- Inefficient communication systems are the primary reason for elephant-rail collisions in Assam’s elephant corridors, say loco pilots (LPs).
- LPs share instances of being targeted for elephant deaths. They state that vague speed limits stipulated by the railways, along with poor visibility of headlights leave them with little room to prevent collisions.
- The Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) is running pilot projects of the Intrusion Detection System (IDS), which can detect animal movements and send alarms to concerned railway authorities and caution LPs.
- The forest department in Assam believes that the suggestions of the guards and the drivers are crucial for effective decisions. However, it also highlights the lack of funding and insufficient forest staff as reasons for low success.
“Nobody wishes to be a killer. To be held responsible for any being’s death can be traumatising. Let alone an elephant, even the death of a dog, a goat or a cow is equally agonising.” A loco pilot who operates trains in northeast India, talks about the trauma he went through after his train hit an elephant which then died.
“Sometimes humans die too. Imagine the anguish of a loco pilot who is seeing a person or an elephant in front of their train, about to get hit, but is helpless. Has anyone ever considered the mental trauma we go through in such cases? After all, a living being has been killed by our vehicle; intentionally or unintentionally,” added another loco pilot.
Elephant-rail collision is a common occurrence across the country, especially in Assam. While extensive measures have been stipulated by the railways and forest departments to reduce collisions, including the installation of a device that amplifies the buzz of bees in elephant corridors, loco pilots who witness such accidents first-hand, allege negligence on the implementation of safety measures.
The experiences of loco pilots
“On December 30, 2021, I was driving the Guwahati-Silghat DEMU (diesel-electric multiple unit), a special passenger train. The accident occurred at the Amoni-Silghat section. There was no prior indication of elephant movement in that section, nor is it a demarcated elephant corridor. My engine had just taken a curve when I saw two elephants right in front on the track,” recalled loco pilot (LP) Bibekananda Biswas.
“The train was moving at a speed of 70 kmph. My assistant and I applied the emergency brakes. One elephant managed to cross but the second got slightly hit on the back and fell off the track. The train halted after moving 50 more metres ahead. Along with the guard, we went down to check on the elephant. It was alive and we thought it would survive. A herd of 15-20 elephants that were wandering nearby came towards us, and we fled fearing an attack,” he narrated.
The accident was reported to the control room to caution the other trains and inform the concerned authorities.
“But the elephant died the next morning. The forest department framed charges against us. But nothing could be proven. There was never any intimation or caution warning, not that day or ever before in that area about elephant movements. I went to the temple to pray for it. I had to take a week’s leave from work. It was impossible to drive in such a mental situation. But I was only doing my duty,” he said, visibly distressed recalling the incident.
Two days later, on the night of January 1, 2022, LP Nand Kishore Mandal encountered a similar accident in the same section between Puranigudam and Samaguri in assam. The goods train he operated was moving at a speed of 72-73 kmph, lower than the permitted speed of 75 kmph in that section.
“There are bananas and other plants on both sides of the track. The elephants come for food. It is difficult to spot elephants at night due to their colour. Also, the visibility range of our DEMU headlights is hardly 100-115 metres. I saw an elephant at a distance of about 35 metres. We pulled the emergency brakes but collided much before the train could stop. It died,” said Mandal.
“I have encountered elephants many times in my sixteen years of being an LP. I have prevented many accidents until that unfortunate day. Following the accident, charges were framed against the concerned LP rather than the railway authorities; and I was treated as a murderer. Since then, I have been summoned by the court from time to time; but aren’t we being harassed for doing our duty?” he asked.
“Once the police came for me. As I was on duty, they picked up my Assistant LP from his home, in front of his wife and children. Why are we being treated as criminals?” questioned an aggrieved Mandal.
Other LPs also opine that they are held as criminals in cases of elephant dashing but are never appreciated while they have prevented accidents in numerous instances.
“I alone have three instances when I have saved the elephants. Once I also saved a deer. Many LPs have such stories of success. But we are never glorified then; there is not even a single phone call of praise from the authorities. So why the harassment when anything unfortunate happens?” asked LP Sailendra Kumar.
Better coordination imperative to prevent collisions
The short visibility range of the headlights, especially those of the DEMU and electric engines, are a major challenge. The range, usually just over 100 metres, is short compared to the stopping distance of the train, which is about 600-700 metres, depending on the speed of the train, say the LPs who spoke to Mongabay-India.
While the LPs are asking for increased visibility range, railway authorities have countered that even with increased range, human eyes can hardly see beyond 100 metres clearly, and the increased power and range of the headlights would also affect the wild animals at night.
The second challenge that the LPs highlight is the lack of coordination and conflict in decisions between the Assam Forest Department and the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR) regarding speed restrictions and caution orders. The speed restrictions, whether permanent or temporary, are never actually consistent throughout the entire length of the elephant corridors.
The inconsistency can be seen in the photo below of a caution order for a given day.
“As is evident, the restricted speed limit is allotted in a few hundred metres at regular intervals. In the intervening distances, we are expected to rush the train at a much higher speed, even up to 100 kmph. We need to manoeuvre the speed at frequent intervals; every few hundred meters. If we don’t then we are behind schedule. With increased speed, the chances of dashing an elephant are high. There is no guarantee that the animals will not use those specific relaxed sections since they are adjacent to the elephant corridors,” explained the LPs who spoke to Mongabay-India.
The caution order often says nothing beyond a vague ‘Caution’ remark in many sections and fails to indicate specific speed restrictions. “In such cases, even if we are running as slow as 10 kmph and happen to hit an elephant, the LP will definitely be held responsible. Who knows how low a speed is justified in such cases?” said another LP on condition of anonymity.
