Bullet train project

Chasing a chimera

Print edition : October 13, 2017

The upturned coaches of Kalinga-Utkal Express after an accident near Khatauli in Uttar Pradesh, on August 20. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

At the site of the accident after the Azamgarh-Delhi Kaifyiat Express train derailed in Auraiya district of Uttar Pradesh on August 23. Photo: PTI

Derailed coaches of the Nagpur-Mumbai Duronto Express near Asangaon in Maharashtra's Thane district on August 29. Photo: PTI

A fracture on a broad gauge rail track near Dindigul railway station in Tamil Nady. A file picture. Photo: G. Karthikeyan

The track after Shaktipunj Express derailed in Uttar Pradesh on September 7. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Conversion of tracks using the track renewal train machine in progress near Samalpatti railway station near Salem, Tamil Nadu. A file picture. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A team of Railway Board officials inspecting the Royapuram railway station in Chennai. A file pciture. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

Suburban trains cancelled following heavy winds caused by cyclone Vardah in Chennai on December 12, 2016. Like tracks, the signalling gear has also become outdated and requires replacement. Photo: M. Vedhan

The bullet train project is being undertaken at a time when a significant proportion of the Indian Railways’ assets are in a state of utter disrepair. Tracks that carry trains are worn out, coaches and wagons need wholesale replacement, and signalling equipment require urgent modernisation.

THE spate of train accidents across the country, including at least three derailments in August, have highlighted the alarming safety standards in the Indian Railways. The change of guard at the ministerial level appears to be an attempt at refurbishing the image of the government instead of demonstrating any serious intent to address the rapidly escalating burden of poor safety.

Although there is a risk that frequent reports of accidents may have numbed the mind to the distressing state of affairs, a brief recapitulation of the incidents in the past few months will serve to highlight everything that is wrong with the Indian Railways. And this will show why running bullet trains indicates a lopsided ordering of priorities by the Narendra Modi government.

The derailment of Kalinga Utkal Express on August 19 resulted in the death of 23 persons and injuries to 200 passengers; the derailment of (Azamgarh-Delhi) Kaifiyat Express on August 23 resulted in injuries to 74 passengers. On November 20, 2016, in one of the worst rail accidents in recent times, Indore–Rajendranagar Express (Indore-Patna) derailed in Kanpur; more than 150 people were killed and 183 injured. Following the Kalinga Express accident, four junior-level employees, including a station master and trackmen, were dismissed, and two officers and two supervisors were suspended. The Chief Track Engineer was transferred and the Northern Railway General Manager, Member (Engineering), and the Divisional Railway Manager, Delhi, were sent on leave. The Chairman of the Railway Board resigned. Ashwani Lohani, Chairman, Air India, has taken over as the Railway Board Chairman. Following this, Suresh Prabhu, whose business acumen was supposed to provide dynamism to railway affairs, was replaced by the equally dynamic Piyush Goyal as Railway Minister. But there is no evidence of recalibrating policies, let alone arresting the spate of rail accidents.

Although accidents at level crossings, train collisions and fires in trains are among the most common types of accidents, train derailments constitute over two-thirds of all rail mishaps in India; accidents at unmanned level crossings constitute the next most serious type. In 2014-15, there were 369 deaths caused by derailments; in 2016-17, the trend continued with 357 deaths. Why are derailments so high in the Indian Railways?

According to a report of the Task Force on Safety dated January 2017, which remains hidden from public scrutiny, train derailments are increasingly attributed to “rail fractures” and “weld failures”. The report pointed to the urgent need to address the “backlog in rail/track renewals and the technology of rail welding”. According to the Railway Minister’s White Paper of February 2015, the Indian Railways has a track length of 1.14 lakh kilometres, of which 4,500 km has to be renewed (in the Railways, “renewal” is a euphemism for replacement of overaged tracks) every year as they have lasted well past their useful life. According to the Lucknow-based Research Designs & Standards Organisation (RDSO), a track that weighs 52 kilograms a metre can take a load of 525 gross million tonnes before it needs to be replaced; a 60 kg/m track can take a load of 800 gross million tonnes after which it has to be replaced.

The White Paper, however, noted that “financial constraints” have hampered progress to the extent that the additional length of tracks renewed has been declining in the past six years (see chart). In July 2014, the Railway Minister said that underinvestment in track renewals in the past few years had resulted in mounting backlog. A backlog of over 5,300 km track length needed to be renewed, but he set the target at 2,100 km (but achieved 2,424 km). In the three years starting 2015-16, only 9,062 km of track renewal was achieved, implying a shortfall of 4,438 km, according to the 4,500 km a year norm the White Paper had defined. Thus, the arrears of track renewal are now more than 10,000 km, that is, about 10 per cent of the total track length.

