Volume 28 - Issue 17 :: Aug. 13-26, 2011
The large number of railway accidents indicates a systemic malaise in the Indian Railways.
TRAGEDY struck the Delhi-bound Kalka Mail on Sunday, July 10, near Salwan in Fatehpur district of Uttar Pradesh. The train derailed, throwing 15 of its coaches off track and one up in the air. Sixty-eight passengers died, and 19 of them were yet to be identified at the time of writing this report. As many as 200 were injured. A probe is under way into the cause of the derailment.
This is the fifth accident involving the Indian Railways this year and the third one in a span of five days in July alone. Hours after the Salwan accident, nearly 100 people were injured when four bogies of the Guwahati-Puri Express derailed in Assam's Kamrup district following a blast on the railway track. On July 7, 31 people were killed and 17 injured when a train hit a bus carrying 80 passengers at an unmanned railway crossing in Kanshiram Nagar, Uttar Pradesh.
Similarly, on May 22, at an unmanned crossing in Bihar's Madhubani district, 16 people lost their lives when the vehicle in which they were travelling was hit by a train. Earlier, in April, a fire broke out in three coaches of the prestigious Mumbai-Delhi Rajdhani Express while it was passing through Rajasthan.
Unmanned railway crossings have been the principal cause of rail accidents, but this remains a constantly undermined and underplayed fact.
In 2010, there were five accidents, three of them in January. The worst among them was the derailment of the Howrah-Kurla Jyaneshwari Express in Paschim Medinipur district on May 28 caused by sabotage by naxalites. It resulted in the death of 148 passengers. On July 19 last year, 60 people were killed in Birbhum district in West Bengal as the Sealdah-bound Uttarbanga Express rammed into the Vananchal Express at Sainthia station.
There were three rail accidents in 2009. One, again, was at an unmanned crossing. The second was a derailment when a piece of the track penetrated the air-conditioned compartment of the Mandore Express. Seven people were killed. The third accident was a direct collision between two passenger trains, killing 26 people.
The years 2007 and 2008 were relatively safer, but in 2006, in two separate accidents, a total of 75 people were killed. In 2004, 30 people died when the Guwahati-bound Kanchenjunga Express rammed into a truck at an unmanned railway crossing in Dinajpur district of West Bengal. The same year, in December, 34 people died when the Jammu-Tawi Express collided with a local train in Jalandhar district, Punjab. The frequency of rail accidents in recent years has not inspired confidence in the rail management skills of the United Progressive Alliance government. The problem, experts say, has more to do with the approach of the government towards one of its premier infrastructural projects. Rail accidents, like many diseases, are totally preventable. But rail safety issues have remained neglected all these years.
The Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) report on Railways (Report No. 8 of 2010-11) observed that the Indian Railways could not fully achieve the target of Phase I of its own Corporate Safety Plan (CSP) – a plan for the period 2003-13 with a fund outlay of Rs.31,835 crore and envisaging a safety action plan for a continuous reduction in risk level to customers – in providing ballast improvement works at level crossings for road users' safety. It also noted that the targets for replacement of over-aged locomotives, technological improvement in the maintenance of track and bridges, and upgradation of examination facilities in freight trains could not be achieved. It also noted that the development of new technologies for improvement in rolling stock, permanent way and so on, which reduced the level of risk to rail users and which was entrusted to Research, Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO), was behind schedule. The records of safety audits and safety drives by multidisciplinary teams were not maintained in many zones. Again, the targets fixed for reduction in various defects on track, rolling stock and overhead equipment could not be achieved in many zones. It also observed that while overall accident figures had come down over the years, certain kinds of accidents – like those at level-crossings and collisions – had increased in some zones.
The Railways had not been able to fill all the staff vacancies in the safety category. In all the zones, posts were vacant in this category, the report said. This is perhaps the most important observation in the CAG report, something which the newly appointed Union Minister for Railways, Dinesh Trivedi, acknowledged after it was brought to his notice.
Since most of the casualties took place at level crossings, the CAG report recommended the implementation of the safety measures recommended by the CSP – which include maintaining data pertaining to defects in parts of track and in the rolling stock and not allowing overloaded wagons to run on tracks. The CAG report said that 20 per cent of the wagons, weighed at wayside weigh bridges, were overloaded and yet were allowed to proceed, endangering the condition of the track. More importantly, more than 50 per cent of the funds allocated for railway safety works were being surrendered by the railway administration.
The chaos ata railway crossing in Pattabiram near Chennai.
