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Device that could have saved lives

Calcutta, July 19: An indigenous technology approved by the rail board may have saved 62 lives had the railways delivered on Mamata Banerjee’s promise to Parliament of “zero tolerance to accidents”.

Senior rail officials and passenger safety experts told The Telegraph the Uttar Banga Express may not have rammed into the Vananchal had the locomotives been fitted with an anti-collision device (ACD) the railways developed after the 1999 Gaisal accident killed 268 people.

“During her stint as railway minister in 1999, Mamata Banerjee herself had encouraged me to develop the system. She had even briefed Parliament about its effectiveness,” said B. Rajaram, an IIT Kharagpur-trained engineer, who developed the technology and fine-tuned it for use in the Indian Railways.

Speaking from his residence in Herndon in Vermont in the US, the former managing director of Konkan Railways said the technology had been ready for use since 2003.

“An ACD could have easily avoided this accident by stopping the moving train before it hit the train that was pulling out of the station,” Rajaram said.

According to him, the ACD intelligent network covering locomotives, the last coach, stations and level crossings was capable of stopping a train or trains without human interference to avert a collision.

The use of such devices is an integral part of any modern railway system. The Japanese and the US railway networks have minimised human error with the use of such technology.

In her budget speech on February 24, Mamata had stressed the need to install cutting-edge equipment to prevent accidents. Vision 2020, the ministry’s statement of intent, aims at making railway operations free of accidents, be it derailment, collision or fire on trains.

“The ACD and train protection warning systems (TPWS) are two such devices. The former has already been installed on the North Frontier Railway and is now proposed to be extended to three more zonal railways. Four projects of TPWS covering 828 route kilometres for improving safety and preventing collision accidents will be implemented during the year,” Mamata had said in her budget speech.

But senior railway officials said that the project of extending use of safety tools in different zones was yet to take off.

In a departure from what Mamata had said in her budget speech, Vivek Sahai, the chairman of the railway board, even raised questions on the ACDs’ effectiveness. “The ACDs are giving spurious results. They are not effective on multiple tracks,” he said at a news conference here.

Told about the rail board’s reservations, Rajaram, who has donated the ACD patent to the railways, said: “The railway board had certified it before…. Even Lloyds, UK, had certified it on the basis of its performance on the North Frontier Railway. I don’t know why the chairman of the railway board made such observations.”

Refuting Sahai’s claim that the ACD was not effective on multiple tracks, Rajaram said the device could have even prevented the Jnaneswari tragedy in which a goods train on another track rammed into the passenger train after it jumped rails.

“An intelligent network like the ACD could have stopped the Jnaneswari before the goods train crashed against it,” Raghuram said, adding that the decision to use the right technology was getting delayed because of multiple options with the rail ministry.

G. Raghuram, the Indian Railways chair professor at IIM Ahmedabad, endorsed the use of ACDs. The devices constantly monitor moving units using radio trans-receivers, software, and positioning systems within a radius of twice the braking distance required and automatically get activated to prevent a collision.

With some Japanese and US companies pitching for the contract, competition has intensified for the home-grown ACD.

“If they are finding it difficult to take a decision on which technology to adopt, the railways can run pilot surveys with all the options. But instead of doing that, they are exploring options only on paper,” Rajaram said.

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