The problem of railway accidents is not of safety standards but the execution of standards.
Since 2012, six out of every ten rail accidents in India have happened because of mistakes by or the negligence of railway staff, according to a study by NITI Aayog.
In the year to 31 March 2017, 66 of the 104 consequential rail accidents were attributed to the failure of railway staff according to Indian Railways data. And in the three months to 30 June, eight of 11 accidents were attributed to the failure of railway staff.
On Sunday, three top Indian Railways officials were ordered to go on leave and three more suspended after a report on the Kalinga-Utkal Express accident on Saturday that has so far resulted in around two dozen deaths blamed the negligence of railway staff.
Since 1960, Indian Railways has seen growth in infrastructure, expenditure, ridership and freight, but it has been steadfast in terms of accidents: roughly one every three days.
Safety on the Indian Railways network is the end product of the cohesive fusion of its myriad parts. Over 700,000 people work on safety-related operations at the country’s largest employer, according to Indian Railways’ response to a Parliament question. A small slip by one of them or a single flaw in the 66,030 km track crisscrossing the country can affect one or more of 10,773 locomotives, 63,046 coaches and 245,000 wagons, jeopardising the 23 million passengers and three million tonnes of freight that the network carries every day.
Railway accidents happen due to several reasons.
An incorrect signal, a mistake or an act of negligence by one of its staff directly associated with the running of trains, deficiency in tracks, a rash act by one of the millions of road users, an irresponsible act by a passenger who carries inflammable goods. Added to these are the acts of sabotage.
Indian Railways claims safety is one of its main focuses, and while that may be the case, several worrying gaps point to action not matching intent.
For one, there’s the 16 per cent shortage in safety staff. As of 1 April, the total number of vacancies in safety staff was around 124,201. And this number has been growing steadily over the decades.
The shortage means that others have to work more and harder. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a loco (locomotive)-pilot (engine driver) said, “Our duty hours range from 12-16 hours a day, and then, there are the inhuman conditions in which we work. No toilets, no lunch break and engines have no seats.” “How do you expect us to give our best,” he asked? He adds that the government has failed to install toilets in all locomotives.
To be sure, Indian Railways’ safety record has to be seen against the backdrop of the growing scale and complexity of its operations.
“The pressure of freight and passenger trains doesn’t give us enough window to carry on repairs. If we cancel trains, freight and passengers are affected,” said a member of the railway board, the apex management body of Indian Railways.
Indian Railways has divided its 66,030 km of the track into 1,219 sections and out of these 492 are running at 100 per cent capacity, in some cases more. Most accidents occur on these over-capacity routes.
Based on the volume of traffic, Indian Railways’ safety record doesn’t look bad at all. “We have done our best. In the last one decade we have brought accidents per million train kilometres (an international standard to measure the performance of railways) down from 0.23 to 0.9 which shows our seriousness towards railways safety,” said Indian Railways spokesperson Anil Saxena.
Indeed, even the standing committee on Indian Railways mentioned the difficulty in finding time for maintenance of assets due to saturation of the current network as a concern when it submitted its report Safety and Security of Railways to Parliament on 3 August.
The committee also highlighted another issue—the fact that there is no “safety department”, which means that the function is overseen by several departments of Indian Railways. It said “inter-departmental differences” could reduce “efficiency, resulting in delayed response and compromises on safety.”
The railway board member cited above admitted that lack of coordination is one of the reasons for accidents and also why maintenance activities are sometimes not undertaken properly.
The committee also noted that Indian Railways faced several constraints while addressing safety issues, most notably the non-availability of funds to create additional capacity and modernise assets.
It recommended timely replacement of over-aged assets, adoption of suitable technologies for upgradation and maintenance of track, rolling stock, signalling and interlocking systems, safety drives, greater emphasis on training of officials and inspections at regular intervals.
Saxena said that for the ageing infrastructure the average expenditure on track renewal is around Rs 5,548 crore per year and this year it has been increased to Rs 9,961 crore. Similarly, safety-related expenditure has been increased every year —from Rs 42,430 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 65,241 crore in 2017-18.
A senior railway ministry official who asked not to be identified said, “We are trying our best to keep updated with the railway safety standards and devices. We have installed systems like Block Proving Axle Counters (BPAC), Auxilary Warning System (AWS), Train Protection and Warning System (TPWS), Train Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), etc. to aid frontline staff and reduce human dependence.” These systems are yet to cover the entire network.
Former railway board chairman Arunendra Kumar agrees: “The problem in India is not of safety standards but the execution of standards.”