Ailing behemoth

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

The Tamil Nadu Express at Nellore railway station in Andhra Pradesh following the fire in a coach on July 30.-REUTERS

The Tamil Nadu Express at Nellore railway station in Andhra Pradesh following the fire in a coach on July 30.-REUTERS

The Indian Railways can lower accident rates if they take steps to improve existing infrastructure and staff strength.

RAILWAY Minister Mukul Roys arrival at the Chennai railway station in the five-star compartment of a special train to meet the victims of the Tamil Nadu Express fire of July 30 was dubbed as another of his insensitive actions. In July last year, when he was Minister of State for Railways, he declined, despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs request, to visit Assam where, following a blast, a passenger train had derailed injuring 100 people.

Small and big railway accidents have marked Roys tenure as Railway Minister. In fact, two accidents in Uttar Pradesh greeted him on the day he assumed office in March this year. Roy, who replaced Dinesh Trivedi following a political fiasco created by the Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee, has had a tenure that not only is controversial but also is a reminder of the many failures of the Indian railway system.

Controversy has surrounded the Railways portfolio during the last two decades of coalition governments. But the systemic failures in the Indian Railways remain unnoticed. It is only when major accidents happen that discussions on safety measures take place. Even in that case, the debates focus on one person, the Minister in charge, rather than on the structural aspects of the system in place. As a result, Railway Ministers regularly attribute accidents to human failures, which are actually exceptions rather than the norm.

For example, in March this year, when a passenger train rammed into a van in Hathras in Uttar Pradesh claiming 15 lives, Roy blamed it on the van drivers negligence. Railway Ministers before him had blamed railway loco pilots (engine drivers) or unmanned crossings for accidents. In rare circumstances, Ministers have called railway accidents acts of political sabotage for instance, the Gyaneshwari Express derailment and subsequent collision with a goods train in West Bengal in May 2010, which claimed 170 lives, and the collision of the Uttar Banga Express with the stationary Vananchal Express in Sainthia, West Bengal, in July 2010, which killed 63 people.

There were 14 major railway accidents in 2011, which together claimed more than 300 lives. The year 2012 has already seen 11 major accidents for one or more reasons. The fire in the Tamil Nadu Express coach in Andhra Pradesh was unprecedented and could not be attributed to railway staffs failure. It was caused by a short circuit, and this has shifted the attention to safety measures and maintenance of the existing railway system.

K. Ganesan, an employee of The Hindu who was on the ill-fated train, told Frontline: The fire started with a spark in the circuit. In no time, the fire engulfed the S 11 coach. It was early morning and people were still sleeping. They could not come out as the fire spread very quickly. By the time help came their way, many of them had died. Others managed to escape with a lot of help from co-passengers in other coaches.

Train accidents, said M.N. Prasad, the general secretary of the All India Loco Running Staff Association, were a result of failures in three primary departments: man, materials, and method. Accidents occur either when railway employees fail in their designated duties or as a result of outdated equipment or because of violation of basic rules, Prasad told Frontline. The crux of railway safety lies in these three factors, and so it seems fitting to place the failures in these departments in their necessary contexts.

Human failures

While individuals are often blamed for mishaps, railway workers have a different point of view. Accidents happen because of human failures, I agree. But it is also important to note the reasons for these, said Prasad. The loco pilots are almost always overworked. Although they have to put in only eight hours of work, loco pilots do 12-14 hours and continuous night duties on a constant basis. Indian Railways still carry the legacy left behind by the colonial masters. Those at the top still believe that if the loco pilot is given a comfortable seat and an air-conditioned chamber, he/she will fall asleep. So the cushioned seats and the air-conditioner in the drivers cabin are removed before a new imported engine hits the Indian tracks. By stripping the loco pilots of all comfort when they have a rigorous working schedule, the Railways are inviting human failures, he added.

It is not just the loco pilots who have strenuous work schedules. The staff strength is in continuous decline. In 1974, the total staff strength was around 20 lakh, which went down to 16.25 lakh in 1985. At present, the total permanent personnel number is 13.62 lakh. This, despite the fact that the number of trains has increased nearly fourfold since 1991. The speed of the trains has also doubled in the past two decades.

The decline in staff strength is the result of the recommendations of the Rakesh Mohan Committee, which was constituted to save the Railways from financial collapse. It recommended privatisation of 19 processes, including sanitation, catering, signalling, track and coach maintenance, and equipment production. Along with that, it recommended a freeze in recruitment and simultaneously a reduction in the employee strength in four phases. By the fourth phase, it recommended, the Railways should not have more than four lakh permanent employees. The committees recommendations were accepted in 2001, but the conditions of the Railways have hardly improved.

At present, at least 17,000 positions of loco pilots and one lakh positions of safety employees are lying vacant. In all, 2.4 lakh positions in various departments remain vacant, and the additional workload is managed by the present staff.

Most processes are outsourced now. Ravi Sen, general secretary of the Eastern Railway Employees Union, said: It is a two-tier outsourcing system. One is the outsourcing of all types of factory production and the other is the outsourcing of services. We have realised that outsourcing is the biggest cause of corruption in the Railways. Because of it, the administrator-contractor nexus has become stronger than ever. The contractors are driven by considerations of profit rather than quality. The labourers, on the other hand, are getting paid much less than what they should get. For instance, a trackman was paid Rs.15,000 to Rs.20,000 to manage the traffic on tracks. But after it was privatised, the contractors pay their trackmen not more than Rs.5,000 each. This has led to great tension between workers and contractors. How do you expect efficiency when the workers are so deficient?

