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As Railways confirms that Kavach system is not installed on the route in Odisha where the accident took place, could it have prevented it? What we know

If the accident took place after Coromandel Express hit the goods train, the Kavach system would be activated but there would not be enough time to stop it. And if the train derailed on its own and then the second train reached almost immediately, the system would most possibly not work

Over 200 people have died and around 900 have been injured in one of the worst train accidents that took place in Balasore district in Odisha last evening. The accident involved three trains, Howrah-Chennai Coromandel Express, Yeswanthpur-Howrah Superfast Express, and a goods train.

As per initial reports, the Coromandel Express derailed at Bahanaga station after it entered the loop line and hit a goods train which was parked on that line. Several of the derailed coaches fell on the adjacent line, and the Yeswanthpur-Howrah Express that arrived on that line minutes later crashed into the derailed coaches. However, later some reports said that Coromandel Express derailed first and then crashed into the goods train, with no explanation of how the train derailed.

At present authorities are completely focused on rescue and restoration operations, and therefore information on how the accident took place is limited at present.

Following the accident, many people are asking why the Kavach system, designed to stop collision between two trains, didn’t stop the horrific accident. Many people are using the tragedy to blame the Modi govt, accusing it of running only PR and not actually implementing safety measures.

Social media users are also questioning whether the Kavach system, also known as Train Collision Avoidance System actually works in preventing collision between trains.

On the other hand, some people are saying that the Kavach system works only when two trains are moving on the same track, and it does not work when a train derails, falls in an adjacent track and gets hit by another train.

The Kavach system uses high-frequency radio signals to communicate with nearby trains and tracks. It is a set of electronic devices and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) devices installed in locomotives, in the signalling system as well as the tracks. Apart from preventing head-on and rear-end collisions between trains on the same train, it can also slow down over-speeding trains, alert and apply brakes when a train crosses the signal, automatically whistle at level crossings etc.

The devices in the system connect to each other to control the brakes of the trains and alert the drivers, based on the logic programmed into the system.

Why Kavach didn’t work

Now coming to why the system failed to avert the crash, now it has been confirmed by the Railways that the system was not installed on the tracks where the accident took place. When asked why the system didn’t work, railways spokesperson Amitabh Sharma said that Kawach was not available on this route. He said that Kavach is route-specific, and the system is currently being installed on Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Howrah sections. The Kharagpur-Bhadrak-Cuttack route does have this system, he added.

While under development for over a decade, the indigenously developed system has been implemented in the railway network only recently. The trial of the Kavach system took place just a year ago, where two trains, one with Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, were driven towards each other on the same track, and the system successfully applied brakes to stop the trains. After that, the railways started installing the safety system in a phased manner. According to a statement by the ministry issued in December 2022, Kavach has been deployed for 1,455 Route Kms on South Central Railway with 77 locomotives, and is in progress on around 3000 km track on Delhi-Mumbai & Delhi –Howrah corridors.

With around 70,000 km of routes which have around 1,30,000 km of tracks, and over 20,000 trains, it will take a long time to install the system on the entire railway network, even if the task is fast-tracked.

Can Kavach prevent such accidents?

Now, while it has been confirmed that the Kavach system was not available on the track where the accident took place, the question arises, could it have prevented it?

According to many, as it was not a head-on collision, it is not clear whether the system can work in such a situation when where a train hits a derailed train which was running on the adjacent track. Many are saying it would not have been prevented because it was not a head-on collision between the two trains. But the fact is, the Kavach system does much more than only preventing head-on collisions. For one, it can also stop rear-end collisions.

In this regard, it is important to know what exactly happened. According to reports, the accident started with Coromandel Express hitting a parked goods train. While later some reports said that the train derailed on its own and then hit the goods train, some media houses now have cited a preliminary report prepared by officials, which indicates that the passenger train, which was supposed to pass the station through the up main line, entered the loop line instead due to a signalling error.

According to the report, at first, the signal was given for Coromandel Express to pass through the up main line, but then it was switched off. After that, the train entered the loop line and crashed into the parked goods train. The other passenger train arrived at that time and crashed into derailed coaches of the other train which fell on the down main line.

“After careful observation, (we) came to the conclusion that the signal was given and taken off for the main line for 12841 (Coromandel Express), but this train entered the loop line and dashed with the goods train which was on the loop line and derailed,” said the report signed by four senior railway officials, who inspected the accident site on Friday night, as reported by several media houses.

