The stunning financial turnaround by the Indian Railways has evoked gawking admiration everywhere from political corridors to management classrooms. But it is also raising concerns on whether it is risking passenger safety.
At the heart of the transformation is a change in rules related to carrying freight — everything from vegetables and cotton to iron ore — the main money-spinner for the railways. Freight brings in two-thirds of railway revenues.
After the current government came to power in 2004, freight wagons were allowed to carry almost 15 per cent of extra weight. So, the Railways ended up carrying 726 million tonnes last year, 47 per cent more than in 2001.
But several officials and experts say that this big leap is likely to cause deterioration of wagons, and, more importantly, tracks — possibly by widening the distance between rails, affecting their alignment and degrading the quality of their surface. The 63,000 kilometres of tracks that carry 222,000 freight cars of the Railways also ferry 6 billion passengers every year.
“Wagons are bulging. Rail fractures have gone up tremendously. Failures in drawbars — the connectors between wagons — are taking place,”
a senior official said on condition of anonymity. A May 14 report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) states: “Even after permitting wagons with enhanced quantity, the trend of overloading continued… Increased incidence of rail fractures, weld fractures and defects in wagons and locomotives was seen.”
Railways Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav shrugged off the CAG criticism. “I have no idea of any such CAG report,” he told reporters on Wednesday in Nainital. “All kinds of canards are being spread against my initiatives because I have brought about a complete turnaround in the Railways. Railway officials follow all safety parameters when the goods trains are loaded.”
Lalu’s initiatives have transformed the Railways. From a stage where a government panel in 2001 predicted that railway operations were in a “terminal debt trap”, the Indian Railways notched profits of Rs 20,000 crore last year. The profit projection for the current financial year is Rs 23,500 crore.
“Overloading is happening, it has been happening even before Lalu. Weigh bridges (machines that weigh train coaches) were deliberately made to break down,” said B.M.S. Bisht, a former Railways general manager. “Since it was happening anyway, he regularised it.”
Legalising the overloading has been considered by the Railways for almost a decade, but was rejected because of technical concerns, a retired Railway Board member said, declining to be named.
“If freight trains and passenger trains are run on common corridors, the tracks are going to take the hammering — especially if there are fast passenger trains. It could adversely affect passenger safety,” said M.V. Srinivasan, chairman of consultancy, Balaji Railroad Systems, who was formerly a member looking after traffic at the Railway Board. He clarified that he was not talking specifically about India.
The Railways’ economics might be in place now, but the physics is equally crucial. When trains move, their load is transferred from the wheel to the rails, then to the sleepers — the iron ore or concrete connection between two rails. From the sleeper, the load is transferred to the ballast — the three-inch stones between tracks — and the ground.
“These formations — the earthwork beneath — and a huge number of bridges and culverts are over 100 years old. We are replacing ballasts, rails, sleepers but the formations remain the same,” said a senior railways official.
“If you overload the wagons, the gross million tonne (weight) increases and that means premature renewal of tracks. They have to be renewed in fewer years,” said P.K. Sen, chief commissioner of Railway Safety, who inquires into accidents and advises the government on railway safety.
A top official involved in the Railways turnaround, who declined to be named, said of the auditor-general’s report: “The CAG report was written six to eight months ago. Since then, all the problems have been fixed… those were early days and now most requirements are in place. Every single train is weighed.”
He said 96 weigh machines — which measure car weights — had been installed and eight more would be in place in another two months. He also said that Indian tracks could carry weights similar to levels in the US and Europe. But another railway engineering official responded: “In those countries, passenger and freight trains have separate corridors, so human safety is not in question.”
Some, however, say even more overloading is possible — and desirable. “Increasing the axle load should have been done years ago… (it) should be/must be increased to an even higher level if the (Indian) railway is to be competitive to the road,” said David Burns, another international railways consultant, in an e-mail interview from China. “(There is…) no danger of accidents, in fact less, if managed correctly.”
With inputs from Deep Joshi in Nainital