Indian Railways operates around 12,600 trains, which run across 67,312 kilometre of track and carry about 23 million passengers a day. This wide reach is the largest concern for the ministry as a single flaw, including an incorrect indication at a signal, a mistake or an act of negligence by staff, a rash act by one of the millions of road users who daily negotiate around level crossing gates spread across the system, a sabotage or an irresponsible act of carrying inflammable goods, can turn your train journey into a risky endeavour. Given the scope of the potential challenges, who is holding back improvements in railway safety?
Since Suresh Prabhu took charge as minister of railways, he has emphasised on safety aspects of railways and pushed the idea of a railway safety fund, called the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK), comprising Rs 1,19,183 crore for safety related works to be carried out over the next five years. However, the move is yet to get a go-ahead from the finance ministry, which has become a roadblock in removing the national carrier’s safety bottlenecks. In addition to this, a staff shortage of 1,22,000 people and the state of its finances – with no fare hike in many years – are also causing a concern for Indian Railways. The accident on Sunday near Pukhrayan, located in the Kanpur district of Uttar Pradesh, has claimed over 100 lives and has again raised questions about the safety of passengers travelling in trains.
According to statistics taken from the Indian Railways, of the total accidents that occur on Indian Railways annually, 87 per cent are due to human failure — 44 per cent due to the failure of the railway staff and 43 per cent due to the failure of people other than members of the railway staff. While two per cent accidents are due to failure of equipment, two per cent are caused due to sabotage, six per cent accidents are due to incidental factors and the causes for three per cent accidents are not established or the cases are still under investigation.
“Indian railways has a lot of safety issues. Rather than looking for more speed, the government should take safety as an important priority as accidents are increasing. They do not have enough money to invest on safety aspects like looking into wearing and tearing of tracks. There is a question on whether the track maintenance was not properly done in this case. It needs to be looked into, whether our tracks can sustain the heavy load due to increasing number of goods trains,” said Congress leader C P Joshi, who was railways minister for a brief stint under the United Progressive Alliance regime.
Though the idea of a safety fund was mooted by Prabhu, it did not find much favour from the Arun Jaitley-led finance ministry and his proposal was sent back by the ministry. Out of Rs 1,19,183 crore worth for safety related works which were proposed to be carried out over the next five years, the finance ministry will fund Rs 1,11,683 crore. “The safety related works identified are related to track works, bridge rehabilitation, safety works at level crossing, replacement and improvement of signalling system, improvement and upgradation of rolling stock, replacement of electrical assets and human resource development,” said Minister of State for Railways Rajen Gohain in a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha last week. According to critics, the go-slow mode of the finance ministry on the safety fund is affecting the safety plans of the railways.
With the railways deciding to increase the average speed of passenger trains by five kilometre per hour on an annual basis and the decision to run freight trains with 25 tonnes axle load, experts have said that rail track and rail bridges should also be strengthened along with signalling upgradation as the current tracks may not be able to sustain such loads and that is where a safety fund is important. “The political decision over the years to not go for a passenger fare hike is affecting the railways badly. It is suffering a loss of more than Rs 30,000 crore per year because of this, which could have been used for improving safety. In this case (Indore-Patna Express derailment), since the engine had crossed and the coaches involved in the accident were mid coaches, it should not be a failure of the driver or the guard. The reason may be rail fracture,” said Shanti Narayan, former member (Traffic) of the Railway Board. Narayan added that the financial situation of the national carrier has worsened over the years, because of which the maintenance budget would have also been affected.
Railway officials have said that the bulk of the accidents that take place every year are on un-manned level crossings. Further, they have said that the renewal of track and new bridges should be a priority for the government. Indian railways currently has more than 6,000 un-manned railway crossings across the country. That is why critics have also highlighted inadequate staff strength as a cause of concern for safety in Indian Railways. “Over 1,22,000 vacant position in the railways, of which 75 per cent pertain to safety. Important that government fills them up as soon as possible,” tweeted Congress leader Ahmed Patel, soon after the accident.
A high-level committee, led by Anil Kakodkar, had come out with a report on railway safety in February 2012, with 106 recommendations covering aspects like general safety matters, organisational structure, empowerment at working level, safety related works and issues, filling up of vacancies in critical safety categories and manpower planning issues, plugging the shortage of critical safety spares, removal of encroachment and sabotage, upgradation of signalling, telecommunication and train protection system, upgradation of rolling stock, track, bridges, elimination of level crossings etc, majority of its suggestions are yet to be implemented. Of the 106 recommendations, 68 recommendations have been fully accepted, 19 partially accepted and 19 have not been accepted by the Ministry of Railways. So far, 22 recommendations of the Committee have been implemented, while 20 recommendations are in the final stages of implementation.
“It is this delay in implementation of these suggestions and the go-slow attitude on the safety fund by the government which is costing us valuable lives…,” said a former railway official, who did not want to be named.