Indian Railways: On the wrong track

The recent incidents in the Railways involving accidents and passenger safety point to a decade of muddled priorities.

Published : Jul 06, 2024 16:39 IST - 11 MINS READ

At the site of a collision between an express passenger train and a goods train in Nirmaljote, near Rangapani station, in West Bengal on June 17.

At the site of a collision between an express passenger train and a goods train in Nirmaljote, near Rangapani station, in West Bengal on June 17. | Photo Credit: DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP

On paper, Indian Railways’ training and safety modules for its employees are awesome. For instance, Project Saksham, to train 13 lakh employees, is dubbed the country’s “largest, time-bound, comprehensive training programme to boost productivity and efficiency” of Railway staff. In practice, however, it is, at best, an ineffective approach to training to “create a mindset to deliver new challenges”.

The Indian Railways’ rationale for the project when it was launched in 2017 was this: “With growing rail network, new trains, different high quality services designed by the railways and the promise of the government to deliver superior and safe rail services and growing expectation of our passengers and commuters for better amenities and services, it is imperative that the railway employees rise to the occasion to deliver on the promise. Employees can and do deliver only when they have the right skills, knowledge and the mindset to deliver to the new standards of excellence that the organization hold from them all. This training will help achieve these objectives.”

In a 2017 letter, Ashwani Lohani, Chairman, Railway Board, the apex Railway body in New Delhi, described the training as one that would “make a difference to the job performance of all departments and employees and thus, Indian Railways”.

The training proved to be a paid vacation for non-critical staff. Recalling an instance from the time it was launched, one senior employee said: “Many from divisional offices and zonal offices got to go to the zonal training centre, and got paid DA for at least office days.”

But it was not so for the front-line staff of whom there is an acute shortage. Anecdotal evidence across zones and divisions indicates that given the number of vacancies in the front-line cadres (loco running staff, station staff, and yard staff), some divisions decided to hold a day-long training programme at a nearby major station. But even this was not available for at least 40 per cent of the front-line staff in several divisions.

Also Read | Kanchanjunga Express train accident a result of failure at all levels of Railway hierarchy

But the “results” had to be shown. Every staffer was asked to sign an undertaking to the effect that they underwent training in certain techniques. “Many signed and sent back the undertaking without any training. A few resisted. Officials in the rank of Section Traffic Inspector or equivalent went across the divisions collecting signatures,” the employee said.

No doubt, the Railways declared the training a huge success and began Phase-2 of the training in 2019. S.N. Agarwal, Member (Staff), Railway Board, wrote to Zonal General Managers on March 20: “Approximately 13 lakh Railway employees had been given 5-day on the job training…” and that the Railway staff need the “right skill, knowledge and mindset to deliver to the new standards of excellence”.

This training too was completed “successfully” in 2019, according to senior Railway officials. On the ground, the same story was repeated, according to anecdotal evidence from a few divisions.

Disconnect with reality on the ground

This approach holds a mirror to the critical issues that afflict Indian Railways today. There is a massive disconnect of the zonal and Railway Board officials with the reality of the operations on the ground.

This is evident each time there is an incident: a berth collapsing fatally on a passenger on June 15; a locomotive detaching itself from a moving passenger train between Ernakulam and Shoranur in Kerala on June 28; the decision to reduce the speed of the Vande Bharat and Gatiman Express from 160 kmph to 130 kmph; and the many averted collisions, including a major near-miss in 2023 involving the Sampark Kranti Express and an empty freight train near Mysuru.

The berth collapse has two versions: one, that the upper berth fell on the passenger on board the Ernakulam–Hazrat Nizamuddin Express, and another that says that a middle berth fell on the passenger because another passenger had not secured the chain properly.

Refuting media reports that the middle berth collapsed because it was damaged, Southern Railway’s Chief Public Relations Officer, M. Senthamil Selvan, claimed on June 26 that “a thorough scrutiny of the reported middle berth seat was conducted in H. Nizamuddin and it was found to be in good condition”.

The wreckage of the Kanchanjungha Express train at Rangapani in West Bengal on June 18.

