In the seven years between 2000 and 2007, 22 railway accidents occurred because signal systems operated by Indian Railways have failed train drivers. In a reply to a Right To Information (RTI) application filed by Mint, the railways listed 8,62,463 incidents of signal failure between April 1, 2000, and March 31, 2007; of these, 22 caused accidents.
Although the railways refused to disclose how many people were killed in these accidents, Mint has independently assessed, from a senior signalling officer who was in service during the period, that the toll was likely about 100.
“India invests very little on improving signalling systems and we need to spend more in improving the system,” the now retired officer said, on condition of anonymity. In all, about 1,500 rail accidents were reported during the seven-year period. This means that about 1.5 per cent of
accidents since the turn of the century were caused by the signals malfunctioning, also known as “unsafe-side signal failure” in railway jargon. More than 600 people have been killed, while 2,000 have been injured in railway accidents over the past seven years.
These statistics perhaps explain why, apart from the budgetary allocation, the government has more than doubled spending to Rs 4,000 crore to upgrade signal systems in the country during the last six years through a special safety fund. The money has been largely spent on replacing ageing signal levers that are between 25 and 35 years old. Otherwise, the railways allocate an average 5 per cent of its investment for signalling and telecommunications. In the last fiscal year, such spending was Rs 1,608 crore.
The RTI reply furnished by the Railway Board said that using non-standard and locally fabricated equipment — due to limited availability of supplies, ageing assets and delayed replacement, alongside mishandled equipment — have caused signal failures. The board also said it had constituted a task force to study the problem.
Inexplicably, the Commissionerate of Rail Safety (CRS), which is supposed to monitor major railway accidents and issue recommendations for preventive action to the railways, has not been briefed about the signal failures and consequent mishaps. The CRS chief Pranab Kumar Sen said the railways did not, for example, discuss signal failures during an annual meeting on rail safety. “The board has not sent us any report on signal failures so far. But if we are made aware that there is a problem in signalling, we will definitely focus on this during the next annual general meeting with the railway board,” said Sen.
When contacted, railway board member (traffic) V.N. Mathur said the railways had initiated a massive exercise of replacing aged assets, including signal systems.