The White Paper observed that the mounting arrears of track renewal implied a “disproportionately high maintenance effort”, which resulted in “reduced reliability of assets”. This invariably meant more funds for more maintenance and more staff. But, while refusing to release funds for new tracks—which directly implies more effort at maintaining poor-quality tracks—the Railway Ministry has reduced the workforce that is responsible for track maintenance and supervision. Inexplicably, the sanctioned number of trackmen, which was four lakhs in the Indian Railways, has been reduced to 2.75 lakhs. The Task Force report observed that 46,985 posts in all grades were vacant as on April 1, 2016, including 41,467 trackmen and 2,434 keymen. Keymen are those who inspect a length of track every day to detect and report flaws in the track, a critical job in a situation of overaged tracks. So, we have a situation in which the Railways neither makes capital investments to replace overaged tracks, nor is willing to compensate for this failure by, at the very least, ensuring proper maintenance of tracks. This is a sure recipe for a disaster that the Railway Minister knows is waiting to happen.

After several derailments in the early 2000s, a judicial inquiry committee was constituted under the chairmanship of Justice H.R. Khanna. On the basis of its recommendation, a non-lapsable Special Railway Safety Fund of Rs.17,000 crore was created. The Union government contributed Rs.12,000 crore and the Railways mobilised Rs.5,000 crore through a safety surcharge. This was implemented between 2003 and 2008. The safety work involved replacement of worn-out assets relating to bridges, signalling systems, tracks and rolling stock.

With special funds, track renewal was carried out over and above the annual target. As a higher length of track was renewed during this period, it had a real impact on the number of derailments as statistics provided by the Railways show. The number of derailments declined from more than 200 in 2002-03 to 85 in 2008-09. Why this happened is clear from the fact that, on an average, during this period, 4,655 km of track was replaced annually. The neglect of the critical task of track replacement is indicated by the fact that in no single year has this length of track been replaced since then.

In fact, Suresh Prabhu’s much-hailed Railway Budget targeted a measly track renewal of only 1,500 km, which was later revised to 2,668 km, which itself is less than half the norm of 4,500 km/year. With the abandonment of the practice of presenting a separate Railway Budget, the target was fixed at 3,600 km in the 2017-18 Budget, again 20 per cent short of the norm.

What is clear is that track renewal needs to be accorded top priority so that the backlog can be cleared at the earliest, while laying the foundation for a better rail system. As far as improvement in welding technology is concerned, the recommendation of the task force for divisional mobile flash butt welding should be arranged without delay. But there appears to be no urgency in implementing this recommendation either.

Signalling disaster

Safety of trains depends on the integrity of signalling systems. Proper functioning of the signal gear ensures safe running of trains. Like tracks, the signalling gear has also become outdated and requires replacement. Referring to the tardy progress, the Task Force observed that the Railways is currently replacing signal gear at only about 100 stations every year, even as more than 200 become overage every year. A glaring example was the catastrophe in Itarsi (August 2015), which was caused by the delay in the replacement of signalling equipment. According to the Task Force report, an amount of Rs.7,800 crore is needed to clear the arrears. At the current rate at which funds are provided, it would take seven to eight years for replacement, the committee opined.

Investment in advance signalling systems is a different matter. In this context, it is important to recognise that the old equipment stock requires a higher maintenance effort and cost. The Task Force stated that “there has been constant decline in staff for signal maintenance per unit (of) asset over the years”. Indicative of the government’s apathy is the fact that there are 3,454 vacancies in the signal maintenance staff category. In the Chengalpattu yard (Tamil Nadu), for instance, serious cases of signal malfunctioning have been reported by workmen in the past six months. On July 27, following a thunderstorm, the signal in the yard indicated “all clear” for all routes, although clearance was to be given on only one route. This illustrates the importance of rigorous and periodic monitoring of all equipment, even though they may be well within their codal life.