The wreckage of the Kanchanjungha Express train at Rangapani in West Bengal on June 18. | Photo Credit: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP

Selvan left out three facts: one, in more than half a century of middle berths being used in the Indian Railways, no passenger had died because a berth fell on a passenger below; two, the time of the accident, 6:34 p.m., is hardly the time that passengers go to sleep, and it is closer to dinner time when most berths are secured so that all three passengers can occupy the seat; and three, more than a day had passed after the accident near Ramagundam in Telangana until the “thorough examination” was conducted. Neither was the compartment detached at Ramagundam for a forensic examination, nor was an immediate examination of the seat carried out.

This shocking accident is actually yet another indicator of the state of rolling stock (coaches) in the Railways. Operation staff across multiple terminus stations that this correspondent interacted with highlighted the poor state of maintenance of coaches that are run to north India. Added to this is the overcrowding of reserved coaches, which makes it impossible to conduct any effective cleaning in any ordinary express train, said one staffer, who had been a Train Superintendent. In almost every incident, the Railways has tried to curtail the media fallout rather than actually work on the issues that affect rail safety. In fact, this was evident after the accident involving the Kanchanjungha Express and a container train that killed 10 people and injured over 40 on June 17. By June 19, most of the Indian media, with a few exceptions, had forgotten the issue.

One newspaper went to extent of praising Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, “the multifaceted Minister [who] has a one-track mind with multitasking mastery”.

  • Multiple accidents, including a fatal berth collapse and train collisions, highlight the lack of adequate safety and maintenance measures in the Indian Railways. There is a significant gap between the Railways’ policies and the actual operational conditions.
  • For instance, Project Saksham, which was launched in 2017 with an aim to enhance productivity of 1.3 million employees, became a mere formality for many staff. Some 40 per cent of the front-line staff in several divisions could not even avail of the training facilities.
  • The installation of Kavach, an indigenously developed anti-collision train protection device, has been slow. Reports say that it will take 46 years to cover the 68,000 km of track in Indian Railways and 100 years to install it in the 15,200 locomotives at the current pace.

Dismal performance

Vaishnaw’s record in the Railway Ministry is pathetic: multiple consequential Railway accidents in less than a year; zero progress in the installation of Kavach, an indigenously developed anti-collision train protection device; over a lakh vacancies that have not been filled across critical Railway departments; and overcrowded trains where passengers without tickets routinely spill over to the reserved and premium air-conditioned compartments.

A consequential train accident is one in which there is loss of human life, injury, loss of Railway property, and/or interruption to traffic. In just under a year, besides the Kanchanjungha Express accident, a collision of two passenger trains in Andhra Pradesh in October 2023 killed 17 people, and a triple train accident on June 2, 2023, involving the Shalimar Express and the Coromandel Express killed nearly 300 and injured over 900. In each of these, there was a problem with the automatic signalling system.

In the June 17 accident, a goods train rammed into the Kanchanjungha Express almost a full three hours after a signal failure was reported. This can only happen because of failure at multiple levels of the Railway hierarchy, from the Railway Board to the level of loco pilots. The failure occurred at 05:50 am on June 17. This was communicated to the Signal Department at 06:05 am. The Signal Department did not declare it a prolonged failure since it expected the problem to be rectified soon. Hence, the section continued to follow the existing Automatic Block System. In the event of signal failures in the Automatic Block System, to operate the trains, a paper authority is given to each train to pass the signals.

The accident led to many knee-jerk reactions. One Railway zone banned the practice of issuing the prescribed T/A 912 form (authorising drivers to proceed), only to withdraw the ban 24 hours later. This incident highlights how well the top brass of the Eastern Railway understands the General and Subsidiary Rules (which includes operational guidelines).

Railway workers and National Disaster Response Force personnel inspect the accident site of the Kanchanjunga Express.

