Bolster safety systems to avert rail tragedies
A mere focus on signalling, therefore, could miss the forest for the trees. How could this change? Here are six action points
On the evening of June 2, a horrific train crash in Odisha’s Balasore district saw the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express ram into a freight train and derail, with some of its compartments flung onto the adjacent track and hitting the last bogies of the Yeshwantpur-Howrah Express. With the death of at least 275 people and 1,100 injuries, this was the worst train accident in the country in nearly three decades.
In the aftermath of the crash, the Indian Railways (IR) has taken a flurry of decisions, prominent among them a safety drive with special focus on all goomties (rooms along tracks) housing signalling equipment within station limits and a missive to ensure that station relay rooms and compounds housing signalling equipment have “double lock arrangements”. Any accident on the railways network, whether big or small, involving goods or superfast passenger trains, is essentially a symptom of the real disease of cultural stasis that doesn’t crack down hard enough on unsafe working practices. A mere focus on signalling, therefore, could miss the forest for the trees. How could this change? Here are my six action points.
First, in the last half-a-century, various rail safety panels — Kunzru Committee (1962), Wanchoo Committee (1968), Sikri Committee (1978), Khanna Committee (1998) and Kakodkar Committee (2012) — have told the railways what it needs to do to ensure safety. Take the latest 2012 report, prepared by scientist Anil Kakodkar, which blamed poor infrastructure and resources, and the lack of empowerment at the functional level, for safety lapses. It recommended the creation of a statutory Railway Safety Authority (RSA) powerful enough to have oversight on the operational mode of IR without detaching safety from railway operations; immediate stoppage of announcement of new trains without commensurate infrastructure; a complete overhaul of Research Design and Standards Organisation(RDSO), and a quantum jump in the pace of modernising signals by adopting an advanced system based on continuous track circuiting and cab signalling, similar to the European train control system. It even proposed an independent special purpose vehicle to ensure the completion of work. Most of these remain works in progress.
Two, the railway safety architecture isn’t robust enough. The commissioner of railway safety (CSR) has a limited period of existence, and largely plays a reactive role. Apart from giving clearances for passenger movement on newly constructed lines and post-mortem of accidents involving human casualty, CRS does not have a major role in day-to-day activity. Also, IR internal management ethos, safety mechanisms and processes need a reboot.
Three, an emphasis on more trains, higher speed, and stress on punctuality without increasing the line capacity can turn counterproductive. IR needs immediate corrective measures and hit pause on new developments. The present stress on the system and maintenance staff has to be alleviated.
Four, safety is not a one-off activity. It is integral to every aspect of management of IR all the time. The earlier this key message percolates into the system, the better. Though the number of accidents has dipped with every decade, IR needs to inculcate a stronger culture of mission zero — zero tolerance to incidents, accidents, and lack of safety orientation — as has been done in the Nordic countries.
Five, it is well known that IR assets are not in the pink of health — be it track replacement, level crossings, repair or upkeep of old bridges, upgradation of rolling stock, signalling and communication. These are legacy issues, of course. But IR has a massive plan of running high-capacity, semi-high-speed trains on existing tracks. If this dream has to actualise, the entire system has to be fighting fit. This will need funds and a more dedicated and expanded workforce.
And finally, for many decades, IR was run as a fiefdom of departments and silos within silos. Off late, IR has tried to reform the system and imbibe a new management ethos. But the integrated Indian Railways Management Service (IRMS), which came into effect in 2022, is also facing complaints from lower-level staff. This does not bode well and needs attention from the IR leadership. The Balasore accident necessitates a dispassionate assessment of IR, its strengths and weaknesses. Only a holistic process that takes into consideration the litany of recommendations made by past panels, voices from the ground, and proposals by independent experts, can ensure that such a tragedy is never repeated.
Akhileshwar Sahay is a former IR officer and member, E Sreedharan Committee. The views expressed are personal