In the case of the accident involving Kalinga Utkal Express, the loco pilot driver noticed a signal to proceed although the track ahead of the signal had been removed. He applied the emergency brake, but it was too late. A similar incident happened at Royapuram in Chennai on May 3, 2017, to a light engine driver in the Southern Railway. Though the track had been removed ahead of the signal, he had received a signal to proceed. In this case, he applied brakes and averted an accident. No driver would wantonly proceed at a danger signal because, after all, he would be the first casualty. There have been several instances when the “alright” signal suddenly flies back to “danger” for which a loco pilot is blamed and punished. The Task Force made several useful observations. For instance, it noted that SPAD (signal passed at danger) is directly related to loco pilot fatigue. It also quoted the Khanna Committee report’s comment about the enquiries on the SPAD cases: “Inquiries into SPAD are perfunctory and only indicate who was guilty, and not why it happened.”

Short-staffed and unsafe

The Task Force found that the majority of incidents in the Railways happened after home rest or full rest or leave of a loco pilot. “This is due to the fact that quality rest is missing during such long home station rest as the loco pilot is preoccupied with attending to personal and family matters,” it observed. Had the Task Force explored a little more, it would have found the truth about the quality of rest and why during their rest periods loco pilots undertake domestic chores. The Chairman, Railway Board, deposing before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways in December 2016, which examined the issues of railway safety and security, stated there were 11,442 loco pilot vacancies (almost one-fourth of the sanctioned strength) and 6,574 assistant loco pilot vacancies (15 per cent of the sanctioned strength). In addition, there were 2,714 vacancies for the post of shunter, which is one-third of the sanctioned strength. In all, there are 1.22 lakh vacancies in these categories, which are essential for the safe running of the Indian rail system.

The Chairman, Railway Board, said: “But the point always arises as to how Railways is managing the system with 15-16 per cent vacancies because that is too large a number of vacancies to manage the system. It means we are not managing our system efficiently. Sir, let me clarify this. We have a thing called leave reserve which is around 12.5 per cent.Whatever is the calculation worked out of staff strength with reference to the requirement, we add 12.5 per cent so as to arrive at the leave reserve percentages to take care of replacements when some persons go on leave. So, with these vacancies, perhaps I am not sanctioning the leave to the extent that people would have desired, but not that I am not running a system which is an inefficient system or I am not able to run it.”

How much of the unsafe situation in the Indian Railways arises from the manner in which its workforce, especially those who perform critical tasks such as driving the trains, is treated in terms of pay and working conditions? The lackadaisical attitude to rail safety is best illustrated by a recent example. The Southern Railway sought clearance from the Board to recruit 680 loco pilots. The board cleared only 280. Similarly, when the Southern Railway proposed to recruit 2,800 group C personnel, including safety category technicians, the Board cleared only 400 personnel. The problem is this: technologies such as Train Protection Warning Systems require funds, but until new technologies are deployed, it does not make sense to reduce the number of personnel who perform these tasks. Safety is the prime casualty of this mindset.

The Anil Kakodkar Committee on Railway Safety recommended in 2012 that an investment of Rs.1 lakh crore in specific safety-related works be undertaken within five years. But, even in 2017 it remains a mirage. The Railways sought funds for track renewal, creation of infrastructure for Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches, elimination of level-crossing gates by providing road overbridges (ROB) and road underbridges (RUB), and upgradation of signal systems and other facilities that would improve safety. Specifically, it sought the creation of a non-lapsable special fund on the lines of the one created in 2003-08. Its proposal for a Rs.1 lakh crore Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, if implemented, promises to improve safety significantly.

A sleight of hand

Having taken over rail finances by abolishing the Railway Budget, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has proceeded to continue the neglect of the Railways. He promised a national rail safety fund in his 2017-18 Budget. But, like much else in his Budget, this too appears to be a token effort. First, the allocation is over a five-year period, implying mobilisation of Rs.20,000 crore a year for what was envisaged by the Kakodkar Committee. Of this, Rs.5,000 crore is to be transferred from the National Investment Fund, which collects a part of the proceeds from the government’s disinvestment programme. Second, Rs.10,000 crore is to be transferred from the diversion of funds from the national road safety fund; but this is nothing new, the Railways has been tapping this source to eliminate level-crossing gates in the past. Third, Rs.4,000 crore is to come from the depreciation reserve fund, which already belongs to the Railways. Fourth, the remaining Rs.1,000 crore is to come from the Railways’ own savings.

What is clear from Jaitley’s grand plan is that there is no commitment that any contribution would be made from government finances to fund these critical projects. This is in sharp contrast to the 2003-08 period, in which the government actually contributed to track renewals, which indeed did yield results. The Railways’ plight vis-a-vis the Union government is similar to a master feeding his dog with soup made with its own tail!

