To tackle train fires, look at the cause, not tech

The fire that killed 26 passengers on the Nanded Express broke out, ironically, a month after a 30-day nationwide fire safety audit had been done by the railways, worried about a series of fires in pantry cars. Such drives are common and invariably take place after the incident. Similar drives had been conducted after the Tamil Nadu Express fire in Nellore killed more than 30 in 2012.

Of all railway accidents in the last 10 years, train fires make up a little more than three per cent. The number has dropped every year, but the number of lives lost to most of these fires is huge compared to the casualties from other kinds of railway accidents.

Precious little has been achieved during this period either to preempt causes of fire or to detect a fire in time to stop its spread. A technology to automatically detect fire or smoke in AC compartments has been on trial since 2006-07. The seemingly never-ending trial has made officials joke that the delay is perhaps because not enough fires have broken out to test the technology. The railways modified the tech recently and installed it in yet another train to conduct fresh trials. Officials add for good measure that the technology doesn't come cheap: upwards of Rs 30 lakh per train.

On the other hand, questions have been raised at several levels about the efficacy of fire-retardant materials in the interiors of coaches even though the railways swear by these. Two years ago, railway minister Dinesh Trivedi wanted to equip every coach with a handheld extinguisher, but it didn't work out due to cost and other factors. Controlling the causes of fire, therefore, is the best option rather than waiting for a technological breakthrough.

The TN Express fire happened because of firecrackers being carried by passengers. A routine search should have intercepted that. There have been fire incidents from petrol left in two-wheelers carried in parcel vans, whereas the tanks should have been emptied before loading. Unauthorised vendors boarding with stoves, too, have caused fires. Several dispatches from the Railway Board to zonal units indicate how common these problems are.

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