They also cover accidents to foreign aircraft occurring in India from the 1960s onwards. Conversely, accidents to Indian aircraft outside India are generally investigated by the country where the crash occurred, though Indian authorities are involved.

To see accident summaries, click on , then on Aircraft and then on Summaries. These are mainly in pdf form from 1960 to 2009. There must have been summaries from 1950 to 1959 as well. but they are not on the net.

More detailed accident reports from 2008 can be seen by clicking Reports rather than Summaries.

Coming back to the summaries, they give the very bare details and the inquiry reports may not have been released to the public. Perhaps RTI applications would help if one was really interested. Anyway, here are a few accidents which would be of interest:

19 Sep 1965, Expeditor VT-COO which was the plane carrying the Gujarat CM Balwantrai Mehta which was shot down in the course of the Pakistan war. (This has received a lot of coverage in the news media in the last few years)

23 Jun 1980, Pitts S-2A VT-EGN in which Sanjai Gandhy and another was killed.

26 Apr 1979, Indian Airlines Boeing 737 VT-ECR near Chennai. Fortunately no one was killed or badly injured, but it was clearly a terrorist bomb. There does not seem to have been any subsequent report as to who was responsible.

In closing: there is no single book or online resource which gives a listing and details of aviation accidents in India and involving Indian aircraft. Perhaps it is time someone wrote such a book. Watch this space.

Next, I will provide a list of all Indian or India-connected aviation disasters in which 30 or more persons were killed. This list does not appear anywhere else on the net or in any publication.

A presentation on a few major Indian air disasters

Continuing from yesterday’s post, here is a presentation made a few days ago at a conference on Industrial Safety at IIT Gandhinagar. Here I cover a few newsworthy major accidents, namely:

Air India crash off Bombay, 1978

Air India sabotage over the Atlantic, 1985

Saudia-Kazakhstan Airlines collision near Delhi, 1996

Air India Express crash at Mangalore, 2010 (yes, this does make use of the “vanished” DGCA report)

A Study of Some Major Indian Aviation Accidents

Those familiar with the subject may find things a little compressed. Remember this had to be squeezed into 20 minutes!

Aviation safety in India

Aviation safety, like other branches of safety, has a public perception greatly dependent on what the general public thinks. This in turn largely depends on what the mass media decides to project. The current year has had two particularly tragic and peculiar incidents in MH 370 and MH 17, which may lead one to think that things are becoming worse. Not really. Improvements in technology in aircraft and communications technology have made things much safer than before. But there are always going to be saboteurs and plain incompetence of individuals in the system.

Let’s take a closer look at India. There was a time until around the mid-80s when there was at least one crash of an Indian airliner every year. Indian Airlines was rated among one of the world’s most unsafe airlines. But there was no fatal crash of any Indian commercial airliner between June 2000 and May 2010-which is particularly creditable as this period marked the expansion of many of today’s private airlines (admittedly aided by more modern aircraft).

Military aviation safety in India is another matter. Anyone wanting to make a serious study of this topic will end up having to depend on media reports of accidents. At least the DGCA is now giving more details of accidents on their website. Summaries going back to 1960 are here:

and more detailed reports of accidents and incidents since 2008 are also there (click on Reports rather than Summaries).

Rather interestingly, the detailed report of the 2010 crash at Mangalore is now password protected-although it was not protected for several months. You can still find a cache somewhere on the net via Google. If that sounds like too much trouble, there is a reasonable summary of this and many other accidents on Wikipedia. Most (but not all) significant accidents are covered. In this particular case we have:

Next I will be covering a few major Indian aviation accidents from 1978 to 2010 to illustrate what can go wrong.