A strong commitment to safety and proper maintenance of assets by the Indian Railways can prevent entirely avoidable tragedies from occurring on a regular basis.
OVER one and a half centuries old, the Indian Railways are not only a historic legacy but a vital utility carrying more than 11 million people daily over two million kilometres of track. The railway network is also the economic backbone of India, which accounts for about 40 per cent of the country's goods traffic. However, in the recent past, the story of the Railways more closely resembles a runaway nightmare. The last three months alone have seen at least three terrible accidents.
Close on the heels of the Konkan Railway derailment on June 22, which killed over 50 people, comes the disaster in Andhra Pradesh. On July 2, the Golconda Express hurtled off a Warangal bridge on to a busy road below, killing 18 and causing serious injuries to 32 people. The train was a shuttle service headed for Secunderabad. `Human error' is said to be the cause of the accident, as the driver overshot the signal. An investigation is under way.
The disaster has further bruised the public credibility of the Railways, with all opposition parties baying for Railway Minister Nitish Kumar's blood. Six officials of the South Central Railway were suspended on charges of dereliction of duty, pending an inquiry by the Railways' Safety Commissioner.
`Human error' is a handy phrase and often covers a multitude of sins. According to the Indian Railways, it is responsible for 83 per cent of the train accidents.
When the Howrah-bound Rajdhani Express met with an accident last September, Nitish Kumar immediately trotted out the "sabotage" theory. But the real cause was later revealed to be an engineering failure. Similarly, last month's Konkan Railway disaster was shrugged off by Nitish Kumar as caused by "nature's fury". Four years back, the major derailment of a train occurred in Khanna, Punjab, because of fractures in the railway tracks. A detailed probe identified the absence of basic safety equipment, poor track maintenance and the use of substandard steel (bought from a state-run plant) as the main reasons for the accident. While there was much fuss about using ultrasonic techniques to detect these cracks, barely eight months later a goods train derailed and slammed into an express train near Mathura because of track fractures. To repeat the same error time and again seems to be a compulsive disorder of the Indian Railways.
However, the Railways defend their safety record claiming that the number of accidents has declined in absolute and relative terms to 0.55 per million train kilometres. According to the Railways, the figure of 0.55 accidents per million train kilometres is far better than that of Japan, Germany, France and Italy. In a report to Parliament, it announced that the number of accidents a year had fallen by 80 per cent since 1960 and the number of accidents in the year March 2002 to March 2003 fell from 414 to 351, the lowest in more than 40 years. Y.P. Anand, a retired member of the Railway Board, supports this claim, saying that the recent spate of accidents was an unrelated series of "independent events". In fact, Railway spokesman M.Y. Siddiqui blames the media for exaggerating the accidents by screening the same footage over and over again.
Yet, shaken by the extent of public outrage after the Warangal accident, the Railway Ministry has convened a workshop to introspect and work out a comprehensive plan to shore up safety. "The workshop will involve a cross-section of the ground staff, such as station masters, drivers, gangmen, pointmen, locomotive inspectors, signalling inspectors and workshop staff," said the Ministry statement. "Closer monitoring of drivers and effectiveness of brake power are the central action points of the month-long safety drive launched by the Railways," it added. Railway Board Chairman R. K. Singh has directed all top executives to "involve officers, supervisors and cutting-edge staff to focus on the safe operation of trains and maintenance of fixed and mobile assets," it pointed out. Recently, the Railways also invested heavily in anti-collision devices and set aside a special Railway Safety Fund of Rs. 17,000 crores under Railway Vision 2050.
However, these measures were mandated a long time ago, and all too often political agendas override safety recommendations when it comes to the allocation of funds. For example, 25 new trains and 16 inter-city services were introduced as part of the populist Jan Shatabdi project. As the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report on the Railways noted, colossal amounts of money have been spent on new trains and routes in order to score brownie points with constituencies, instead of directing resources to safety and maintenance and providing basic amenities.
Most safety committees have called for strengthening infrastructure and mechanising the systems for signalling and switching of tracks. However, the bulk of the rail network still relies on outdated, dilapidated safety assets. This is further compounded by the fact that the past years have seen a massive surge in railway traffic. Probes into accidents reveal that most of them result from signal failures - both mechanical and human - as well as derailments, collapsing bridges and shoddy safety procedures at level crossings. Yet, there is far too little attention paid to these factors. For example, the repair and maintenance of bridges is allocated a mere 0.5 per cent of the Railway Budget and even this amount is not fully utilised. Many of these bridges are over a hundred years old and are relics from British times.
Instead of directing their resources to safety and maintenance, the Railways have often chosen to fritter away funds - as in the case of the 6,000 horsepower Swedish locomotives imported five years ago with aid from the Asian Development Bank. The Railways were severely rapped on the knuckles for this decision, which was opposed by its own research engineers, by the CAG.
The post-accident scenario usually involves identifying the immediate causes of the disaster. The Commissioner of Railway Safety, who, inexplicably, reports to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, is responsible for investigating and recommending solutions to the Railway authorities. However, Anand says that the recommendations are not binding and this function is rarely effective. "The Railways do routinely suspend those responsible after an accident but it is often difficult to trace the blame to higher levels of administration," he added, stressing the need for closer monitoring.
If human error is an unalterable fact of nature, technology can help reduce the risk. Mechanised systems that minimise careless human errors are part of every modern mass transport system. Automatic warning systems are used in several countries, and the Khanna Committee report of 1998 had suggested a "train protection and warning system", that would ensure that the brakes would automatically be applied and the train would grind to a halt if the driver failed to acknowledge the caution signal within a specified time. H.M. Vaish, a member of the Khanna Committee, says that the Railways had accepted this recommendation "subject to availability of funds" and the system is already in place in suburban Mumbai. According to Siddiqui, track-sensing technology would be too expensive to import and install over the entire network as "we are a poor country and our priorities are different".
However, since lives are still precious in any poor country, the Railways would do well to get its priorities right. Vaish points out that ensuring safety does not always require expensive, overly sophisticated warning systems. Instituting driver vigilance and auxiliary warning systems and performing breathalyzer tests to check drunken driving (often cited as a cause for accidents) are some of the general recommendations suggested by the railway safety panel. Along with ultrasonic detection of track flaws, much-needed repair of aeging assets and rehauling of signalling and telecom networks, these precautions could be the difference between life and death.
As the dust settles from the Warangal accident and the inquiries take their course, it will be forgotten by all except the grieving family and friends of those who died. Until the next disaster. Perhaps, this moment of self-analysis by the Indian Railways will result in a renewed commitment to safety and entirely avoidable tragedies can be prevented from occurring on a regular basis.