They maintained that the sudden application of brakes, especially of loaded goods trains, on tracks with upward gradients comes with colossal risk factors. As such, prior warning on the presence of elephants on uphill sections is of crucial importance, at which the forest department has been failing, they alleged, adding that there is inadequate patrolling by forest guards and lack of early warnings on elephant movement and urged the railways to clear up the plantations along the tracks regularly.
The majority of the LPs however opposed the idea of electric fencing alongside tracks, stating humans had no right to restrict the free movement of animals, as much hindrance has already been caused. Instead, they demanded immediate replacement of old billboards indicating elephant corridors with new ones, as the faded colours of most make it difficult to spot at night.
NFR’s detection systems at the pilot stage
The Northeast Frontier Railway, which runs the railway network across northeast Indian states, maintained that the forest department has been shedding responsibility by simply dropping a warning message on WhatsApp groups or phone calls, without ensuring the warning reaches the concerned LPs. The Railways, on the other hand, do not permit the use of cell phones by field officials and LPs on duty, as a stringent safety protocol. Such contrary rules have proven to be a major hindrance in the efficient communication of warnings; whereby, in most cases, the warning does not reach the loco pilot from the station masters if the train is moving and away from the radio range. Notably, the absence of a common communication channel has proven a major limitation in this regard.
NFR also stated that the forest department has provided no definite demarcation of the length of elephant corridors. “The corridors are hardly 100-150 metres at regular intervals in an expanse of about 20-30 kilometres. So, it is difficult to maintain the speed. And we have to consider our financial losses due to delays even by a single minute. Presently we are losing 232.54 minutes daily due to elephant corridors; the losses incurred are also enormous, and it is the taxpayers’ money. Slow movement by even one train congests the entire railway network,” explained Sabyasachi De, Chief Public Relations Officer (CPRO) of NFR.
According to NFR, despite losses, in most areas of Assam that have not been demarcated as elephant corridors, the railway has allotted minimum speed restrictions based on the reports of spotting of elephants by the LPs. “It is the forest officials’ duty to watch out for elephant spotting. But without any initiation from them, we are taking measures to protect the elephants,” he added.
In its latest trial of eco-sustainable mechanisms to protect elephants and improve mobility, NFR is running pilot projects of the Intrusion Detection System (IDS) in the Lumding to Hawaipur sections in Assam, and between Chalsa and Hasimara in West Bengal. In IDS, the Railway’s existing optical fibre cable that runs along the entire length of the tracks is rearranged in loops on each side in areas with high probability of elephant movements. The system can detect movements 30-40 metres ahead, sending audio-visual alarms to concerned railway authorities, thus cautioning the LPs on time.
All railway tracks have optical cables attached to them for monitoring the tracks. Under the IDS, in areas with a history of elephant movements, apart from having the cables attached to the track, the optical cables will be laid in large loops of about 500 meters. As the cable catches the vibration and sends a signal to the concerned authorities, any vibration caught due to elephant movement will also be signaled before they reach the track. And the LPs can be cautioned.
“The IDS can also identify the number of elephants in a herd as well as any other movements. Based on the successful pilot, proposals for deploying the system across all the elephant corridors in NFR are being processed,” said Sabyasachi De.
When asked if any other species crossing the railway track can also be identified, the CPRO responded, “Yes. All species have a different vibration. Although collisions with other species are low, except occasionally with deer and dogs, the system would work on all species. But the collision with elephants is the biggest concern and the main focus is on them.”
De appreciated the West Bengal model, adding that the state has done a phenomenal job of preventing elephant collisions, reducing the accidents by about 70%.
‘More funding and forest staff needed’
Anindya Swargowari, Special Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) stated, “We, at the Assam Forest Department are the custodian of the elephants, and it is our responsibility to protect them and coordinate with NFR as required; not the other way round. The suggestions of the guards and the drivers are crucial for effective decisions.”
He said whereas the effective implementation of existing technology can significantly lower collisions, there is a lot left to be done. “We need forest camps at frequent intervals in areas of elephant movement. These need to be equipped with high-power lights, radio sets and must be connected to the nearest railway stations. The railway can be asked to deploy officials in these camps for effective communication. Presently, there is no proper and permanent communicative channel.”
The PCCF added that no economical method of elephant herd monitoring has been carried out in Assam. “The elephant herds are very large, with hundreds of individuals, but they segregate into smaller groups of 15-30 for grazing, staying nearby. If radio collars are implanted on at least one or two individuals, the herd can be monitored easily. But no DFO has done herd monitoring and none have even submitted a proposal for the same despite my suggestions.”
Swargowari highlighted the lack of funding, insufficient forest staff, and detachment of the top brass with field reality alongside the negligent attitude of some officials for the forest department’s deficiency in protecting elephants.
On a positive note, the data provided by NFR shows that the number of elephants saved from rail collisions annually is much higher than the number of deaths. Between January 2017 and November 16, 2022, the recorded deaths of elephants was 39, while 1,314 were saved. About 65 permanent speed restrictions of 30/50 kmph. have been imposed across 170 km. of the total railway network of NFR.
Both De and Swargowari agree that elephant deaths cannot be solely accountable to the two departments, but rather attribute them to the lack of proper guidelines in the process of societal development overall. “Reasons beyond the purview of both have made the pachyderms vulnerable to collision. However, improvising existing measures and coordination of the department as well as with locals will be effective in protecting the animals.”
Banner image: Loco Pilots allege negligence on implementation of safety measures around important elephant corridors. Photo from Northeast Frontier Railway.