Time for Indian Railways to put safety first

Political incentives and organizational structure contribute to a disregard for safety


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The number of people who died in train accidents in the country during 2014-15 was 118. This was a near three-time jump from 42 in 2013-14. These two figures put the recent tragedy—the derailment of the Indore-Patna Express on Sunday in Pukhrayan, Uttar Pradesh, killing more than 140—in perspective. The Union minister for railways, Suresh Prabhu, has ordered an inquiry by the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) and announced a “separate investigation involving technical and forensic analysis by an appropriate agency to look into all possible angles.”

These investigations will definitely yield substantial insights into what went wrong, but minister of state for railways Manoj Sinha has, based on early reports, said that a fracture in the rail might have caused this accident. One of the major causes of rail fractures is the heavy load on tracks. The Rakesh Mohan-led National Transport Development Policy Committee had identified, in its India Transport Report (2014), 141 out of 212 sections of high-density networks operating at a line-capacity utilization of over 100%. The tracks are therefore, the report observed, “strained to the breaking point” as the optimum line-capacity utilization for smooth operation of trains is 80% or below.

The problem may sound technical but is essentially political in nature. The political incentives are so aligned that the passenger tariffs are kept ridiculously low while new trains are constantly introduced, burdening the track infrastructure to unbearable levels. The low tariffs do not allow the passenger railways to recoup its losses and the resources available to enhance safety mechanisms remain minimal. The political incentives also come in the way of removing human encroachments on railway infrastructure—another source of casualties.

The other major problem with the Indian Railways is the slow pace of technology adoption. The Indore-Patna Express was travelling at a speed of 110km per hour—a speed at which the ICF coaches (manufactured in Integral Coach Factory, Chennai) are not safe due to lack of anti-climbing features. The high-level safety review committee chaired by Anil Kakodkar had recommended switching over from ICF to Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches in 2012. The task remains incomplete to this date. The LHB coaches have anti-climbing features which prevent the rolling stock from piling over each other in case of accidents, thus minimizing the number of casualties. Prabhu should ensure that the replacement of coaches is taken up at a mission mode.

A large number of train accidents are on account of human failure—115 of 131 train accidents in 2014-15 were attributed to this reason. The Indian Railways still depends on an army of trackmen for the maintenance of track infrastructure. In the backdrop of the recent accident, various efforts underway to incorporate technology to do this job must be accelerated.

The technological upgrade comes within the broader ambit of modernization of Indian Railways that has been taken up by this government. Under the “Swachh Rail-Swachh Bharat” programme, Prabhu is aiming to replace all the direct discharge toilets in the trains with eco-friendly bio-toilets by 2020-21. It will not just be good for hygiene but also for the safety of Indian Railways. The Kakodkar committee noted that the direct discharge of human waste “has several serious safety implications arising out of corrosion of rails and related hardware as well as poor maintenance of under carriage equipment due to inhuman unhygienic conditions.”

The organizational set-up of the Indian Railways is also not geared to prioritize safety concerns. The Kakodkar committee was right when it said that everyone in the Indian Railways is responsible for safety without safety being anybody’s baby in particular. The institution of CRS is independent—it is with the Union ministry of civil aviation—but is not empowered enough. The Indian Railways needs an empowered safety regulator which is not merely a part of the overarching regulator—safety as an objective should have precedence over other regulatory issues like non-discriminatory pricing and infrastructure access.

The organizational structure, however, is a symptom of the overall institutional disregard to the concept of safety. For instance, even the record-keeping practice excludes accidents of minor nature. The number of deaths are also undercounted as the casualties due to trespassing of railway tracks and casualties of Railways’ own staff while on duty are given the go-by. A large number of deaths occur at unmanned level crossings. While the government is now doing away with all such crossings, the speed leaves a lot to be desired.

The terrible accident on Sunday has been followed by various ex-gratia compensation announced by the railway minister, the Prime Minister and the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.

A government serious about safety of the railways should aim to stop the practice of ex-gratia payments altogether in the next few years, say by 2025. And accordingly, why not embrace a target of zero accidents, zero casualties by 2022? Prabhu should step up to the job.

How can Indian Railways improve passenger safety? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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