Odisha train accident
The Commissioner Railway Safety, SER Circle, which began its inquiry into the accident on Monday, will record the statements of the two drivers after their recovery. File photo

Odisha train accident: Steadily falling railway safety fund proves cataclysmic

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The train accident, the worst of its kind in two decades, which took place in Balasore on Friday (June 2), leaving 288 dead and 803 injured — 56 with grievous injuries — might have happened due to a fault in the interlocking system, according to the government.

The Ministry of Railways said in a statement that the Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express and the Yesvantpur-Howrah Express got derailed near Bahanaga Bazar railway station around 6.55 pm on Friday. Contrary to reports claiming that three trains had been involved in the crash on that fateful day, the statement does not mentioned any goods train getting impacted.

According to Union Minister of Railways Ashwini Vaishnaw, a change in the interlocking system led to the accident. Vaishnaw told a news agency on Sunday (June 4) morning that the cause of the accident has now been ascertained and that the guilty would be punished. His comments came amid calls by Opposition parties for his resignation.

“The Commissioner of Railway Safety has investigated the matter and let the investigation report come, but we have identified the cause of the incident and the people responsible for it… It happened due to a change in electronic interlocking,” Vaishnaw told the news agency.

Also Read: Odisha train tragedy: Why was Coromandel Express’ Point 17-A set for the loop line?

Even as rescue and restoration operations continue, the pertinent questions remain: Could this accident have been avoided? Has safety itself been a casualty in train operations over the last several years, when much has been made of the year-on-year increase in capital expenditure (capex) for the national transporter in the Union Budget?

For 2023–24, the budget estimates peg capex of the Railways at Rs 2.4 lakh crore, and the government has been at pains to point out that this is nearly nine times the outlay for the Railways in the 2013–14 budget during the UPA tenure. If the budget outlay for capex has been hiked substantially year after year, did safety not get enough funding?

Diminishing safety fund

But a parliamentary standing committee, which examined the demand for grants by the Ministry of Railways for 2023–24, has noted that the appropriation or allocation of funds for the Rashtriya Rail Suraksha Kosh (RRSK) has been falling short year after year, ever since the ministry created the fund to finance safety initiatives.

RRSK was created in 2017–18 for five years “to ring fence funds for execution of works for renewal/replacement with safety related implications with annual contribution of Rs 20,000 crore”. Of this, Rs 15,000 crore was to come from gross budgetary support, whereas the remaining Rs 5000 crore was to come from Railways’ internal resources.

The primary aim of RRSK was to reduce train collisions, derailments, and unmanned level crossing accidents, which together account for nine in 10 rail accidents. However, since the generation of internal resources has for years been a sore point within the Railways, RRSK has not been allocated Rs 20,000 crore annually as mandated.

The ministry has said that it has incurred an expenditure of Rs 74,175.75 crore under RRSK till March 2022. But here is the catch: over Rs 70,000 crore of this was funded by the Centre. Also, nearly a fourth of the expenditure envisaged was not made. Rs 1 lakh crore should have been spent on critical safety initiatives under this fund by 2021–22. In 2022–23, the revised estimates for expenditure under RRSK was Rs 11,000 crore against the mandated Rs 20,000 crore annually.

Also Read: Odisha train tragedy an interlocking or signaling failure? Former ICF GM explains

In any case, in its reply to the parliamentary standing committee, the Railways blamed the Seventh Pay Commission and the adverse impact of the Covid-19 pandemic for not contributing to the fund from internal resources. It also said the government has given an additional Rs 10,000 crore in 2021–22 for bridging the RRSK shortfall and that the “expenditure on safety related works has not been impacted”.

Internal accruals never enough

The shortfall in RRSK fund could well be a direct consequence of the Railways’ inability to earn enough by ferrying passengers and freight, year after year.

It is India’s single largest employer, with about 12.5 lakh employees on its books and 15.5 lakh former employees. The pension cost itself works out to be more than Rs. 50,000 crore every year, which is about a fourth of the Railways earnings.

In 2022–23, the Railways pegged internal resource generation at Rs 7,360 crore in BE, but by the RE stage, this estimate had been reduced to under Rs 3,000 crore. With such abysmal resource generation, allocating the required Rs 5,000 crore annually for RRSK is an impossible task.

A long list of safety measures

But in response to multiple queries, the Railways listed out myriad safety measures the ministry has taken over the years. These include track renewal and maintenance — 5,227 km of complete track renewal undertaken in 2022–23; modern track structure made available for two-thirds of broad gauge track length; advanced signalling system installed on 98 per cent of broad gauge routes; Kavach, a train collision avoidance system, provided on 1465 route km of South Central Railway. Kavach prevents collision between two locomotives if both are equipped with the system by controlling the speed of a train if it is either overspeeding or in a “collision-like situation”.

Though it is clear that the trains that collided were not equipped with Kavach, it is not clear whether it would have been at all possible to stop a fast-moving train at short notice even if Kavach was installed. The ministry has also said it now uses an electronic interlocking system, but there is no clarity on how many stations are at present equipped with this system.

Steady rise in consequential train accidents

The standing committee has said the number of consequential train accidents has increased as the funding of RRSK has not been adequate. The Railways classifies an accident as “consequential” when there is loss of life or injury, loss of railway property and disruption to traffic. In 2021–22, there were 35 such accidents, up from 22 in the previous fiscal. The number of deaths also rose to 17 last fiscal from four in 2020–21.

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