Poor track record

Print edition : June 27, 2014

The scene of the accident after the Gorakhdham Express rammed into a goods train 40 kilometres from Delhi on May 26. Photo: AFP

Railway Minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda, as Karnataka Chief Minister, during the inspection of Namma Metro in Bangalore on August 30, 2011. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

FDI in the Railways without fixing the conditions that lead to frequent accidents seems to be an overly ambitious idea.

IF the government has its way, a vital infrastructural asset of the country, the Indian Railways, may well be up for sale. The Narendra Modi government is mulling over foreign direct investment (FDI) in the railway sector. Privatisation of railway projects has not been successful globally; investors do not find it lucrative enough to make long-term investments that have a turnaround period of 10-15 years, primarily because of the need to maintain low passenger fares. In this context, FDI in the railways in a developing country like India would be a long shot. Moreover, will privatisation guarantee safe and comfortable journey? Given the abysmal record of railway accidents in India, FDI in the Railways without fixing the conditions that lead to frequent accidents seems to be an overly ambitious idea.

As recently as May 26, the Gorakhdham Express bound for Delhi rammed into a stationary freight train 40 kilometres from its destination. This was the seventh major railway accident in just about a year. The accidents point to the severe lacunae in safety measures adopted by the Indian Railways as also its woeful backwardness in modernising its infrastructure.

An inquiry committee has been set up to look into the cause of the accident. “We are conducting a rigorous inspection of the shortcomings and emphasising ways to rectify them in all aspects of the North Eastern Railway—stock, maintenance, station management, counselling, sensitivising and staff awareness,” an official of the North Eastern Railway told Frontline. “These are regular exercises, but we have doubled the pace post-accident.”

Assuming office as the Railway Minister the day after the accident happened, D.V. Sadananda Gowda declared that rail safety would top his agenda and called for a high-level meeting on safety. He followed this up with a series of meetings with officials from various departments to discuss high-speed trains, infrastructure development, safety issues and finance.

Addressing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers in Mangalore soon after the government formation, he said the need of the hour was innovation. Citing the example of the Golden Quadrilateral highway project of the National Democratic Alliance government led by A.B. Vajpayee, he said it had played a major role in the development of the country and that the Indian Railways should also be synonymous with development.

Many accidents point to the lack of passenger safety measures incorporated in the infrastructure of the Railways. At least 37 pilgrims were killed on the tracks last August when the Rajyarani Express hit them in Bihar’s Khagaria district. In a similar incident, the Raigarh-Vijayawada train ran over eight people at Gotlam railway station in Vizianagaram district of Andhra Pradesh.

Disasters involving fire, too, have not been uncommon. Twenty-six people died and 12 people were injured when two coaches of the Bangalore-Nanded Express caught fire at Kothacheruvu village in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh in December. The source of the fire is not yet clear; sabotage is not ruled out.

In January this year, nine passengers were either charred or suffocated to death when three sleeper coaches of the Bandra-Dehradun Express caught fire. The cause of the fire is yet to be ascertained. A month later, three passengers died and 37 were injured when 10 coaches of the Nizamuddin-Ernakulam Lakshadweep Mangala Express derailed at Ghoti near Igatpuri of Nashik district in Maharashtra.

According to National Crime Records Bureau data, in 2012, when four cases of air crash snuffed out 14 lives, the number of railroad and other railway accidents together stood at 33,374, resulting in 29,210 deaths. At 27,041, the cases of drowning —which are largely not secured against by any sort of systemic safety precaution—are fewer than the number of deaths in railway accidents.

Infrastructure not meeting traffic

A paper published in the international journal Physica A in 2010, delving into the reasons for the spurt in accidents, noted that a few zones were particularly insufficient to handle passenger congestion vis-à-vis the infrastructure. On the basis of statistical analyses of data drawn from the Indian Railways website, the paper identified a serious lacuna in the scheduling of trains on some routes, where trains are run late so as to avoid the rush of traffic beyond the handling capacity of the systems, thereby raising the scope for human error or system failure. The Indo-Gangetic plain covering the north-eastern belt was one such high-risk area, hosting most traffic-intensive segments, where eight out of the 11 accidents in 2010 took place.

