The Coromandel Express accident at Bahanaga Bazar railway station of the South Eastern Railway in Balasore district of Odisha calls into question the objective of Indian Railways—to run fast and safe trains at affordable cost. It has also brought to light the Government of India’s failure to invest in safety and expansion of infrastructure. This article will try to explain the status of projects relating to safety and expansion of infrastructure.
What happened in Bahanaga Bazar on June 2 as per the information available from the Railways: There are two main lines and two loop lines at Bahanaga Bazar station. One main line is the Howrah-Chennai line and the other is the Chennai-Howrah line. There was a goods train halted on one loop line waiting for the signal to proceed to the Chennai side. The Howrah-Chennai Coromandel Express had an “all right” green signal to proceed to the main line. But the point had been set for the loop line, where the goods train was standing, which caused the Coromandel Express to enter the loop line and hit the rear end of the goods train, which then derailed, also resulting in the first few coaches of the Coromandel being thrown off the tracks. It is being said that the colossal accident is due to the failure of the electronic interlocking system; that there was signal interference which caused the point to be set for the loop line even while the signal was for the main line. The Senior Section Engineer (Signal) has refuted the suggestion that the point (track) was set to the loop line, and reiterated that it was set to the main line.
In electronic interlocking, the first level-crossing gates are closed, and the closure is ensured by exchanging numbers. Then the point (track) is set for the main line. It is also ensured that no obstruction is there on the main line ahead of the signal and until the next signal. So, the signal turns green for the main line. If the point was set for the loop line, then, logically, the signal must be green for the loop line. But there was an obstruction on the loop line. Therefore, there should have been a danger signal to stop entry to the loop line. How is it being said that the green signal was for the main line? It is alleged that there was interference in the points. If the point (track) was set to the loop line, because of the obstruction in the line only the danger signal should have been there for the loop line. How come there was a green signal? It is clear that there was a failure of the electronic interlocking system.
According to a report in The Hindu, a senior railway official said: “If the switching of tracks to the loop line happened despite a signal being given for main line, it means that the signal and switching were not in sync.”
That raises a question about the age of the signal system at Bahanaga Bazar. Is it overaged? As per a 2017 report by a task force on safety, signalling gears at 200 stations become overaged each year and need replacement. But the signals in only 100 stations are replaced. As of 2017, according to the task force, the current throw-forward (the amount needed for renewals) for replacements was Rs.7,800 crore. It would take seven to eight years to cover the backlog and bring it to the current level. The 2017 task force observed that “a glaring example was the catastrophe in Itarsi Route Relay Interlocking, which happened due to delay in renewal”.
There are also less staff than the sanctioned number. One can imagine the plight from the fact that, as per a Parliament reply, there are 3.12 lakh vacancies in the Railways. There are 9,000 driver vacancies, which can result in longer duty hours and affect safety. There were four lakh trackmen in 1990, a figure that has now come down now to two lakh.
The railway authorities give undue importance to punctuality at the cost of safety. Sufficient time is not given for track maintenance or signal and overhead equipment maintenance. The time for maintenance is called “Block Time” during which no train is allowed to run. In the interest of punctuality, insufficient time is allotted for repair and maintenance works. If work is not completed within the allotted time, charge sheets and punishments are meted out to employees for affecting the punctuality of trains. Fearing punishment, employees commit mistakes. Such mistakes may lead to accidents.
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in his report on derailments in 2021 stated that between 2017-18 and 2020-21, there were 1,805 Blocks. There was a shortfall of 2,383 hours from the demanded number of hours. For maintenance of yard lines, 7,339 hours of Block Time were demanded during the same period. But only 4,667 hours of Block were given, a shortfall of 37 per cent.
- This article tries to explain the status of projects relating to safety and expansion of infrastructure.
- A 2015 white paper by the then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu said that the main cause of derailments was the backlog in track renewals.
- The railway authorities give undue importance to punctuality at the cost of safety.
- The Centre announced a National Rail Plan that promised dedicated freight corridors and express lines but the current Economic Survey does not mention it.
What is a Kavach?
The Kavach is an anti-collision device that allows a train to stop 400 metres short of an obstacle, thus avoiding collision. The Kavach works through radio frequency waves, but it will not work if only some trains are fitted with it. All 13,000 engines in the Indian Railways have to be fitted with the device for it to be effective. As of March 2022, only 65 engines have been fitted with Kavach, according to a report submitted by the Railways in the Railway Consultative Committee.
The Railway Board has recommended a CBI inquiry for the first time “keeping in mind the circumstances and administrative information received so far”. Already, as per the Railway Act, the Commissioner for Railway Safety has started an inquiry. The first inquiry started with the Railways staff in the area, including a wiring man who worked for a contractor and the signal staff. A CBI investigation means that it will look at a possible criminal angle to the accident, a diversionary tactic. For an accident occurring due to a mistake, the CBI’s investigation is directed towards finding a scapegoat so that the government can escape blame and accountability.
“Workers do not have enough time to work on maintaining tracks, signals, and overhead equipment.”
In 1998, when there were a lot of train accidents and deaths, the then Vajpayee government appointed a judicial commission with Justice H.R. Khanna to look into the issue. The Khanna Commission faulted the government for not investing enough in safety and directed it to invest Rs.20,000 crore in safety equipment. It also found other snags in the system and suggested solutions. In the same way, a judicial commission with a sitting judge is the need of the hour.