“Surrender of funds shows that the Railways are not carrying out all the works planned at level crossings where most of the accidents take place with maximum casualties. The fatality numbers on level crossing accidents were 454 out of the total 714 fatalities [ sic] for the period from 2005-06 to 2007-08,” the CAG audit report notes. The CSP had proposed that periodic safety audits be conducted at various levels for an in-depth assessment of safety systems, but they were not done. “Inspections generally single out individual failures. Safety audits are expected to identify system failures and generic shortcomings,” the report noted. The issue then is more systemic than individual. During 2003-08, there were nine collisions, 132 derailments, 79 level-crossing accidents, 10 fire accidents and five accidents of the miscellaneous category, taking the total to 235 accidents in a period of five years.
Basudeb Acharia, Lok Sabha Member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who is a former Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways, pointed out that the safety aspect had been neglected by the Railways for several years. He visited the Kalka Mail accident site and told Frontline that his understanding was that it was a failure of the signal system. “The route relay interlocking system was installed in 1986. Its engineering life is 20 years. It should have been replaced, but it was not done. Three accident inquiry committee reports, including the latest Justice H.R. Khanna report, had recommended regular inspection of signalling and interlocking systems,” he said. These recommendations were not put into effect because of an acute shortage of staff in the safety category, such as gangmen, switchmen, cabinmen, loco-running staff and station masters. There were around 1,30,000 vacant posts. “During the two years when Mamata Banerjee was Railway Minister, the vacancies went up by 20,000,” he said.
He rejected the theory doing the rounds that the Kalka mishap took place because the driver had applied emergency brakes. Acharia, who has been associated with various railway committees for the past 20 years, said that an RDSO study had concluded that derailment could not take place by the application of emergency brakes. The Railways, he said, was plagued by an acute financial crisis, owing to which the replacement of tracks, wagons and locomotives was not being done. “The Prime Minister is aware of this. At a review meeting 20 days ago, members of the Railway Board and State Ministers were informed that important posts, including those in the Railway Board, were lying vacant,” he said. R. Elangovan, president of the Dakshin Railway Employees Union, said that Dinesh Trivedi had promised to implement Vision 2020 of Mamata Banerjee, who is his party's president and the present West Bengal Chief Minister. Vision 2020 has pointed out that there are 17,000 unmanned crossings in the country and 90 per cent of the accidents occurred at such crossings. In Budget 2009-10, her first under the UPA-II government, she had promised to man 3,000 level crossing gates that fiscal year and another 1,000 in the subsequent year. “Not a single one has been manned,” Elangovan said. The shocker came in the 2011-12 Budget speech, when Mamata Banerjee announced the closure of 3,000 unmanned level-crossing gates.
He added that there was a ban on the creation of posts since 2005, and the Railway Ministry was yet to take up the issue with the Finance Ministry. In 1990, there were 16 lakh employees in the Railways; now there are only 12.34 lakh, he said. Of the total of 2.54 lakh vacancies, one lakh were in the safety category itself. There were 55,000 vacancies to be filled in the trackman category. The duration of the manning of the Special Class Gates (through which more than 50,000 units of vehicles pass daily) had been increased from eight hours to 12 hours owing to the shortage of staff. “Railway staff are overworked and this leads to attention deficiency,” he said.
Investment in railways as a sector has stagnated. In 1950, there were 100 railway lines; at present there are only 118. However, the movement of goods trains went up by 14 times and that of passenger trains by 12 times, putting immense pressure on the tracks. “The policy has been to ‘squeeze the milk cow dry',” said Elangovan, adding that all Railway Ministers were to be blamed for the current plight. Any turnaround that was achieved in the Railways was managed by overburdening the existing infrastructure. The RDSO had found undetectable fractures in the tracks, caused by overloading. Wagons carried loads beyond their capacity.
A White Paper brought out by the former Railway Minister had highlighted a premature deterioration of tracks and wagons, but the problem was not rectified. “The private sector will not invest here as it has a long gestation period. No private enterprise has come forward to lay railway lines. There is an acute shortage of engines and coaches,” Elangovan said. He pointed to the recent announcement that trains should run up to 4,500 kilometres before being given a break-over certificate. “This means that primary maintenance will be done only after trains do this distance. The periodic overhauling of coaches will be done after 18 months, from the earlier 12,” he pointed out.
It is unclear why the Indian Railways continues to be neglected by government after government in spite of such systemic issues. The railways continue to be the cheapest form of long- and short-distance transport for the majority of people in the country, who still find it difficult to afford even low-cost air fares. The spate of accidents only indicates that the government alone is responsible for the mess that the Indian Railways finds itself in. To single out a driver or an errant signalman would be tantamount to ignoring the larger systemic malaise.