The Indian Railways’ safety record has gone off the rails. Three major derailments in two months, have killed nearly 200 people and injured scores. That’s not all. The number of derailments, not all of which result in fatalities, has been steadily rising over the past few years.
The authorities suspect Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI, and local Maoists could be behind Saturday’s derailment of the Hirakhand Express in Andhra Pradesh that killed at least 40 people. The ISI is also the suspect in the November 20 derailment of 14 coaches of the Indore-Patna Express near Kanpur that resulted in at least 150 deaths. If investigations prove these suspicions right, the challenges in ensuring security along India’s rail routes that cover more than 67,000 km are daunting. Fencing and electronic surveillance of rail tracks are among the measures for which resources will have to be found. It will also put immense strain on India’s already-stretched security apparatus.
But surely, this can’t be the only reason trains are going off the rails across the country. On December 28, just over a month after the derailment near Kanpur, the Ajmer-Sealdah express derailed near Rura. Rail fracture is suspected to be the reason, though investigations are still on. Human error is another reason for rail accidents. The parliamentary standing committee on railway safety had sounded a warning on this as far back as 2014. In its report tabled in the Lok Sabha, it had said there appeared to be a total failure in maintaining the safety standards of the tracks.
Therein lies a tale of a mammoth system slowly crumbling and failing to ensure last-mile compliance of safety norms. The foot soldiers, literally, who are the first line of defence are the gangmen who walk along the tracks, painstakingly checking for flaws. Their load has grown with the increase in track length over the years, but their numbers have not increased proportionately.
There have also been increases in the length of the individual rails that are joined to lay the track, which some experts say raises the risk of fracture. Most important, the load on the rail network has increased manifold, with the number of services going up every year. Across the country, this leaves little time for routine maintenance work crucial to ensuring safety. Any measures introduced as part of modernisation and cost rationalisation come with the caveat that safety cannot be sacrificed. The railway authorities would be guilty of criminal negligence if they ignore this.