Getting rail safety back on track

Railway safety has admittedly been an issue for years
On Thursday, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will lay the foundation for India’s first bullet train, a Rs 1.10-lakh crore plan with a deadline of 2022 for the first service between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. The inauguration of this signature project comes just weeks after a major accident of the Utkal Express at Khatauli, Uttar Pradesh, with 23 fatalities. The derailment of the Utkal Express, an entirely avoidable tragedy, followed a series of accidents, big and small, this year and finally resulted in Suresh Prabhu being moved out of the railway ministry and the resignation of the Railway Board chairman, A K Mittal.

As new Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and Railway Board Chairman Ashwani Lohani get ready to oversee India’s entry into a club of countries that offer high-end mass transport services, ordinary rail travel has become an increasingly hazardous exercise for the average Indian.

Railway safety has admittedly been an issue for years. According to the railway ministry, total fatalities in the first three years of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA I) government were 759, which rose to 938 during UPA II. These numbers are reprehensibly high in themselves.

But the ministry’s claim that the number had “declined” to 652 in the first three years of the National Democratic Alliance is at odds with the Indian Railways’ claim that investment in safety works under the Narendra Modi government jumped 60 per cent to Rs 54,031 crore every year from an average Rs 33,972 crore during UPA II. It also says the current government recruited 37,510 people under the safety categories taking the total staff strength on this job to 635,940 as at the beginning of April 1, 2017. 

If this is the case, why does train travel remain such a high-risk exercise? 

Misplaced priorities would be one way to describe it. On August 26, five days after the Utkal Express derailment, Prabhu tweeted a Citi report which said, “Marquee projects like dedicated freight corridor and station redevelopment/construction of locomotive factories are under way. Even futuristic projects like high speed rail are taking root now”. The report, however, said decision-making and project appraisals had improved sharply, and project approvals now take six rather than 24 months. Marquee projects cause resources to be spread thinly and scarcely enhance the Railways’ core business of running a reliable service. 

Sunil Kumar, who was advisor (safety), Railway Board for three years till December 2013, says Prabhu focussed only on increasing investment and on things like Twitter and providing wi-fi, while ignoring basic operations. 

This shift of focus, he suggests, caused indiscipline down the ranks of the mammoth Indian Railways with its 68 functional zones. “The Railways is as big as the Indian Army. War for army men maybe once in lifetime but in the Railways there is no peace time. You cannot afford to make mistakes,” Kumar says. 

This apart, he claims, “There was total disconnect between the minister, the Railway Board and the ground staff.” The fact that the former Railway Board chairman, then on a two-year extension, came from the Railway Stores Service and, therefore, lacked requisite operational experience may have played a part, too. His appointment was equivalent to designating an officer from the army supply corp as the army chief.  Since inter-departmental rivalries are endemic in the Railways, large chunk of the divisions, thus, came to be headed by officers from his service.

Basic errors cost lives. For instance, in the case of the Utkal Express accident on August 20, track maintenance work was being carried out without halting traffic on the Haridwar-Delhi line. This cause the Utkal Express to not only derail but also hit a house adjoining the railway line. “Twenty people died just because the simple practice of putting up a red banner flag 1,000 metres before the maintenance site was not followed,” says Kumar. 

Kumar also alleges that the results of recruitment exams held in 2016 were kept on hold because the Railways did not want its operating ratio to cross 100. The operating ratio is the percentage of operating expenses to revenue. The lower the operating ratio, the higher railway efficiency, and crossing 100 would mean it is spending more than what it earns. It crossed 100 during April-December 2016 but the Railways managed to keep it at 96.9 by the year ending March 2017.

A railway official, however, counters this and says the average vacancy in safety positions between 2009-10 and 2013-14 was 18.65 per cent of the total sanctioned strength. This has dropped to 16.86 per cent in 2017 despite the sanctioned strength increasing 5 per cent from 2014 to 2017. Over 700,000 people, out of a staff strength of about 1.33 million, work on safety-related operations. Kumar says a large chunk of safety staff are actually drivers who are overworked. 

So can the safety issues can be addressed by a change of minister and the topmost railway bureaucrat? Goyal is admittedly trying to address those basic issues that ensure safety. In a meeting with officials last week, unmanned level crossings and derailments due to defects in tracks were identified as two major causes leading to accidents. 

But railway infrastructure is in bad shape, whether it is the rickety coaches or railway tracks. One of the reasons for this, Kumar believes, is discontinuing the Special Railway Safety Fund created in 2001 when Nitish Kumar was railway minister. The safety fund did not get money after 2007-08. Under the NDA, the ministry of finance delayed creating another fund till the railway budget was merged with the general budget in this year’s budget and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley himself presented budget proposal for the Railways this year. A fund named “Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh” has been created for financing critical safety-related works with a corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore over a period of five years.

Some moves are being made towards enhancing safety. The Integral Coach Factory in Tamil Nadu has stopped making coaches that pile up in case of accident for lack of “anti-climbing” features. The existing stock of 40,000 ICF coaches (or 90 per cent of the total) cannot be discarded, however, and are being retrofitted with couplers that are safer, the Railways said in a recent statement. A rail fracture detection system is also being adopted and orders have been issued for track replacement and renewal with priorities on accident-prone stretches where replacement is due. 

Many of these initiatives will, however, come on stream two years down the line, says Kumar. This means the core service of the Railways will remain on a shaky track even as it gets down to the high-tech sophistication of introducing a bullet train.


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