Data from the Indian Railways indicates that the number of consequential train accidents fell by more than 90% since the year 2000. From more than 2000 accidents in 1960-61, the number is down to less than 200 for more than 12 years now.
Railways in India are considered the transport lifeline connecting the entire nation and playing a significant role in transporting passengers and goods. With a route length of over 68 thousand km, India’s rail network is the third largest in the world. Every day, around 16 thousand trains ply on the more than 1 lakh kms of track length across the country. With this high traffic of passenger and freight trains, there is a possibility of accidents. Since its inception in the mid-19th century in India, the expansion of the railway network has also necessitated the need for improved safety measures that would mitigate the number as well as the impact of rail accidents. In this context, we look at the trends in Railway accidents in India and analyse if the situation improved over the years.
Methodology: The data is collated from the various reports submitted by the Ministry of Railways in the parliament over the years. The datasets used for the analysis are available in Factly’s Dataful here. Only the ‘Consequential Accidents’ are considered for the analysis. Consequential Train accidents are those train accidents that have serious repercussions in terms of – human life, human injury, loss of railway property, interruptions to Rail traffic, etc. The current definition and classification of Rail accidents is effective since late 2000, where-in the Ministry of Railways made the changes and issued a notification accordingly.
Unless specified, accidents in this story refer to consequential accidents.
90% fall in the number of Consequential accidents in last 20 years
Information on the consequential accidents provided by the Ministry of Railways indicates that there has been a steady & significant fall in the number of accidents over the decades. During 1960-61, there were 2.1 thousand train accidents. However, during the same decade, the number of accidents fell to less than one thousand. At the beginning of the next decade i.e., during 1970-71, the number of accidents reported was 840. The trend was inconsistent during the decade with the average annual accidents remaining around this number.
However, the 1980s saw an improvement in the situation with 500-600 accidents being reported by end of the decade. There was only a slight fall in the numbers reported during the 1990s.
At the beginning of this century i.e., in 2000-01, there were 473 accidents reported. As highlighted earlier, there was a change in the definition and classification of accidents by the Ministry of Railways around this time. By the end of that decade, the number of accidents fell to 165 in 2009-10. The situation improved further with 55 accidents reported in 2019-20. In 2020-21, the closure of Train services during the pandemic is evident from 22 accidents recorded in that year. This increased to 35 in 2021-22. Overall, the number of consequential train accidents fell by more than 90% if one compares the data of 2000-01.
Derailments constitute 76% of the Consequential train accidents
There are four major categories under which consequential train accidents are classified – Derailments, Collisions, Accidents at level crossings, and Fire in trains. There are other consequential accidents categorised as miscellaneous.
Data from 1960-61 shows that most of the consequential accidents are due to derailment. During the period 1960-61 to 2021-22, there are nearly 29.6 thousand accidents caused due to Derailment of trains. This constitutes 76% of the total consequential accidents during this period. Accidents at level crossings constitute 13% of the accidents with 4990. During this period, there were 2420 instances of Collisions and another 1620 instances of Accidents due to Fire in trains.
Significant decrease in the number of Accidents due to derailments
The fall in the overall Consequential accidents over the past few decades can be attributed to the fall in the number of accidents in the case of the major category i.e., derailments. In 1960-61, there were more than 1.4 thousand derailment-related accidents. Over the ensuing decades, there has been a significant fall in the numbers. During the last 15 years, the number of such accidents was less than 100. In fact, in 2021-22, there were 27 such accidents. Therefore, the fall in the number of consequential accidents can be attributed largely to the efforts made in reducing the derailment of trains.
The Factsheet submitted by Indian Railways in the Lok Sabha in 2018, highlights a few of the measures taken to mitigate the instances of derailments. These include and are not limited to – the upgradation and standardization of track structure, adoption of superior quality welding techniques, upgradation to higher quality materials, electronic monitoring to identify defects in tracks, improving the crashworthiness of coaches, etc.
There is also a decrease in the other types of train accidents. Accidents at level crossings which were around 100-140 up to the 1970s now have one odd instance in a year. In a recent update, the Government of India stated that there were no consequential train accidents at unmanned level crossings during the last three years.
Another significant improvement is reducing the accidents due to Fire in trains. At the beginning of the 1960s, they formed the second main category of consequential accidents. Such accidents are very few in recent years. The Fact sheet also highlights the measures taken to reduce fire accidents in trains. Furnishing the trains with fire retardant materials, improvements in fire & smoke detection systems, provision of fire extinguishers, enhancing electrical safety, the constitution of fire safety audits, etc are a few of the measures that have contributed to a reduction of the fire accidents in trains.
Failure of Railway Staff contributed to 62% of the accidents since 2000-01
Cause-wise data of the accidents compiled since 2000-01 indicated that a major portion of the accidents can be attributed to the failure of the Railway Staff. Since the beginning of this century, ‘Failure of Railway Staff’ is identified to be the cause of 62% of consequential train accidents. However, there is an improvement over the years. Between 2000-01 to 2002-03, the number of accidents with this cause was over 100 every year. There was a significant fall in 2003-04 to about 20 accidents, with it improving to accidents in single digits by the start of 2010s. However, during the latter part of the decade, the numbers indicate an increase in accidents due to the failure of railway staff. For the past 4 years, the number are back to single digits. Cause relating to another human intervention i.e., ‘Failure of other than Railways staff’ is the next major reason. There are 181 accidents since 2000-01 which were caused due to ‘Failure of Equipment’. Sabotage has resulted in around 161 accidents during the same period.
The Annual Report of Indian Railways for 2020-21, highlights a few of the measures like – mechanization, early detection of flaws, refresher pieces of training & upgradation of skills of human resources, etc, to reduce the number of accidents caused due to the failure of Railway staff.