Two accidents occur, about 30 die, railway board chief resigns, Air India chief replaces him, railway minister offers to quit. This is the quick succession of events in the month of August which has made everyone sit up and talk of the Indian Railways and the appalling state it is in.
Would these developments improve the lot of 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 coincidental.
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 are ultimately responsible happen at these lower levels.
Are they inefficient? Absolutely not. The operational staff in the traffic, ASMs and the staff below them are the most efficient. They are the kingpin of the 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.
Photo: Press Trust of India
The Utkal-Kalinga Express accident at Khatauli apparently happened as the railway operational staff was put under pressure through diktats to run trains at high speed, 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 5,000 but it would have saved precious lives, infrastructure, and the huge cost of restoration of the track and traffic.
The enquiry is not exactly about the human lapse that led to this block being refused and a train at a speed of 100km being allowed to pass through virtually un-mended track. It is rather whom to pin the responsibility on - or what circulars of the railway board or member, Traffic - eventually leading to such a disastrous consequence.
The gangmen are experienced people, they use such jugaad - putting a small rail piece to cover broken portions of the track. Often, that “jugaad” is for just letting a train pass breakneck speed because the block has been refused. At Khatauli, where the Utkal-Kalinga Express accident happened, this was used to let the train pass 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 manoeuvres. This, however, speaks volumes how the railways compromises the safety of the passengers almost on a daily basis.
This is all the more surprising given we witnessed the most disastrous tragedy of Patna-Indore Express derailment in Kanpur, Dehat killing 147 and injuring 180, which too happened because of the similar lack of track management. There were 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 some of the finest skills in detecting flaws, including rail fractures. Recently, when railways recruited some people with high qualification and degrees, including MBA, it was found such educated staff lack the devotion that the class-eight-pass – the minimum qualification – gangmen have. The educated ones do not patrol the track and prefer to while away their time at level-crossing sheds.
The derailments are increasing as per railway data. In 2015, there were 82 derailments caused by staff failure; in 2016 it was 55 and 2014 it was 49. On an average, it can be said to be around 50 a year.
One often cited reason is said to be the inadequate number of gangmen and their long working hours, often because of lack of replacement and/or due to shortage of staff. Yes, the railways need to put in more people at this level to maintain tracks, given how often it is 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, that is very difficult to detect”.
Another reason for high casualty is stated to be the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) coaches, which is said to pile up upon collision, as in the case of the Khatauli accident. The Anil Kakodkar committee suggested the use of 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, by over 60 per cent, from cancellation and dynamic fare structure. It means they earn for not offering any service and playing on psyche of berth shortage.
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 surpass the air fare.
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.