Indian Railways is betting on the rollout of the indigenously designed and developed Kavach (meaning armour) technology to enhance safety on its vast network and prevent train accidents. Kavach, which is already operational across 1,465 route km in South Central Railway, aims to prevent the loco pilot or the train driver from signal jumping, overspeeding, and collisions.
But how does Kavach work? And how effective is it in preventing train collisions?
Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in a recent interview to ET said that on some levels the indigenous Kavach is technologically better than the famous European Train Control System (ETCS). “There is no question of going back to the ETCS. It is amply clear. As far as the architecture is concerned, Kavach is technologically better than the ETCS,” he was quoted as saying.
Kavach also aids trains during adverse weather such as dense fog. Should the loco pilot miss out on applying the brakes, Kavach can take over this function. Additionally, it includes an auto-whistling feature for level crossings. Kavach’s most crucial role is preventing train collisions, facilitated by direct loco-to-loco communication.
The Kavach technology functions through RFID tags on tracks, generating a train’s location and direction data. This data is transmitted to the loco kavach, housed in the train engine. RFID tags assist the loco in ascertaining the train’s position, communicating this to the nearby station for signaling information. The station relays this data back to the loco, enabling it to calculate braking distance and apply brakes automatically if obstructions are detected. Different types of trains require varying braking distances; Kavach adapts accordingly.
Train accidents have seen a decline over the past decade, dropping from 122 in 2012-13 to 48 in 2022-23. Despite this trend, concerns about railway safety resurfaced with a tragic incident in Odisha’s Balasore on June 2, claiming 296 lives, making it one of independent India’s deadliest train accidents. Another incident in October involved the collision of two passenger trains in Vizianagaram, Andhra Pradesh, resulting in 14 fatalities and 50 injuries.
In May 2022, a Kavach center of excellence was established in Secunderabad, led by Lalit Mansukhani, who spent four years at Lucknow’s Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) researching an alternative to the widely used European Train Control System (ETCS).
An engineer from the Kavach lab highlighted that while Kavach couldn’t have prevented the Balasore accident due to manually swapped wires, the installation of Kavach on both passenger trains could have averted the tragedy in Andhra Pradesh. Another engineer noted that nearly half of Indian Railways’ accidents occur due to ‘signal passed at danger’ (SPAD), where trains pass stop signals without authorization. They emphasized Kavach’s potential in preventing such accidents.
Kavach yet to realise its potential
Sudhanshu Mani, the man behind the Vande Bharat train, lauds Kavach, rating it higher than the semi-high speed train due to its novelty and comprehensive signaling capabilities, comparing it favorably to ETCS Level-2 but at a lower cost.
Mani pointed out to the financial daily that despite Kavach’s efficacy and funding availability, the rollout is slow. He highlights that the technology’s acceptance contrasts with its sluggish implementation, emphasizing its importance in ensuring safety and efficiency in railway operations.
Approved vendors are currently installing Kavach along 3,000 kilometers of the Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata sections. The three chosen vendors—Medha Servo Drives, HBL Power Systems, and Kernex Microsystems—are all Indian companies. While these businesses anticipate growth should the Railways propel Kavach expansion forward by hastening the preparation of a detailed project report for an additional 6,000 kilometers, the industry’s mood is not that upbeat.
Srinivas Reddy, director of Medha Servo Drives, emphasizes the need for clarity at this stage. The company is executing a Rs 650 crore project to install Kavach in 900 route km and 200 locomotives. Reddy stresses the importance of knowing the Indian Railways’ Kavach rollout plan well in advance of completing the Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata sections, likely by May next year.
He mentions the necessity for information to import components and prepare for the next bidding round, noting the potential entry of two more private players into the competition. “We are offering devices at one-third of the cost of ETCS Level-2,” he asserts, adding that the industry can produce more Kavach units, but it hinges on Indian Railways providing a roadmap and adequate time for private players to gear up for the next stage.
Despite Kavach’s significance, it alone isn’t sufficient for achieving accident-free train journeys. Former Railway Board chairman VK Yadav notes the Railways’ adoption of a multi-pronged strategy to mitigate accidents. This includes eliminating unmanned level crossings nationwide, timely track renewal, and electronic interlocking provision at all stations, contributing to a reduction in accidents.
Yadav stresses Kavach’s role in addressing human negligence, especially as overall train speeds rise. He advocates for the implementation of the Railways’ cadre restructuring proposal sanctioned by the Union cabinet three years ago. Yadav suggests a separate management cadre for Railways, similar to specialized domains in organizations like India’s DRDO and Japan’s Railway Technical Research Institute, for better R&D.
Mani highlights Kavach’s potential for widespread acceptance in India and its prospective export market. He anticipates countries like Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia showing interest in importing Kavach over ETCS Level-2.
Kavach’s significance lies in its potential to revolutionize rail safety, enhancing signaling systems and preventing accidents. Its advancements in train control technology, although progressing gradually, hold promise for a safer and more efficient railway network.