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Thursday, July 18, 2024

The Kavach Dilemma: Why India’s Railway Ministry Has Struggled to Deploy Safety Technology


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The recent tragic Kanchenjunga Express train accident has reignited scrutiny over the Indian Railways’ safety measures, particularly the deployment of the Kavach system. Kavach, an indigenous Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system, has been hailed as a transformative technology designed to enhance railway safety by preventing collisions, overspeeding, and signal passing at danger (SPAD). Despite its promise and potential, the widespread implementation of Kavach across India’s extensive railway network remains elusive.

Kavach, meaning “armor” in Hindi, is an advanced safety mechanism developed by the Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) in collaboration with Indian private sector firms. It leverages GPS-based technology to communicate with train drivers and track infrastructure, providing automated responses in case of emergencies. For example, if a train overshoots a red signal, Kavach automatically applies the brakes, thereby preventing potential collisions.

The Kanchuenjanga Express train accident, which resulted in numerous fatalities and injuries, highlighted critical gaps in the safety protocols of Indian Railways. Investigations pointed towards signal failures and human error as key factors, both of which could have been mitigated by an effective ATP system like Kavach. This incident has raised questions about why such technology has not been more widely deployed, despite its potential to save lives.

The implementation of Kavach across the vast Indian railway network is an expensive proposition. Initial estimates suggest that installing Kavach on a single kilometer of railway track costs between ₹30 to ₹50 lakh (approximately $40,000 to $67,000). Given the network’s extensive reach of over 67,000 kilometers, the total cost is prohibitive, especially when the railways are already burdened with financial deficits. According to media reports, the Indian government has issued tenders for 10,000 km of Kavach. So far, the Indian Railways has tendered 6,000 km of the Kavach system and has deployed it on 1,465 route km and 139 locomotives on the South Central Railway. Contracts for Kavach have been awarded for the Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Howrah corridors, covering approximately 3000 route km across Eastern Railway, East Central Railway, North Central Railway, Northern Railway, West Central Railway, and Western Railway.

While the Indian government has earmarked funds for railway modernization, competing priorities often lead to reallocations. The overall budget for Indian Railways, though significant, must cover a vast array of needs including infrastructure upgrades, new projects, and maintenance of existing assets. Consequently, the allocation for Kavach, while prioritized in rhetoric, may not always translate into immediate, sufficient funding.

Integrating Kavach with the existing railway infrastructure poses significant technical challenges. India’s railway system is a complex mix of old and new technologies, varying gauges, and diverse operational conditions. Retrofitting Kavach onto older rolling stock and tracks requires meticulous planning, testing, and standardization, all of which are time-consuming and technically demanding.

The Indian Railways, being one of the largest employers in the world and a mammoth organization, suffers from bureaucratic inertia. Decision-making processes are often slow, and inter-departmental coordination can be challenging. This has led to delays in tendering processes, approval of budgets, and execution of pilot projects. The railway ministry has to balance numerous competing priorities, including infrastructure development, electrification, modernization of stations, and safety upgrades. In this matrix, projects like Kavach sometimes do not receive the urgent attention they deserve, despite their critical importance.

Kavach has been subjected to pilot testing on limited sections of the railway network. While these tests have been largely successful, scaling up from pilot projects to full-scale implementation involves resolving unforeseen issues, and ensuring reliability, which further delays deployment. A dedicated and enhanced budget for railway safety, specifically for the deployment of Kavach, could expedite the process. Investment in safety should be seen as a non-negotiable priority, with long-term benefits outweighing the immediate financial burden. Simplifying administrative procedures and fostering better inter-departmental coordination could mitigate delays. Establishing a dedicated task force for the implementation of Kavach might ensure more focused and expedited action.

Introducing a new technological system like Kavach necessitates comprehensive training for railway staff. This includes not just the technical know-how but also the operational aspects of using the system in real-world scenarios. The scale of training required is massive, given the number of personnel involved in Indian Railways. Ensuring that all staff are adequately trained and can operate Kavach effectively is a time-consuming process that has further delayed its full deployment.

Engaging with the private sector through public-private partnerships (PPPs) can help leverage additional resources and expertise. These partnerships could facilitate faster deployment and maintenance of the Kavach system.

Prioritizing high-density and high-risk corridors for initial deployment could provide immediate safety benefits while allowing for gradual scaling across the entire network. This phased approach could help in managing resources more effectively. Establishing robust monitoring mechanisms and feedback loops during the initial deployment phases will help identify and address issues promptly, ensuring smoother scaling and operational efficiency.

The Kanchenjunga Express train accident is a poignant reminder of the urgent need for advanced safety systems like Kavach in the Indian Railways. While the challenges in deploying such technology are significant, they are not insurmountable. A focused approach, prioritizing safety, streamlined processes, and adequate funding can help realize the vision of a safer railway network. The lives lost in such tragedies underscore the imperative of accelerating these efforts, transforming promises into protection for millions of passengers.

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