However, this report has not been published officially, and media houses reported it claiming that they saw the handwritten draft.

If this report is correct, this indicates that it was most likely a human error, which caused the passenger train to enter the wrong line and crash into the parked train. As there was no scheduled halt for both the trains at the station, they were travelling at high speeds, causing massive damage. Reportedly, Coromandel Express was at a speed of 128 kmph and Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express was running at a speed of 116 kmph.

The Kavach system would have been possibly activated and applied brakes, as it is designed to prevent trains from entering already occupied tracks due to human and signalling errors. If the Kavach system was there, it would have tried to prevent the Coromandel Express from crashing into the goods train by applying brakes. It was essentially a head-on (or rear-end) collision between Coromandel Express and the goods train, which led to the second crash.

The Kavach system is designed to prevent Signal Passing at Danger, which is when trains not stopping at a stop signal. The Kavach systems installed at stations continuously monitor the tracks and trains on them and act to prevent any collision.

According to specifications of the Kavach system, “In case two trains are detected by Stationary Kavach moving towards each other on same TIN (Track identification Number) in block section in communication mandatory zone, the SoS command would be generated by Stationary Kavach for both the trains. On reception of such Loco specific SoS from Stationary Kavach Unit, the trains would be stopped through automatic application of brakes.” This means, if the system detects two trains on the same track at a station where Stationary Kavach is installed, it will apply brakes.

The Kavach system uses RFID tags on tracks, and the locomotives have RFID readers. Therefore, the system knows the exact location of the trains on the tracks, and if another train approaches the same track on the same location, it sends alerts and applies brakes, preventing collisions. The onboard Kavach units can also detect possible collisions by communicating with the units on other trains in an area, without using track RFIDs.

However, the important fact is that Coromandel Express was running at 128 kmph. This means, even if the Kavach was activated after it entered the loop line, the speed would be very high to effectively stop the train in time to prevent the collision. Therefore, the train would still hit the goods train.

But the Kavach system has another feature, it can prevent train collisions with the help of SPAD (Signal passed at danger) and TIN (Track Identification Number) conflict. This means, it could have possibly detected that the main line was connected to the loop line which already has a train, and could have raised alarms and activated brakes well before the passenger train entered the loop line. In that case, there could be enough time to stop the train.

Now, what if there was no collision and the first passenger train derailed on its own and fell into the adjacent line? Many people are saying the system can’t prevent such accidents.

But it has been reported that the Kavach has another feature, under which, after the system is activated, all other trains within a range of 5 km are halted to prevent any cross-track collisions.

The Kavach system detects derailments and unusual halts of running trains, which results in halting all trains within 5 km. Therefore, the system could have possibly applied brakes on the Yeswanthpur-Howrah Express even if the Coromandel Express derailed on its own, after detecting the derailment.

Moreover, the specifications say that “Onboard KAVACH units either directly or through Stationary KAVACH unit shall be capable of detecting head on collisions, rear end collisions of trains/locos on single line, multiple lines in all possible scenarios based on the track identification, speed of the trains, train location, train length, train direction movement (Nominal/Reverse) etc.” It says that the system can detect collisions even on multiple lines.

However, according to railway sources, the Yeswanthpur-Howrah Express reached the spot almost immediately after Coromandel Express derailed. In fact, it is also being said that the second train was already passing the station when the derailment took place and derailed coaches hit the running train. Therefore, even if the Kavach system is activated in such a scenario, it is not sure if the second train could be stopped in time.

Therefore, in conclusion, if the accident took place after Coromandel Express hit the goods train, which is most likely what happened, the Kavach system would have activated, and the accident could have been prevented. It could be prevented if the system activates after the train entered the loop line, as there would not be enough time to stop it completely by applying the brakes. But if the system is activated earlier detecting the wrong track selection, it could work. Moreover, even if the train was slowed by automatic brakes, the result could have been different. And if the train derailed on its own and then the second train reached almost immediately, the system would most possibly not work. It could have been activated, but successfully applying brakes in time in such a scenario is another matter. Most probably, there would not be enough time to prevent the second collision of the running train with the derailed train.

The Kavach system could prevent both collisions, but in this case, there were not enough times for it to act effectively.

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Raju Das
Raju Das
Corporate Dropout, Freelance Translator

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