September 26, 2017   
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Rail Accidents

DICTATS, SPEED MANIA CULPRITS

By Shivaji Sarkar

Two rail accidents occur, about 30 people die, Railway Board chief resigns, Air India chief replaces him, Railway Minister offers to quit. These are the quick successive developments in the last week of August. The big question is: Would these resignations improve the lot on Indian Railways?

Theoretically it may but practically it is difficult. All of them are only technically responsible. None of them in reality run the organisation, except conceptually. So if any improvement takes place with the changes it would only be accidental.

The trains are managed and run on the tracks by people at control, other operational staff, including Station and Assistant Station Masters (ASM), and the crucial gangmen, who are the hands, eyes and ears of railway safety. The human errors that often are blamed happen at these lower levels.

Are they inefficient? Absolutely not. The operational staff in the traffic, ASMs and the staff below them is the most efficient. They are kingpin of railway safety. It is for them that over 95 per cent of the trains across 17 zones and running track over a route of 66,687 km and a total track of 119,630 km with 7216 stations, run almost to around 95 per cent accuracy. It is the world’s biggest rail network. The leaders at the top matter marginally. The unsung heroes bear the brunt of punishment but are rarely appreciated.

The Utkal-Kalinga express accident at Khatauli apparently happened as the railway operational staff was put under pressure through dictats to run trains at high speed while ignoring basics of safety. It is unheard of that when the track maintenance staff demands a 15-minute block – stoppage of traffic – the control unwisely refuses it.

On an average, as per railway estimates one unscheduled stoppage of a train has a minimum cost of less than Rs 100. So in a block if there are 50 trains, it would technically cost about Rs 5000 but it would have saved precious lives, infrastructure, and the huge cost of restoration of the track and traffic.

The enquiry is not about human lapse to find out why this block was refused and a train at a speed of 100km was allowed to pass through virtually un-mended track but to spot the responsibility on who or what circulars of Railway Board or member, Traffic led to such disastrous consequence.

The gangmen are experienced people, they use such jugaad — putting a small rail piece to cover broken portions often but that is for just passing a train at dead speed. At Khatauli, this was used to pass a train at high speed. Surprisingly even the station master, responsible for clearing the green signal, and others were not aware of this maintenance. That also calls for probe.

No less surprising was the accident next day of the Azamgarh-Delhi Kaifiyat Express hitting an overturned dumper that was carrying material for building a new rail track. The lapses here too are obvious. How on such a busy track, almost a train following another in 90 seconds, a vehicle was allowed to cross the track without basic safety procedures and information to control and the nearest stations? People at top level are usually not aware of such manouevres. This, however, speaks volumes how the railways are compromising with the safety continuously.

This is more surprising after the most disastrous tragedy of Patna-Indore express derailment in Kanpur Dehat killing 147 and injuring 180 and 12 other notable accidents through 2016.

The 2017-18 Budget has proposed a Rs 1 lakh crore corpus for a railway safety fund. The allocation for infrastructure stands at a record level Rs 3,96,135 crore in 2017-18, Rs 38,000 crore more than the previous budget. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley says infrastructure is the thrust area of the government for efficiency, productivity and quality of life.

The approach is fine. But the improvements that the system is looking for require minimum investment and improving coordination. Often it is said that the gangmen are illiterate. But recent experiences of the railways reveal that they have one of the finest skills in detecting flaws including rail fractures. Recently, when railways recruited some people with high qualification, including MBA, it was found such educated staff lack the devotion the class eight pass, the minimum qualification gangmen have. The educated ones do not patrol the track and prefers to while away their time at level crossing sheds.

The derailments are increasing as per railway data. In 2015, there were 82 derailments etc caused by staff failure, in 2015/2016 it was 55 and 2014 it was 49. On an average it can be said to be around 50 a year.

One reason is stated to be the inadequate number of gangmen and their long working hours often because of lack of replacement due to shortage of staff. Yes, the railways need to put more people at this level to maintain tracks. It is often now being compromised. They are the least paid but have the highest value for safety of operations. So saving on this crucial component is penny wise.

Former additional member safety of Railway Board, Kamlesh Gupta after the 2016 Indore-Patna train tragedy commented that the accident was due to rail fractures, which is very difficult to detect. Another reason for high casualty is stated to be the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) coaches, which are said to pile up on collision as in the Khatauli accident. The Anil Kakodkar committee suggested stainless steel Linke Hoffman Busch (LHB) coaches, which have more efficient shock absorption capacity.

The railways have always been crying of lack of finances. But recent figures show that railways earn more, over 60 per cent from cancellation and dynamic fare structure. It means they earn for not giving any service and playing on psyche of shortage of berths.

The operating ratio of IR was high, at 93.6 per cent in 2013-14. There was a spike in 2009-10, from 75.9 per cent to 95.3 per cent, due to the Sixth Pay Commission. Staff costs comprise 54.5 per cent of the total expenses. There is something fundamentally wrong in railway accounting. The fare in many cases equal or surpasses the air fare.

The Railways need to revamp its internal mechanism, appoint more people at the track operation level, increase coordination to keep the tracks safe. Funds are needed but it is not the culprit for most of the rail accidents. —INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)