Railway revenues have been affected badly by reduced net savings. There is sluggish growth of freight and passenger earnings. Though its operating ratio is within 100 per cent, it cannot mobilise resources for its investment needs. The expansion and strengthening of the railway network is in the interest of the nation. The National Transport Policy Development Committee had recommended an investment of Rs.35 lakh crore in 20 years to expand and strengthen the system to meet future demands. Despite all the incentives given to the private sector, private investments have not been forthcoming. The Twelfth Plan was wound up, and the Modi government’s own five-year plan with an investment of Rs.8.56 lakh crore was announced. In the first three years, Rs.5.6 lakh crore rupees should have been spent by this logic, but only Rs.3.45 lakh crore was planned and even this planned outlay has not been spent.

The Railway Board Chairman told the Parliamentary Committee that the expenditure on railways as a proportion of overall expenditure on the transport sector had declined from 56 per cent in the Seventh Plan to 30 per cent in the Eleventh Plan. As a result, the expansion of the network has been “severely stunted”, which has resulted in an “undue burden” on existing infrastructure. This was also one of the primary reasons for the “chronic congestion” in the Indian rail network, he said.

As a result, 40 per cent of the railway sections are running at more than 100 per cent of their line capacity. As many as 161 sections out of 247 high-density sections on the Indian network are oversaturated. The chronic underinvestment in capacity has meant that in the past 64 years, the route kilometre has grown by only 23 per cent, whereas passenger and goods traffic has grown 17 times. In fact, the Railway Ministry admitted to the Parliamentary Committee that “chronic and significant underinvestment” was to be blamed for this situation.

Flogging frail assets

The scheme for the savage flogging of existing assets, without making any commitment towards investment in augmenting capacity, was perfected when Lalu Prasad was at the helm in the Railway Ministry. In the name of “optimum utilisation of assets”, rolling stock, especially rail wagons, were loaded far beyond their rated capacity, with scarcely a thought given to the infrastructure on which they were running. Lalu Prasad’s magic formula to turn around the Railways—which won him accolades from the media as well as management gurus—rested on allowing railway wagons to carry 10 tonnes more than their capacity. His successor, Mamata Banerjee, criticised him roundly, but continued the same policy when she was at the helm; in fact, it continues even today. Studies by the RDSO reveal that the rampant overloading of railway wagons is primarily responsible for the increasing number of “invisible rail fractures” on the rail network, which are responsible for the derailments.

The Railways needs about 5,500 new coaches a year, but its annual production capacity is only 3,200 coaches. In the name of optimum utilisation, to meet the increasing demand the same rakes are utilised for another train. This has led to loss of punctuality due to pairing trains running late. The earlier policy of maintenance after every run was amended to allow trains to run 4,500 km before their maintenance was taken up. Lalu Prasad as Railway Minister even went to the extent of introducing 84-berth sleeper class coaches and 63-berth third AC coaches. After a lot of criticism, they were withdrawn.

The Anil Kakodkar Committee recommended in 2012 that the manufacturing of Integral Coach Factory-type coaches be stopped. Instead, it recommended that the infrastructure for manufacturing LHB coaches and facilities for their repair and maintenance in yards and workshops be established. These were to cost Rs.10,000 crore. ICF-type coaches are prone to mount on one another during derailments; LHB coaches were preferred because they do not have this telescopic effect. Besides, they are fire-retardant. But the Railways continued to manufacture ICF-type coaches until 2017. The number of LHB coaches in the Railways is much smaller. Out of the 65,000 Indian Railway coaches, only about 4,000 are LHB-type coaches. Even these are produced through outsourced contracts, which compromise safety.

Accidents at unmanned level crossings constitute the single biggest cause of deaths in rail accidents. The Kakodkar Committee recommended that Rs.50,000 crore be spent over five years to build ROBs and RUBs so that such crossings may be eliminated. The Task Force estimated that the completion of the ongoing ROB/RUB projects required Rs.39,000 crore. And, it is clear that Jaitley has no intention or plan to finance this essential task.

The bullet train project is being undertaken at a time when a significant proportion of the Indian Railways’ assets are in a state of utter disrepair. Tracks that carry trains are worn out, coaches and wagons need wholesale replacement, and signalling equipment requires urgent modernisation. Most importantly, the vast majority of train passengers are treated worse than animals. To add to these woes is the mammoth task of modernising the rail system so that India can rightfully claim its place among nations with truly modern railway systems. Seen from this perspective, the bullet train is a curse, not a boon.

R. Elangovan is vice president, Dakshin Railway Employees’ Union.