“Rail safety” is a curiously defined term in India.
A common theory heard from rail managers: In terms of accidents, the record of the Indian Railways stands at 0.20 accidents per million train kilometers. This, they say, is better than that of several European nations including Sweden, Belgium, Austria and Finland.
What is left unspoken – or deliberately concealed – is that the railways also have the dubious distinction of having remained at the top of the heap in the numbers of passenger fatalities.
The facts are worrying. The railways have accounted for approximately three times the combined number of people killed in train accidents in Canada, United Kingdom, Germany and Japan in the last decade.
Against 854 train-related fatalities -- including level crossing accidents -- reported from these countries in the 13-year period from 2002-03 to 2015-16, an estimated 3,029 passengers were reported killed in India in a ten-year period from 1999 to 2009, official documents show.
The Indian Railways takes pride in its staggering numbers: 7,083 stations, 1,31,205 bridges, 9,000 locomotives, 51,030 passenger coaches, 2,19,931 freight cars and 63,974 route kilometres – operating 19,000 trains each day and transporting 2.65 million tons of freight and 23 million passengers.
What is implicit in these numbers railway officials reel out is that, given its high volumes accidents will happen. Accidents involving five or more deaths in the European Union (EU) are categorised as “catastrophic accidents”. By these parameters, a catastrophe has been happening on Indian tracks every now and then.
“A work culture that promotes passenger safety just does not exist in India,” rail expert Raghu Dayal said.
Why accidents happen
Train accidents – or fatalities – have been happening because of a combination of factors including laggardness at technological upgrade needs; the legacy issues that have caused huge capacity constraints on the network and, most of all, because of the failure of successive governments to initiate policy reforms that can enable passenger safety concerns to become a central component of rail operations.
- 1954 Justice Shahnawaz Committee suggested policy reforms to ensure centrality of safety in operations. STATUS: Not implemented
- 1962 Justice Kunzru committee recommended separation of cadres of diesel and electric loco pilots. STATUS: Not implemented
- 1968 Justice Wanchoo committee also suggested separation of cadres of diesel and electric loco pilots. STATUS: Not implemented
- 1978 Justice Sikri committee recommended infusion of funds to ensure safety. STATUS: The suggestions of the panel were not implemented
- 1998 Justice HR Khanna committee STATUS: 169 of 278 suggestions accepted, 70 partially accepted. Key suggestion for safety regulator not accepted
- 2001 Justice Sagir Ahmed panel set up to look into Howrah-Amritsar Mail accident STATUS: Still under consideration
- 2004 Justice GC Garg panel set up to look into Golden Temple Mail and Sealdah Express accident STATUS: Still under consideration
- 2012 Safety review committee headed by Anil Kakodkar STATUS: 68 of 106 recommendations accepted, 19 partially accepted, 19 rejected. Only 27 suggestions implemented.
Structured in the manner that it is today, the Chairman Railway Board (CRB) is required to fulfil dual roles as a principal secretary to the central government and as the chief executive officer of a business organisation. The office of the chief commissioner of railway safety (CCRS) – which functions under the civil aviation ministry – draws perks, allowances and benefits from the railways ministry, while its reports/recommendations are liable to be – and have often been - rejected or over-ruled by the railway board. The amended Railway Act of 1989 insulates grade-A or class-1 officers from accountability in train accidents, as only grade-C employees have been empowered to provide safety certification of tracks and coaches. This has led to situation when grade-C employees are compelled by superiors into compromising on routine safety drills because of pressure to achieve the organisation’s business objectives. Invariably, grade-C employees are the ones held accountable for – and punished – for mishaps.
“Safety preparedness is also compromised because a large percentage of assistant loco pilots have been continuously placed on stationary duties as bungalow peons or computer operators,” said Sanjay Pandhi of the Indian Railways Loco Running Men Organisation (IRLRO).
India’s railway tracks are hugely congested. Four hundred and ninety two of the 1219 ‘high density sections” of the railways – or 40% of sections – are today running 100% or above its line capacity, says a railways white paper of 2015. On the Mughal Sarai-Ghaziabad section, the busiest in the country, there is a train leaving an originating section every two minute. Approximately, 3000 railway bridges are more than 100 years old and 32 of these are classified as “distressed bridges”, but are still in operation.
The old Yamuna bridge at Delhi was declared “unsafe” about a decade ago but trains are still being run on it at slow speeds. Tracks near the Shahadara station in the capital were similarly declared unserviceable several years ago, but the “leisure” of blocking the section for complete repair work has just not existed. There have been complaints that the Gaya-bound ‘Mahabodhi Express’ has developed skid marks on its engine wheels and needs repair, but the problem has not been attended to in last several months. Ultrasonic track flaw detection machines have not been sufficiently procured, while the quality of steel supplied to lay tracks or build coaches is not scientifically examined
“The time available to carry out maintenance work has progressively shortened. There is a mishap waiting to happen at every corner,” former Railway Board member RR Jaruhar warned.