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A poor track record

Print edition : Jul 21, 2001 T+T-

THE report of the Justice H.R. Khanna Railway Safety Review Committee, which was released in 2000, is a scathing indictment of the state of affairs in the Indian Railways. The Railways, it said, "is saddled with a huge inventory of overaged, decaying assets," owing to the "unhealthy state of Railway finances". A prime recommendation made in the report was that the Railways should stop further expansion until it had upgraded infrastructure and assets.

At the end of fiscal 1999, the backlog of track renewals stood at 12,260 km. The accretion of overaged tracks in the rail network is taking place at the rate of 3,250 km a year. Track renewal activity has been steadily declining for over a decade. The Khanna Committee observed that the poor condition of the tracks not only was a safety hazard but impinged on the commercial performance of the Railways because it imposed speed restrictions on trains. The length of bad tracks is estimated to reach more than 35,000 km in the next seven years, if no track renewals take place. The Railways would require Rs.3,250.65 crores in order to clear the backlog at Rs. 65 lakhs per km. The committee recommended that track renewal be "dealt with on a war footing, as we consider this a basic and fundamental requirement of safety".

More than 42 per cent of the 1.20 lakh bridges in the rail network are of 19th century vintage. Although the Railways had classified 262 bridges as "distressed", this term is itself inadequate because the classification is based on visual impressions of a bridge and not on results of rigorous structural tests. The Khanna Committee recommended that all distressed bridges, those that are more than 100 years old or those made of "early steel", be subjected to rigorous examination within a year. It also said that all "distressed" bridges be "rehabilitated" within five years. The committee found that the quality of construction of the bridges "is not up to the mark"; that more than 1,560 railway had to make do with "overaged" signalling gear; and that 1,300-odd broad gauge passenger coaches and 34,000 wagons were due for replacement.

The track, rolling stock, signalling equipment and other infrastructure have to be protected by adequate maintenance and monitoring. However, sources in the railway unions say that the failure of this "back-up" continues to expose passengers to danger. There are widespread complaints about the lack of the right type of equipment at the coaching depots. Owing to the shortage of rakes, coaches are not examined and repaired fully before they start the journey again. Also, complaints regarding defects that are raised by train drivers, guards and other running staff are not properly attended to. The committee has insisted that disciplinary action be initiated against supervisors if the defect recurred within the next 72 hours. The Railways management "had done little" for train drivers and this was reflected in their poor working conditions, the Khanna Committee said. It observed that the Railways "has a large number of rail/weld fractures" that caused derailments, which account for about 90 per cent of all train accidents.

One of the key findings of the committee was the widespread use of "doctored statistics" by the management, particularly those relating to the Railways' safety record. Although data relating to major accidents were recorded well, details of minor accidents "have been swept under the carpet". It pointed out that while only 396 accidents were reported in 1997-98, 1,011 accidents went "unreported". It said: "What is conveniently forgotten is that the gravity of the consequence in any accident is fortuitous, as the basic causes for both minor and major accidents are essentially the same." It cited the case of the accident at Khanna (Punjab) in 1998, which was caused by a rail fracture, resulting in the death of more than 200 persons. Similar rail fractures have not always resulted in such tragedies. It said that the "obfuscation of facts" resulted in "distorted feedback" from the field staff. "with no follow-up action on the non-reported accidents, unsafe practices down the line are not detected until a major accident occurs."