A 2015 white paper by the then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu said that the main cause of derailments was the backlog in track renewals. According to him, 4,500 km of track should be renewed annually. However, due to “financial constraints”, track renewals had been “constantly coming down over the last six years”, he wrote. According to him, 5,300 km of track was due for renewal as of July 1, 2014. In not a single year after that have track renewal arrears been cleared or renewals crossed 4,500 km (see chart below).
At present, 10,000 km of track are due for renewal, yet the number of trackmen has been halved since 1990. Most of the work has been outsourced instead. And trackmen are not provided in all places either. Like tracks, several railway bridges are also in need of renewal.
Rail safety fund
To clear the arrears in renewal of assets, the government created a national rail safety fund, the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK), and it was planned to allot Rs.1 lakh crore in five years for safety alone, spending Rs.20,000 crore a year. The Railways was to invest Rs.5,000 crore from its resources, essentially net revenue and its Depreciation Reserve Fund (DRF), while the balance Rs.15,000 crore would come from the Centre’s General Budget Support (GBS), which included the Railway’s share of the diesel cess. The DRF and net revenue did not meet expectations, so the allocation to the fund from the Railways’ internal resources was meagre (see chart below).
Hence, the target of Rs.20,000 crore every year has to be met by the Centre from the GBS. The actual expenditure in recent years, including GBS, as per a Parliamentary Standing Committee report was as follows: Rs.16,090.73 crore in 2017-18; Rs.18,015.32 crore in 2018-19; Rs.15,023.88 crore in 2019-20; Rs.314.25 crore (no GBS) in 2020-21; and Rs.24,731.53 crore in 2021-22. As per the report, Rs.11,000 crore is the revised estimate for 2022-23 and the budget estimate for 2023-24.
The Rs.20,000 crore target has been consistently missed. The fund has now been extended for a further five years. The backlog in asset renewals continues. As per the CAG, the throw-forward for the renewals now stands at Rs.94,873 crore (see chart below).
“The provision made to the fund for replacement and renewal of assets is inadequate,” the CAG said. “This has steadily decreased in the last five years and is insufficient to meet the requirements. There is every possibility, especially in the background of depleting surplus, that replacement and renewal of overaged assets could become a burden for the Government of India.”
And yet, there is no honest appraisal or review of the status of the safety fund or on the renewal of assets in the Budget. After the removal of the Railway Budget, only one sentence is available on the Railways in the Union Budget speech. A wealth of information is thus lost.
“At present, 10,000 km of track are due for renewal but trackmen have been halved since 1990. Work is now being outsourced instead.”
Every day, one Vande Bharat express train is flagged off, without allocating money on safety. The government knows that there is a requirement of nearly Rs.1 lakh crore to complete renewals in the Railways in the interest of safety. But priority is not given to safety in the same way that priority is not given to Block Time for repair and maintenance.
The Centre should invest in railway safety from the GBS. The Vande Bharat trains are run at an average speed of 85 to 90 kmph. Level-crossing gates have not been replaced by road over- and under-bridges. The side walls along both sides of the tracks to prevent cattle crossings have not been erected. The Kavach system has not been fitted in all engines. The rail routes are already congested with 130 to 150 per cent occupation. To run a Vande Bharat, many regular trains are sidelined, much to the discomfort of thousands of passengers.
People will be astonished to know that the average speed of a goods train is only 25 kmph. The average speed of passenger express trains is only 50 kmph. The Railways’ share in the national transport grid is 12 per cent for passengers and 27 per cent for goods. The golden quadrilateral covers only 20 per cent of the tracks but transports 55 per cent of traffic. It is only when dedicated freight and passenger lines are put in place that fast and superfast trains can be run at affordable costs.
In 2012, the National Transport Development Policy Committee recommended a 20-year plan up to 2032 with an investment of Rs.35.3 lakh crore. By the end of 2032, the speed of a goods train was set to increase to 50 kmph and passenger trains to 80 kmph. The share of goods traffic in the railways was to go up to 45 per cent. When the Modi government came to power in 2014, it abandoned the rail plan.
In 2019, after merging the Railway Budget with the Union Budget, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the government would invest Rs.50 lakh crore in 20 years in the Railways. That idea too was abandoned. Then the Centre announced a National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) to invest Rs.13.69 lakh crore until 2023 in the Railways. According to the plan, as no private party came forward, the government would invest 87 per cent of the amount. However, not even 40 per cent was invested.
The Centre then announced a National Rail Plan (NRP), from 2021 to 2051, that overlapped with the NIP. This plan promised dedicated freight corridors and express lines, goods trains with average speed of up to 50 kmph, and passenger trains with average speed up to 130 kmph. The share of goods traffic, it said, would go up to 45 per cent. An amount of Rs.38.5 lakh crore would be invested.
Nobody knows the status of the NIP or the NRP. In 2022’s Economic Survey, both plans were mentioned without any review. In the current Economic Survey, the plans are no longer mentioned. In the Budget, an increase in GBS was announced, but no plans were laid down nor was there any statement made about how the Rs.38.5 lakh crore would be mobilised. The only visible efforts are towards privatisation of the Railways. Consequently, there are not going to be any fast and safe trains at affordable cost. No wonder then that when such accidents as this latest one occur, the buck stops at the doors of the Central government headed by Narendra Modi.
R. Elangovan is former vice-president of the Dakshin Railway Employees Union.