Shyam Singh of the North Eastern Railway workers union said: Because of the rise in the number of trains, management of traffic has become very complicated. As opposed to 10 to 12 coaches earlier, we are running passenger trains that have 18 to 24 coaches. This has led to the overworking of not just loco pilots but also staff in the control rooms, on tracks, and in stations and cabins. The Railways have a rule that a train (both the engine and the coaches) must have adequate rest after a long journey, but this does not apply to employees. If machines can have rest, why cant human beings?

The trade union leaders have been demanding better working conditions on the grounds that it is vital for railway safety. They are also demanding that the work hours be brought down from 12 to six and adequate rest be ensured after long duties. They said that some improvement in labour conditions was seen during Nitish Kumars tenure as Railway Minister, but it could not be sustained because of the frequent change of Ministers. However, after a long struggle, the Railway Board agreed to implement 52 demands of the trade unions at a meeting held in June 2012. It was decided at the meeting that the privatisation policy would not be tampered with, but issues such as rest and better working conditions for existing staff would be addressed on a priority basis.


Poor infrastructure and Indian Railways have almost become synonymous. The rise in traffic has led to a massive demand for equipment, which are mostly privately acquired. Profit-driven contractors allegedly supply low-grade equipment very often. The abysmal quality of critical spare parts is an area of concern. For example, in the New Delhi-bound Duronto Express, the central buffer coupling (CBC) failed in Howrah recently. The CBC is a critical component. It used to be produced in railway factories but is now outsourced, and the quality has seen a massive decline. There is no standard system in place to couple the coaches, said N.N. Banerjee, assistant general secretary of the South-eastern Railway Mens Union.

Prasad told Frontline that the signalling system was faulty in many places and had not been standardised properly. In many places, there are no arrow marks, which confuses the loco pilot. While the Railways had adopted a left-hand system for signals, in many places the signal poles are on the right, he said. Machine failures at level crossings (manned and unmanned) have also resulted in many accidents. With the rise in the number of trains, tracks are overburdened. According to Shyam Singh, at least one train passes each track every four minutes on an average. This hardly leaves any time for track personnel to conduct a thorough check. In such circumstances, accidents are bound to happen.

There are numerous cases where equipment has failed but the Railway staff averted major accidents by acting on the problem immediately.


The rules and regulations are continuously violated because of the lack of skilled technicians in the Railways. Workers are introduced to new technologies without adequate training. We are expected to learn a new medium in control rooms or other places in a days time. There are enough possibilities for mistakes in such circumstances, said Shyam Singh.

Most accidents happen because of procedural failures. The most important systems in the Railways that demand urgent attention are signalling and route-relay interlocking (RRI), both of which have become outdated and are malfunctioning. The RRI systems have a life of 16 lakh operations or 20 years, whichever comes earlier. In most places in India, the RRI system has passed this age. The signalling system has been completely privatised, but this has not meant its upgradation. What is required is a completely automated signalling system that should reflect in the Railway engine directly, said Banerjee. He added that the maintenance schedule had been very irregular because of a whopping staff shortage of 2.4 lakh. No new trains should be added until there is significant improvement in infrastructure and human resources, he said.

The Railway Ministry and the Railway Board have constituted many committees for modernising the Railways. But most of these provide technological solutions without making any effort to rejuvenate existing resources. The technological solutions require a huge sum of money, which the Indian Railways have never managed to garner.

Two such reports on modernisation came up last year. One was a short-term programme called Vision 2020, which proposed to raise Rs.65,000 crore every year from the Railways revenue alone and obtain around Rs.50,000 crore from the Union government. However, neither has the Railways ever earned this much nor has the Union government ever allocated a sum like this in its Budget. Therefore, critics feel that the documents are just another way to privatise the Indian Railways in the guise of modernisation. The other report was from a committee headed by the Chief Adviser to the Prime Minister on public infrastructure and innovations, Sam Pitroda.

In both reports, the measures suggested include the modernisation of 19,000 kilometres of existing tracks, setting up of an automated signalling system, having dedicated freight and passenger train corridors, and computerisation of the whole system. This, ironically, would be done through many public-private partnership projects though previous experience in this regard has been disappointing. The reports state that Rs.5,60,396 crore needs to be spent over the next 10 years and recommend that the funds be raised from four major sources: budgetary support, the railways own revenue, monetisation of blocked assets such as surplus land, and, most importantly, financial institutions and markets.

A slightly more modest attempt to look into railway safety came from a high-level committee headed by Anil Kakodkar, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. The committees report, submitted in February this year, looked into existing resources and tried to give the best possible solutions, though it advocates technological and administrative solutions too. Its recommendations for an independent railway safety regulatory body and a greater decentralising process were the first of their kind for the Railways. It also recommended the elimination of all level crossings (manned and unmanned) in the next five years, maintenance of safety-related infrastructure and implementation of an advanced signalling system (ADS). It said that no new trains should be added. However, even these changes would require an estimated Rs.1,00,000 crore.

The government has to invest in the Railways sincerely if it wants the rail network to survive. Countries such as China and Japan invest much more on their rail systems in just one year (In Japan, it is completely privatised.) China spent Rs.5 lakh crore on its railway network in 2009. Why cant we do it over a period of five years? asked Shyam Singh. While there are many possible solutions awaiting implementation, one thing that the Railway Ministry could ensure is to improve the working conditions for its employees at the earliest and recruit more staff, in order to minimise accidents.

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