It is disturbing that 22 railway accidents occurred in the last seven years because of defective signal systems used by the Indian Railways (IR). The Railway Board disclosed this while responding to a Right To Information (RTI) application. That these accidents took a toll of more than 600 lives and injured thousands of people makes a mockery of the whopping Rs 4,000 crore the Railway Ministry spent during this period on ‘upgrading’ the signal systems. Every time an accident happens, the authorities trot out the usual excuses: overcrowding, ageing rolling stock, problems in managing a vast workforce, et al. The role of faulty signalling systems in such mishaps, however, seldom comes in for scrutiny.
The RTI, in fact, suggests the board deliberately tried to avoid attracting attention to these chilling statistics, even going to the extent of hiding them from the Commissionerate of Rail Safety. This is shameful for a railway that operates 14,000 trains carrying some 14 million passengers everyday over 100,000 kilometres of track in India. Most of the old mechanical signalling devices may have been replaced by digital electronic signal and point changing devices. And modern communication systems like optical fibre cables, microwave communication, high frequency wireless, telephone and — of late — satellite phones are in use. In spite of all this, however, efforts to improve signalling have been far and few between to have a real impact. The railways have yet to come up with a comprehensive system upgradation programme in the crucial area of signalling. This must change. As tracks get busier, dependence on manual operations of these systems naturally puts operating staff under enormous strain. When such systems are operated continuously at peak capacity, it is only to be expected that the chances of human error increase — with tragic results, as the statistics prove. This is all the more ironical, considering the fact that the IR were pioneers in introducing computers in their services.
It is time the IR looked to other countries for modernisng its signalling system and training its staff. The MoU signed by the IR with the Chinese Railways during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to China is a step in this direction, as it includes drafting the latter’s experience in signalling and telecommunication. This will go a long way in reassuring passengers that the IR remains an excellent way to travel around the country.