On Sunday morning the Indore-Patna Express derailed at Pukhrayan, about 100 km from Kanpur. The accident, in which more than 120 passengers died, comes at a time when the top railway management was brainstorming at Surajkund, in Haryana, to generate innovative ideas to improve the Indian Railways.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was expected to address the gathering and interact with the officials. Ironically, one of the subjects up for discussion was how the railways should move towards near zero fatalities in the next five years.
The loss of lives in Sunday’s accident has been heavy, highlighting that railway safety, despite a declining number of accidents in recent years, is a matter of serious concern. The last time such an accident occurred was the derailment of the Kalka Mail near Fatehpur, in Uttar Pradesh, in July 2011, when 71 passengers died and 264 were injured.
The government appointed a high-level safety review committee (Kakodkar committee), which made a number of recommendations. These included the need for a statutory railway safety authority, setting up a research development council, advanced research institute and five research centres, upgrading the signalling, elimination of level crossings, and change over coach manufacture to a safer design. The committee’s report also commented on the dire financial state of the railways and that it suffers from an ‘implementation bug’ — alluding to the failure to implement accepted recommendations of previous safety committees. Little has changed since then. In fact, the financial constraints have only worsened.
To be fair to the railways, the number of consequential train accidents has declined in recent years. An index used for measuring safety performance is the number of train accidents per million train kilometres. This figure has come down from 0.14 in 2010-11 to 0.09 in 2015-16. Although statistically the performance has improved, the public perception about railway safety is decided by the horrific images and loss of lives in a single accident, such as the one in Pukhrayan.
A major factor in declining accident numbers was the decision taken by the previous NDA government in creating a Special Railway Safety Fund of Rs17,000 crore, through which over a seven-year period overaged railway assets were upgraded and replaced. This included rolling stock, signalling, track and electrical assets. The funds were well targeted, expenditure carefully monitored and performance improved.
However, thee replacement of overaged assets must be an ongoing process. It is possible that the arrears of overaged assets requiring replacement have again begun to accumulate. The safety performance of the railways during the first six months of current financial year to the end of September is also worrying. The number of derailments during the period has been 46 as compared to 31 during the corresponding period of the previous year. There have also been four collisions, while there were none last year. The trend must be arrested.
To tackle safety the railways must invest in new technology in several areas. This includes improved systems for ultrasonic detection of flaws in rails, rail side equipment for detecting wheel defects, introducing an effective anti-collision device, upgrading signalling systems and quickly introducing new coaching stock with anti-climbing features which can avoid the terrible loss of life that took place in this accident. The focus should also be on mechanised maintenance practices, improved training methodology, research and issues highlighted by the Kakodkar committee.
A redeeming feature in this accident was the relief and rescue effort where different agencies such as the railway teams, state government authorities, the NDRF and police appear to have responded early and worked in close coordination.
However, this can be little consolation to families who have lost their near and dear ones.
Vinoo Mathur is former member (traffic), Railway Board
The views expressed are personal