Rail safety, a long haul

Rail safety, a long haul

Rail safety, a long haul

Rail truths: A file picture of the train accident at Vadodara.Just a year ago, when Uttar Bang Express train jumped the red signal to collide with Vananchal Express at Sainthia in West Bengal past midnight, none of the passengers deep in slumber would have dreamt that death beckoned many of them. Sixty-six people died and many were injured. The Indian Railways authorities conjecture was that the drivers might have been drugged by saboteurs, but the post-mortem report belied their apprehension.

A year later, another engine driver ran the Kalka Mail to despair, leaving more than 70 passengers dead and many injured. If in Sainthia the driver did not apply brakes to stop the train, in Fatehpur Kalka the driver jammed the emergency brakes and the coaches ran over one another. In both the cases, the rationale behind the drivers’ extreme action could not be ascertained.

 These tragic accidents not only leave a permanent scar on the minds of victims, it shakes the confidence of the people in the Great Indian Railways, which has performed a historic role of integrating the nation and has been instrumental in industrialising the country.

In contrast, it is interesting to see the progress the Chinese Railway is making. Younger than the Indian rail network and  only half its size in the late ‘40s, it has moved out of its crowded, dirty and uncomfortable days depicted in the stories of  Pearl S Buck and has become the third largest rail network in the world.  It has expanded at a phenomenal rate (2000 km a year) and is also running trains four times faster than we do. The high speed tracks are a testimony to its safety standards because only properly managed tracks and modern signaling allow high speed trains to run. “The Chinese are expanding their rail network at a high speed because they are spending huge money on new rail lines. They are spending ten times more than what we are spending. Their work culture is also different,” a senior Railway Board Member A P Mishra told Deccan Herald.

Poor safety standards

Statistics expose our safety standards. During the last decade (2001-2010), we have suffered 2,431 rail accidents, including 120 collisions and 1,410 derailments. The death toll crossed 1,000.

The cause-wise failure analysis data show that human error was the single major reason for such accidents.

“Though human error proved to be a major cause of many accidents and resultant loss of life, the Railways has failed to provide improved facilities for the running staff, modernise and upgrade training facilities, The Railways were also not able to fill all the safety category staff vacancies,” laments the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in its report of 2010-11.

However, Mishra claims a fool proof system of track maintenance in railways. “We have very efficient track maintenance network. About two lakh people are involved in it. From the gang man to the topmost officer, there is perfect co-ordination.  We know exactly who are the men working on a particular track at any given time,” he contends.

 However, it is a fact that 25 per cent of derailments are due to track failure. Overused tracks and stressed train crew lead us to accidents. Congestion on sections like Mughalsarai to Ghaziabad near Delhi is high as they run more than 1,000 trains a day.

The Fatehpur accident site falls on this route.

Politics of haste

“Instant political decisions to run new trains contribute to congestion. While announcing new trains, politicians never bother about technical feasibility or track-strength,” complained another railway official.

In addition to affecting punctuality and safety of trains, congestion prohibits high speed. “Our tracks have the strength to run high speed trains, but it requires dedicated lines for passenger and goods trains,” admits Mishra.

The vast network with a total length of 64,015 kilometres, and a capacity to transport nearly 10 billion passengers, the Indian Railways hardly provide proper training to its safety staff. Staff crunch is obvious with more than one lakh safety related jobs remaining vacant.

“Safety of passengers is of prime importance to us. It is being accorded the highest priority. Issues related to maintenance of tracks and rolling stocks are being addressed on priority basis,” Railway Board Chairman Vinay Mittal asserted.

“Maintenance in all fields like track, rolling stock and signalling will be pursued vigourously,” assured Mittal.

Spokesperson Anil Saxena listed the safety measures taken by the Railways and pointed out that the number of accidents was on the decline.

However, the ongoing Corporate Safety Plan ( 2003-2013), which has a fund outlay of Rs 31, 835 crore, has come in for severe criticism by the CAG, “The study revealed that the Indian Railways could not fully achieve the target of Phase I (completed in 2008) in providing ballast, improvement works at level crossings for road users’ safety etc. Target for replacement of over aged locomotives, technological improvement on maintenance of track and bridges, of freight train examination facilities etc. also could not be achieved,” says the CAG report.

The much talked about Anti-Collision Devices (ACDs) are still in trial phase. Similar is the case with Train Protection Warning System (TPWS). Conventional locomotives are being provided with Vigilance Control Device (VCD) for keeping drivers vigilant, but is yet to be fully implemented. Auxiliary Warning System to prevent cases of signal passing at danger has been working only in suburban sections in Mumbai.

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