Comparing the data between 1992 and 2010, the paper noted that the infrastructure, including railway lines and tracks, had not increased in proportion to the number of trains introduced. Headway, or time lapse between two trains crossing the same point, had narrowed down dangerously on some routes, especially in the Delhi-Kanpur and Ahmedabad-Surat segments, it said.

A simulated experiment also showed that to overcome insufficient infrastructure, trains were delayed beyond the scheduled hours, leading to accidents. It was not any better even when traffic was not dangerously high. Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which are in segments of lower congestion, recorded 2,692 and 2,115 incidents respectively in 2012.

More trains, fewer staff

Representatives of employees’ unions pin the blame for this on the recruitment policies post-liberalisation. Despite the increasing number of trains over the years, a freeze has been imposed on recruitments, and many of the services have been outsourced. As a result, the staff strength has been on the decline since 1991; from 20 lakh in 1974 it fell to 13.62 lakh in 2012.

In the name of avoiding financial collapse, the Indian Railways has adopted the recommendations of the Rakesh Mohan Committee, which include privatisation of 19 processes, freeze on recruitments, and reduction of employee strength in four phases. Going by that, the Railways should not have more than four lakh employees by the end of the fourth phase.

The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has been raising this issue time and again. A.K. Padmanabhan, its president, says that maintenance is the biggest casualty in the Indian Railways.

“The main cause for accidents is the lack of maintenance and the drastic reduction of maintenance staff in all departments including tracks and compartments,” he told Frontline.

He blames the freeze on recruitments for this situation. “They don’t hire people and then abolish the post saying that it has been vacant for a long time. This practice has brought down the staff strength by lakhs in the past 10 years,” he said. As on March 1, 2012, in the safety category (station master, guard, etc.) 1,49,000 posts were vacant, but the total recruitment in that year was only 25,000, according to the Railway Minister’s reply to a question in Parliament.

The Finance Ministry website puts the total number of vacancies in all categories in the Railways as on March 1, 2012 as 2,72,000. But a government order circulated by the Railways says that no post that has been vacant for a year or more should be revived and no new post shall be created.

Unmanned gates are another problem. There were 17,000 such gates in 2012. Gatesmen do 12-hour duty and suffer from exhaustion. If one gatesman is absent on a given day, the other has to be on duty for 24 hours.

A report presented in February 2012 by a High Level Safety Review Committee chaired by Anil Kakodkar, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (E. Sreedharan, principal adviser to the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, was the adviser to the committee), put the proposed estimate on safety over five years at Rs.1 lakh crore.

The committee also recommended the total elimination of all level crossings (manned and unmanned) within five years at an estimated cost of Rs.50,000 crore, which would be recovered over seven to eight years from savings in operation and maintenance costs and improved train operation.

The working condition of railway employees is another major factor that leads to accidents, says R. Elangovan, working president of the Dakshin Railway Employees’ Union. In the case of the Hampi Express accident in 2012, the driver had been working for six straight nights in a row.

A high-power committee report recommends that a driver should not be put to work for more than two nights in a row.

The All India Loco Running Staff Association raised the issue with the regional Labour Commissioner in Madurai who said that a loco driver should not work for more than six hours a day, which is known as the intensive roster. The Railways went on appeal against it, but the Union Labour Ministry upheld the intensive roster.

Apparently, contractualisation of welding work is said to have led to weld failures, a major cause for derailment. A decade and a half ago, according to a corporate plan, anti-collision devices were to be fitted in all trains within 10 years at a cost of Rs.10,000 crore. But even after so many years, they have been fitted only in the Northeast Frontier Railway.

There is no doubt that the Railways’ modernisation is the need of the hour. Whether the FDI route is the best option is a moot question.

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