Railways Short On Safety Staff While Thousands Of Posts Lie Vacant

 Railways Short On Safety Staff While Thousands Of Posts Lie VacantIndian Railways (NOAH SEELAM/AFP/GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • The Railways must get down to filling up the vacancies to run operations smoothly and safely, and keep up the record of reducing the number of train accidents.

The Indian Railways has been woefully short on staff for safety related functions. It has been managing with lesser number of people than sanctioned for positions such as gangmen, guards, levermen, cabinmen, even drivers. Though the Railways has tried to correct this anomaly and has recently advertised for about 90,000 new jobs, many of which include positions related to safety, the fact that it has been continuing to operate at less than optimal safety staff is surely a matter of concern. Not the least because of a horrific incident last evening when alleged staff negligence lead to 22 coaches of a train ploughing around 13 kilometres, without an engine! Thankfully, the incident did not result in any casualties. The Railways’ own data show it had well over 2,500 posts vacant under the job description ‘shunters/engine turners’ alone, as of 1 April last year.

In a statement after this incident, Chairman of the Railway Board Ashwani Lohani said this was an “isolated incident of staff negligence” and a high level enquiry had been ordered. “We have also ordered a one-month long drive over the entire network for sensitising the staff regarding the precautions to be taken to prevent such incidents.”

Not only is the Railways severely understaffed in safety related functions, it also does not want a full time member (safety) on the Railway Board to monitor safety aspects of the country’s largest transporter.

A table  shows details of safety related posts and vacancies. (Standing Committee report)
A table shows details of safety related posts and vacancies. (Standing Committee report)

Last month, a parliamentary standing committee examining the demand for grants for the Railways for 2018-19, had roundly criticised it for continuing to have a large number of vacancies in safety related jobs. As of 1 April 2017, as many as 128,942 positions out of 764, 882 sanctioned strength in the ‘safety and maintenance’ category were lying vacant. So nearly every sixth safety related position was unmanned.

The parliamentary panel had noted it was understandable that filling up vacancies was a continuous process and two fresh notifications for 26,502 vacancies for the post of assistant loco pilots and technicians and another 62,907 vacancies for various posts had been published. But not holding regular recruitment drives for a long time had brought the Railways to its present situation. The panel also noted that the Railways was instead giving compensation to existing employees for working beyond normal duty hours.

“This cannot be a sustainable solution or reason for keeping the posts vacant. Filling up vacant posts may not only play a key role in running all Railways smoothly but also enables the working personnel to be relieved of the stress of overwork beyond normal hours. The committee strongly recommends that the (Railways) ministry takes up the matter of filling up the vacancy on top most priority basis as having more than a lakh seats vacant only in safety category is clearly telling on safe travel by trains.”

In replies to the panel’s queries, the Railways officials said they did not intend to fill up all vacancies as outsourcing some jobs was under consideration. While a recruitment drive for gangmen, technicians, loco drivers, guards and station masters was ongoing, the officials admitted that no recruitments had happened for about two years!

Now let us come to the second glaring flaw in the Railways’ safety drive. The Railway Board, the premier decision making body of the Railways, comprises a chairman and members for five different functions - traffic, traction, rolling stock, engineering and staff. In the hierarchy of the Indian Railways, the Board is right after the Railway Minister and his Ministers of State. Several critical Railway functions are headed by members but there is no position for member (safety). The government has said in the past that neither is there such a post in the Railway Board nor is there a proposal to create such a post afresh.

In its replies to another parliamentary committee on safety and security in the Railways, the Ministry of Railways had said some months back “Safety is integral to the construction, certification, operation and maintenance of Railway system. Each member (of the board) is responsible for the respective part pertaining to the department viz.: infrastructure, rolling stock, signalling and operations. Overall co-ordination is done by member (traffic), Railway Board. Hence, the question of a separate member for safety is not pertinent.” But the panel re-emphasised the need for member (safety), urging the Railways to integrate all aspects of rail safety under a single nodal department for quicker response time as well as avoiding bureaucratic friction.

Can member (traffic) not double up as the points person responsible for safety too? The panel said member (traffic) is fully engrossed with the running of trains through the railways’ vast network on a daily basis.

It is true that the number of consequential train accidents (including accidents at unmanned level crossings) have decreased continuously for the last three years: from 135 in 2014-15 to 107 in 2015-16 and 104 in 2016-17. Last fiscal up to 28 February, the number of consequential train accidents was 70 when compared to 99 in the corresponding period of the previous fiscal. But to keep up this record of reducing the number of train accidents, perhaps the Railways needs to firm up quicker recruitment plans for safety related works and reorganise the Railway Board.

Sindhu Bhattacharya is a senior journalist.

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