Odisha train accident
Besides human error, the lack of enough budgetary allocation, privatisation of track maintenance work, and sluggish installation of safety systems have led to one of the worst disasters of Indian Railways

Time for safety culture change and systems upgrade in Indian Railways

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While it is no comfort for those killed or injured in the train accident at Balasore and their families, collisions and derailments have been declining on the Indian Railways since the turn of this century.

But low numbers do not preclude the possibility of disasters due to the human element, which is still decisive in much of the network. Accidents also happen because standard operating procedures are not followed in letter and spirit, says a former Southern Railway station master who did not want to be named. That is why a high-level safety review committee had recommended in 2012 that European standard signalling and train protection systems should be installed on the high-density broad-gauge network at a substantial cost.

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Decline in collisions

There were 30 collisions in 2001-02, 16 a year later, and 13 each in two years thereafter in that decade, according to the Railways. These are now in single digits. Derailments are higher, though even their numbers have fallen from 279 in 2001-02 to double digits. There were 40 derailments in 2019-20, before the COVID pandemic enforced immobility, and 46 the previous year. Level-crossing accidents have also declined considerably. There were 20 in 2016-17, 13 a year later and just one in 2021-22.

The number of passengers killed and injured between 2015-16 and 2019-20 (before COVID flare up) was 279 and 816 respectively. The corresponding casualties between 2001-02 and 2005-06 were 558 and 2,101.

One reason for improved safety is the track circuiting of stations. This was achieved in 2014 at all suburban train stations and stations on A and B routes with speed limits of 160 kmph and 130 kmph. As of last year, most of the stations on the other high-density routes – Special D and Special E – with permitted speed of or up to 100 kmph were also covered. In such station sections, once a train occupies a track another cannot enter it till it vacates.

The other reason is the decision not to have new level crossings and to man the unmanned ones. There were a little over 30,000 level crossings in 2013-14; there are 19,500 now. The share of manned ones has increased from 62 percent to 96 percent. There are no unmanned level crossings on broad gauge routes. Even manned ones are being replaced with overbridges or underpasses. In 2021-22, more than 800 of them were eliminated.

Trains are now enabled to operate in foggy conditions. This was not the case when the high-level safety review committee headed by space scientist Anil Kakodkar gave its report.

Analysis: Lessons learnt from Odisha train accident: Upgraded tracks, decongestion of railway lines must

Separate safety architecture 

But fewer does not mean less lethal. Between a minor incident and a disaster, it is chance that mediates. Accidents can happen beyond the sections where signalling is not automated. They can happen within them too, when prescribed procedures are not strictly adhered to. The high-level committee noted that collisions were often the result of drivers crossing the red signal or driving beyond the permitted speed. The station master mentioned above said protocols are violated during maintenance. Staff are under pressure not to detain trains. They are upbraided or even punished if they do.

Sticklers for rules are regarded as obstructive. The procedure for manually over-riding the automatic signals is time taking. So unauthorised short cuts are made, resulting in accidents. When an accident happens, the tendency is not to inquire how it could have been averted, but for one department to shift blame to another.

The Kakodkar committee had therefore called for a separate safety architecture comprising a statutory Railway Safety Authority which could intervene in operations if safety was compromised. Railway Minster Dinesh Trivedi had promised one in his budget speech of 2012, but he was replaced before he could implement the decision. The commissioners of railway safety, the committee said, are supposed to be safety watchdogs but have “negligible” role at the operational level.

The committee also reviewed the progress in installing anti-collision devices (ACDs) developed by Rajaram Bojji, the former managing director of Konkan Railway Corporation (KRCL), and introduced in the Indian Railways in 2000. Though extensively tested and fitted on about 550 locos operating in the Northeast Frontier Railway and KRCL, they have not been deployed on trains in the rest of the network.

The committee said there were issues with the devices that needed technological fixes. But off-the track sensing of loco positions with GPS was a promising concept, it said. It ticked off the Railways for not doing an earnest job of improving them. (In March 2022, another version called Kavach was successfully tested between two stations near Hyderabad and have been fitted on 1,455 km on South Central Railway).

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Continuous train circuiting

The Indian Railways not only need a signalling and warning system that prevents accidents but also enables high-frequency train movement with very short intervals. The committee recommended that the 19,000 km broad-gauge network should have continuous train circuiting. The systems should be of proven European design but tailored for Indian needs. In such a system, train movements control the signals and vice versa in a closed loop.

This would cost Rs 50,000 crore over five years, but the cost would be recovered from higher volumes of passenger and freight traffic that it would enable. Currently, the Delhi-Agra section where Gatiman trains run at 160 kmph have this system.

The declining trend of accidents and casualties on Indian Railways tells only a partial story. It does not include accidents that happen at crossings, people who fall off trains, especially in the Mumbai suburban or those who get killed on the tracks. (The committee described these deaths as a “massacre” which no civilised society would tolerate).

As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 1,01,502 persons were killed in railway accidents between 2017 and 2021. About 1,800 persons lost life at railway crossings in 2021. That number was a whisker less than 6,000 in the previous four years. A large number of railway employees also die in the course of duty. The Kakodkar committee put that number at 1,624 killed and 8,708 injured between April 2018 and October 2011. (The railways do not publish these figures).

With railway finances weak and much of the revenue eaten up by staff salaries and pensions, its capacity to invest in safety is poor. The Balasore tragedy should compel the Central government to pick the tab.

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