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'Cables, circuits 500 m away from signal room set it afire'

Officials are unclear about how exactly the signaling panel room next to Kurla station caught fire around 12.05 am on the intervening night of Tuesday and Wednesday, and raged until it was brought under control by 12.50 am. They said the panel room, housed in a two-storey building next to the station, burst into flames because of some cables and circuits placed a good 500 m away from it. The building is now charred.


Starting point: The fire started due to power fluctuation in these cables and circuits placed a good 500 m away from the panel room

Since the unimposing cables and track circuit, just a few cms above the track level, were found damaged, one of the official theories is that there was a spark in the power cable, which damaged the signal circuit next to it. This circuit was connected to a series of junction boxes — where multiple signal circuits are installed — which in turn lead to the main signal panel frame on the ground floor of the building.

Sources at the spot said there was a fluctuation in the power current, which passed on from each of these junction boxes, through a series of cables passing below the tracks, right up to the signal panel. “The impact was such that the signaling cabins at Kurla and Vidyavihar caught fire. But we need to ascertain the exact cause,” said a senior CR official on condition of anonymity. The Central Railway (CR) authorities claim to have ordered a high level inquiry, as they are apparently clueless about how the cables next to signal number CLA s-75 got damaged, resulting in a major disaster that toppled train schedules for 38 lakh commuters.

“We have set up a committee to investigate the matter. The precise reason will be known only then,” said Subodh Jain, general manager, CR to MiD DAY. The committee comprises a chief safety officer, chief electrical engineer and a chief signal and telecommunications engineer, who would submit their findings within a week Officials claim that there was some work underway at the spot next to the under-construction Santacruz Chembur Link Road. Although at present, the nature of the work cannot be confirmed. The authorities are trying to establish if there was any external interference from the neighbouring slums, though officially, they are denying any possibility of sabotage.

Apparently, two Kurla station officials were pivotal to extinguishing the fire by using dry chemical powder, assistant station manager KS Agarwal and assistant station inspector Rajbir Singh.

In poor order
The fire has spilled the beans on the pitiable condition and non-existent maintenance of railway equipment, the many mega blocks notwithstanding. What has turned to ashes in the fire is the Route Relay Interlocking system, which ensures that signals turn from red to yellow, double yellow to green on the movements of a train. It is very expensive. The one at Kurla cost Rs 5 crore. Moreover, there was no backup to the automatic signaling system across the stretch. It was down to manual labour to ensure that the trains could at least run.

The motormen, assisted by additional manpower, had to physically get off the train and check the signal before authorising the train to move ahead. When tracks had to be switched, they would get down and clamp the points where two tracks merge, since track switching is also operated by the signal panel. A small mistake in manoeuvring this can derail a train. That is why, trains were made to run at a restricted speed of around 15 kmph. Commuter organisations said that the CR needed to improve the safety and maintenance of such high-end systems. Officials ruled out that the fire was caused due to old equipments at the signal panel. Due to the fire, over 60 signals encompassing Kurla, Vidyavihar, Kurla Lokmanya Tilak Terminus and Tilak Nagar stations were rendered useless. 

 

68
Number of signals on the Central main and Harbour lines, including those next to the car sheds where trains undergo maintenance

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