Railway workers and National Disaster Response Force personnel inspect the accident site of the Kanchanjunga Express. | Photo Credit: DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP

The Hindu reported on June 26 that the speed of Vande Bharat trains in the fastest route, Delhi-Agra-Jhansi, had been decreased to 130 kmph from 160 kmph because of faulty safety equipment. Of Indian Railways’ nearly 68,000 km of track, this is the only sector where a few trains were being run at 160 kmph.

Soon after the accident involving the Kanchanjungha Express, it is learnt that both Northern Railway and North Central Railway approached the Railway Board for a reduction in the speed of premium trains. This calls for a major modification of the railway timetable in the entire section, where the track utilisation is over 100 per cent. This means inordinate delays of superfast trains and “lesser” trains since the priority is only for Vande Bharat.

All premium trains across India will now run only at 130 kmph, a speed limit that was achieved more than 30 years ago. So, despite all the publicity surrounding Vande Bharat trains, there has been absolutely no improvement in the speed of trains.

CAG reports

A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report of 2022, which examined derailment in the Indian Railways between April 2017 and March 2021, noted that “there was increasing trend on IR towards expenditure on non-priority works against the guiding principles of Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) deployment framework. The sole purpose of creating a separate dedicated fund for financing safety related works was defeated, as safety related works were held up due to fund constraints. Further, incorrect bookings denoting misclassification of expenditure led to reduced RRSK fund availability for priority works.”

More importantly, the CAG found that the Railways “failed to act in accordance with the observation of the Standing Committee on Railways (2016-17) wherein it was observed that the physical as well as financial targets in respect of track renewals need to be enhanced as per the annual requirement for track renewals for safety”.

Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw inspecting a Vande Bharat sleeper version at BEML in Bengaluru.

Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw inspecting a Vande Bharat sleeper version at BEML in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: HANDOUT

One of the most critical recommendations of the Anil Kakodkar Committee (2012) to review the safety of Indian Railways has also not been acted upon. It says: “Three vital functions (rule-making, operations, and regulation) are all vested in the Railway Board. There is need for an independent mechanism for safety regulation. The Committee recommends the creation of a statutory Railway Safety Authority with enough powers to have a safety oversight on the operational mode of Railways.”

Given the fact that accident reports are not submitted on time (nearly 50 per cent overshot the time allocated), the CAG recorded that “the deficiencies in setting up a foolproof system of learning from past mistakes are a serious impediment to fulfillment of one of the main objectives of the accident inquiry reports of preventing recurrences of incidents of derailments”.

The reports of committees, the Railways’ own official recommendations, and the CAG reports indicate that there are enough measures for the Railways to ensure passenger safety. For example, Vaishnaw had posted a series of tweets on the Kavach system when it was being tested in 2022. There was nothing from him or the Railway Ministry’s handle after the recent accidents.

Lagging Kavach installation

In fact, one official said that not a single km of Kavach was added after the Balasore accident of June 2023. In response to a question in the Lok Sabha in December 2023, the Railway Minister said that Kavach had been deployed in 1,465 km and in 139 locomotives, including electrical multiple unit rakes in South Central Railway. Kavach was approved in 2020, and there were three original equipment manufacturers.

Also Read | Three major rail accidents in three years: What is the government doing?

According to a report in The Hindu, at the current pace of installation of Kavach, it will take 46 years to cover the 68,000 km of track in Indian Railways and 100 years to install it in the 15,200 locomotives. If the pace of installation is increased to 6,800 km of track each year (and to 1,500 locomotives), it will still take 10 years to cover the entire inventory. The other major problem is unfilled vacancies in the Railways. The opposition parties highlighted the issue even during the 2024 Lok Sabha election campaign. They have also questioned the excessive focus on the bullet train and the Prime Minister’s pet project, Vande Bharat trains.

“Why are the nearly 3 lakh posts vacant in the Railways not filled in the last 10 years,” asked Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge after the June 17 accident. A few days after the accident, however, the Railways announced that it would fill 18,799 vacancies of assistant loco pilots in 16 zones in India.

Meanwhile, the opposition has been distracted by another high-profile issue: that of examination paper leaks, involving the National Testing Agency. As of now, it appears that the heat is off the Railways.

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