In the seven years between 2000 and 2007, 22 railway accidents occurred because signal systems operated by Indian Railways have failed train drivers.
In a reply to a Right To Information (RTI) application filed by Mint, the railways listed 862,463 incidents of signal failure between 1 April 2000 and 31 March 2007; of these, 22 caused accidents.
Although the railways refused to disclose how many people were killed in these accidents, Mint has independently assessed, from a senior signalling officer who was in service during the period, that the toll was likely about 100.
Track record: Railways have listed 862,463 incidents of signal failure between 1 April 2000 and 31 March 2007; 22 of these caused accidents. (Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
“India invests very little on improving signalling systems and we need to spend more in improving the system,” the now retired officer said, on condition of anonymity. “The railways is also facing an exodus of signal engineers which puts pressure on the existing staff.”
In all, about 1,500 rail accidents were reported during the seven-year period. This means that about 1.5% of accidents since the turn of the century in India were caused by the signals malfunctioning, also known as “unsafe-side signal failure” in railway jargon. More than 600 people have been killed, while 2,000 have been injured in railway accidents in the last seven years.
These statistics perhaps explain why, apart from the budgetary allocation, the ministry has more than doubled spending to Rs4,000 crore to upgrade signal systems in the country during the last six years through a special safety fund. The money has been largely spent on replacing ageing signal levers that are between 25 and 35 years old.
Otherwise, the railways allocates an average 5% of its investment for signalling and telecommunications; in the last fiscal year, such spending was Rs1,608 crore.
The RTI reply furnished by the Railway Board said that using non-standard and locally fabricated equipment—due to limited availability of supplies, ageing assets and delayed replacement, alongside mishandled equipment—have caused signal failures.
The board also said it had constituted a task force to study the problem.
But the board also seems to have called little public attention to the statistics on signal failures. Even the Commissionerate of Rail Safety (CRS), which is supposed to monitor major railway accidents and issue recommendations for preventive action to the railways, has not been briefed about the signal failures and consequent mishaps.
CRS chief Pranab Kumar Sen said the railways did not, for example, discuss signal failures during an annual meeting on rail safety. “The board has not sent us any report on signal failures so far. But if we are made aware that there is a problem in signalling, we will definitely focus on this during the next annual general meeting with the railway board,” said Sen.
When contacted, railway board member (traffic) V.N. Mathur said the railways had initiated a massive exercise of replacing aged assets, including signal systems. “Our accident rate has been coming down over the last few years and the number of signal failures, too, are not very high,” he said.
The problem is heightened due to a shortage of signal engineers, said Basudeb Acharia, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee for railways. According to Acharia, the railways has been unable to spend the allocation for improving signalling under the safety fund.
The Indian Railways signalling division provides its service to more than 7,000 railway stations and 11,000 trains run by the ministry. The railways uses advanced electrical signalling systems such as panel interlocking and route relay interlocking on its prime routes, such as Delhi–Mumbai. In these systems, the points and signals are operated from one integrated mechanism in a signal cabin, which features a display of the entire track layout with indications for sections that are occupied or free.
On other routes, the railways use less sophisticated electro-mechanical and mechanical signalling, which rely more on human involvement.
Some officers who have handled signalling in the ministry, said, on condition of anonymity, that there are other reasons for the accidents. According to these officers, about half of all mishaps due to signal failure are due to the pilferage of equipment by local people, especially in remote areas. Further, operators often fail to handle the equipment properly “in times of a crisis,” said an official with many years of experience in signalling. Only the rest is on account of equipment failure, he added.
Another experienced person who has handled signals said a key problem is that traffic department personnel continue to operate the signals—even though they are not as well trained in handling signalling emergencies as officers from the signals wing.
“In fact, as of now the signalling department personnel only maintain the equipment and it is the traffic personnel who man the signal equipment,” said one officer.
The Railway Board has yet to appoint a full-time board member from the signals department, despite the wing being the “soul” of the railways. This officer who has handled signalling, also said a signalling incident pertains to failure in any of the various equipment such as signal levers, track circuits, panel interlocking or route-relay interlocking (the last two are advanced electronic equipment used to set routes for trains). “In our experience only one in one lakh signal incidents cause a mishap but we have to be on our guard,” said this officer.
A former board official, also requesting anonymity, recounted that some annual meetings of general managers have discussed the display of incorrect lights on signals. This person added: “The consequences of such incidents can be horrific.”