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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 October 2005, 06:15 GMT 07:15 UK
India's antiquated railways
Site of rail crash near Mukerian in Punjab, 14 December 2004
Critics say frequent accidents are no surprise
The latest train accident in India has raised a host of old questions about safety on the country's famous rail network.

State-owned Indian Railways carries more than 11 million people daily over more than 100,000km of track.

The overwhelming majority of passengers travel in lower class carriages that are overcrowded and in many cases out of date.

Much of the rail network still depends on an outdated signalling system that is manually operated.

It is no surprise, critics say, that accidents happen with depressing frequency.

The government is under increasing pressure to invest heavily in improving and modernising safety measures.

Officials acknowledge that routine inspection and maintenance work has been hampered because of a lack of funds.

But they say investment in safety-related work has been stepped up.

'Fewer accidents'

Critics say the Railways Ministry has not implemented the findings of an inquiry commission into a train crash in 1998, at Khanna in Punjab state, in which 200 people were killed.

Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav
The railway minister's policies have left many less than happy
Following the crash, a committee set up by the Railways Ministry called for the immediate replacement of "over-aged safety-related assets".

A special fund of $3bn was announced by the authorities to help renew track, rebuild bridges and enhance safety systems.

But many of the report's measures have still to be introduced.

The government rejects claims it is foot dragging, however, and says the railway authorities have never compromised on safety.

Railways Spokesman MY Siddiqui told the BBC safety levels were improving - and there had been fewer accidents as a result.

He dismissed as a "freak incident" a train crash in Maharashtra state in June 2004.

Other officials argue that with 14,000 trains running every day, the number of accidents cannot be described as high.

Flawed inquiries

Statistically the number of fatalities in train accidents remains low when compared to the number of people killed on Indian roads.

The Matsyagandha Express crashed near Bombay in June 2004
The Matsyagandha Express crashed near Bombay in June 2004
Yet there have been a series of major rail accidents in recent years, with collisions the main cause of rail accident deaths.

Many of them have been due to signalling faults.

India's worst rail disaster was in 1981 when a cyclone blew a train off the tracks into a river in Bihar, killing over 800 people.

Every accident is followed by an official inquiry.

But lack of investment in infrastructure means action is seldom taken to enhance passenger safety even though most inquiries raise serious questions about railway management.

Over the years different probes have concluded that accidents are due to signal failures - both mechanical and human - as well as derailments, collapsing bridges, poor safety procedures at level crossings and even bomb explosions.

Officials say many accidents could be prevented by adopting modern technology and reducing human involvement, particularly in signalling and switching of tracks.

Steps have been taken to develop optical fibre-based and digital communication signals at selected routes.

Steam locomotives have been phased out and replaced with diesel and electric engines.

But observers point out that a full conversion of mechanical systems into state-of-the-art technology needs money and will take time.

Trains collide in northern India
14 Dec 04 |  South Asia

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