Railway Accidents in India

Context

A month ago, Kalindi Express got derailed at the Tundla Junction adding to the long list of train accidents over the last six months.God forbid there were no casualties or injuries in this incident unlike Kanpur incident a month before that by the derailment of Indore-Patna express but increasing number of such unfortunate incidents is distressing and raises concerns of passenger safety.

Introduction

Accidents can take place anywhere. Even the most advanced technology can’t ensure accident free and hundred percent safe working conditions. Accidents if they are truly ‘accidents’ in a real sense can’t make any particular person responsible. What is required in any true accident is a scientific investigation into it, to find out the reasons and take necessary remedies to avoid recurrence of such incidents.

What are the reasons for the accidents in India?

  1. Poor Rolling stock:

Most of the railway accidents in India take place in trains categorised as non-VIP ones by which mostly the poor travel, and not the Rajdhani, Duronto, Shatabdi, etc. This is not to mean that they are absolutely safe, but the difference is in the equality of rolling stock, namely locomotives, such trains are equipped with the Linke Hoffman Busch (LHB) coaches and better monitoring of the tracks is done before such trains pass on them.

  1. Negligence of the Government: 

There were three high-level committees constituted on the Railways constituted recently-

  • Sam Pitroda Committee on Modernization of Railways
  • Anil Kakodkar Committee on Railway Safety review.
  • Bibek Debroy Committee on Restructuring of Railways

All of those reports are lying dormant and recommendations un-implemented.

Successive governments are to be blamed, which have used the Indian railways as a political tool, just to announce new trains to their respective constituencies rather than using it as an asset for transporting people and freight and adding to the GDP.

  1. Lack of Funds:
  • Former Railways minister says that Railways is on the verge of the bankruptcy.
  • Though Indian railways is still one of the best organisations in the world with the most talented people like E Sreedharan and several stalwarts, but the organisation is being systematically damaged by successive governments because of the lack of understanding of this organisation’s potential and starving it of the cash.
  • The Depreciation Reserve Fund (DRF) and Development Fund are getting depleted.
  • It is estimated that we need about 25000 crores every year to replace old assets, and provision for DRF from the budget is mere 3200 crores.

What should be done now?

Railways have got some new found enthusiasm in the name of Suresh Prabhu, but the focus of the issue so far as appeared in the media has been on the peripheral issues like WiFi, redevelopment of stations, consumer complaints, catering and IRCTC.

Indian Railways need a generational change, and the entire emphasis as railway minister should be “Safety, safety and safety.”

We need not go too far to need to know what should be done but just look at the recommendations made by the several committees constituted by the government itself in the case.

  1. Sam Pitroda Committee

The Pitroda Committee strongly recommended the “mission mode” approach for 15 focus areas with clear objectives, measurable milestones, tangible deliveries and well-defined timelines.

Some of the parts and parcels of the report focussed on the below measures:

  • Modernisation of 19,000 km of existing tracks.
  • Strengthening of 11,250 bridges to sustain higher load at higher speed.
  • Eliminating all level crossings Implementation of automatic block signalling on major routes;
  • A centralized train monitoring system right from Rail Bhavan.
  • Deployment of on board train protection system with cab signalling on all other routes. GSM-based mobile train control communication system;
  • Stress on complete up-gradation of railway’s communication system
  • Commercialization of surplus land to generate additional revenue for railways.
  • Implementing the track occupancy and mobile train radio communication (MTRC) for seamless communication.
  • Substantial hike in Gross Budgetary Support to sustain the modernization drive.
  • Railways should venture into captive power generation through the PPP route
  • Effectively commercialize land and air space to mobilize Rs 50,000 crore.

PRS- Pitroda committee Report Summary Link

  1. Bibek Debroy Committee focussed on the mobilization of resources for major railway projects and restructuring of Railway Ministry and Railway Board.
    1. Bringing private sector participation
    2. Need for independent regulator
    3. The Committee has observed that, a part from its core function of running trains, Railways also engages in peripheral activities such as running schools, hospitals and a police force. It is expected that these various zones and divisions within the Railways will face increasing competition in the future. To enable themselves to compete effectively, they will need to reduce costs on these non-core activities that are non-remunerative in nature and instead improve the efficiency of running trains by greater resource allocation to this function. Non-core activities can be outsourced to private entities. An example cited by the Committee is that of subsidization of education and medical facilities in alternative schools and hospitals respectively, including the private institutions.

PRS- Bibek Debroy Committee Report Summary

  1. Anil Kakodkar Committee
    1. In the present situation, the three vital functions (rule-making, operations and the 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.
    2. The Research Design and Standards Organization (RDSO), the apex technical wing of the Railways, is highly constrained. This has hampered the ability of the system to internalize emerging technologies. The Committee recommends restructuring of RDSO for greater empowerment. It also recommends that a Railway Research and Development Council (RRDC) be set up directly under the government.
    3. The Committee recommends the adoption of an Advanced Signalling System (akin to the European Train Control System) for the entire trunk route length of 19,000 km within 5 years. This is estimated to cost Rs 20,000 crore.

Report Summary:

Conclusion

In 2016-17 budget Suresh Prabhu promised all zonal railways would have ultrasound flaw detection machines to test track quality. This needs to be done rapidly.

Indian railways need to be benchmarked to Japanese Railways System Shinkansen which since 1964 has been carrying millions of passengers with zero fatality.

For all this to be done, the government needs a massive investment programme apart from relying on revenue from the railway’s internal generation. This investment will not only save precious lives, it will give handsome dividends to the GDP. It’s time we change the definition of the railways from a “commercial organisation” to a “basic infrastructure provider”. 

<<The article was originally written by me for ForumIAS>>
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