Patna-Indore Express derailment: How technology can help improve the safety of Indian Railways

There is a renewed interest in the safety of rail travel in the Indian Railways, following the derailment of the Patna-Indore Express. There are over 115 reported causalities, and over 200 people injured in what was one of the biggest accident in the past few years.

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Currently, the method for preventing accidents is decidedly low tech. Railway employees trudge up and down the tracks, carrying heavy equipment, manually inspecting the tracks for problems. According to various reports, the number of employees hired to manually inspect the tracks range from 100,000 to 200,000. Scroll details how these trackmen inspect the tracks, preventing potential derailments. These hundreds of thousands of jobs may become obsolete if technology is brought in to monitor the tracks instead. There are a number of technologies being developed for improving the safety, with various organisations in India and around the world.

The initiatives fall under two missions, the Technology Mission on Railway Safety, and the Zero Accident Mission.

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A Derailment Detection Device. Image: IIT-K

IIT Madras is designing an automatic fracture detection system for the Indian Railways, according to a report in The Hindu. Ultrasonic testing for track faults are carried out once every few months, or drivers report unnatural sounds to engineers after passing over potentially defective tracks. The Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) is also simultaneously developing an automatic crack detection system. The systems are expected to be first deployed on high density routes.

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IIT Kanpur is developing a number of technologies for improving the safety of rail journeys. Derailment Detection Devices are sensors that are on board trains and detect the possibility of derailment based on movement and tilt. The devices will measure and process the signals. With proper integration into the braking system of the train, in case there is a derailment, the instrument will minimise causalities by reducing the amount of time the derailed coaches drag. Currently, the Indian Railways has no on board instrument for detecting the possibilities of derailment.

Before there is a derailment, the stress on the wheels overheat them. This is just before the wheels seize up and stop functioning, leading to derailment or track damage. Hot Axle and Box Detection (HABD) systems are used the world over for monitoring the possibility of derailment in realtime. The technology takes rapid measurements of fluctuations in temperatures. The HABD data will be available for use by the signalling network, so any incidents with trains can automatically be used for safely redirecting other nearby trains. Additionally, the system has to be tweaked for the climatic conditions in India. Prototype systems are being developed with identified industrial partners.

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The new LHB coaches minimise causalities after derailment. Image: trainstuff.in.

On Board Diagnostics will also go a long way in boosting safety of rail travel. These are instruments embedded in the locomotives, to give accurate and realtime information about the performance of various parts, and give warning alerts if any reading is beyond the anticipated threshold. Currently, the motorman has to manually inspect the various components, and the diagnostics depends on the experience and knowledge of the individual. Saving the data farmed from multiple runs will provide more comparison points, and will continuously improve travel safety with increased use.

The Rail Flaw Detection System is meant to replace the current Ultrasound detection methods. Non contact ultrasonic instruments, along with Electro Magnetic Acoustic Transducer are being developed for detecting various kinds of flaws in railway tracks. These instruments are meant to detect flaws at walking speeds, as well as speeds as high as 50 kilometers per hour. There capabilities being developed for the system include online and offline processing of the data, after it has been gathered.

On January 13, 2016, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu inaugrated the Track Management System (TMS). The TMS is used to track inspections, monitoring and maintenance activities across the entire network, and remove paperwork. There is a mobile app for senior officials on the move, that allows for review of important exception reports. However, according to a report in The Pioneer, access to the TMS is denied to the Safety Wing of the Indian Railways.

The Train Protection Warning System, partially developed with help from the French company Thales, is a means of preventing accidents in case a motorman misses a signal. In case the driver misses to engage the brakes, then the train will brake automatically. This is part of a modern signalling system on the Indian Railways. Loops placed strategically at a distance from the signal and at the signal are used to activate the signal, according to a report in the Economic Times.

The Tri-Netra is a system comprising of three imaging technologies to assist the motormen in driving the trains. The Tri-Netra system includes a video camera, an infrared camera, and a radar based terrain mapping system, to let motormen see what is on the tracks ahead in bad weather conditions, fog, smog or low light conditions. The Tri-Netra system is meant to alert the motormen on detection of obstructions on the track, including stuck vehicles in crossing, fallen trees, or animals. Israel, USA, Australia and Finland have expressed their interest in developing such a system.

Satellite imagery and Geographical Information Systems are being used by the Indian Railways to improve safety. The systems are being developed with a partnership with ISRO, according to a report in The Indian Express. After an accident, the satellites can be used to monitor the scene and understand the terrain. The satellites can also be used to trigger hooters to warn approaching vehicles in unmanned railway crossings.

The tracks themselves can be made of more pliable materials, that do not develop cracks under extreme temperature changes. New Linke Holfmann Bush coaches are designed not to topple on derailment, and would have considerably reduced the number of causalities in this accident, according to The Pioneer.

There are plenty of technologies that are existing to improve the safety of rail travel in India. These technologies are in various phases, being developed, tested, partially implemented, or even fully implemented but not available to all departments. Increased budgeting for rapid roll out for rail safety, and more dependence on IT-based platforms as against manual labour is the need of the hour.

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