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Indian Railways is a mammoth organization that involves coordination and responsibility at multiple levels. Photo: Mint
Indian Railways is a mammoth organization that involves coordination and responsibility at multiple levels. Photo: Mint

Who is to blame for increasing derailments?

44% of derailments between 2012-13 and 2016-17 were due to failure of tracks, fittings

There have been nine incidents of train derailments in the past one month. The spate of accidents has increased anxiety among passengers and also generated a lot of political heat. What are the concrete facts though? Have train derailments been increasing? What is causing these accidents? Is it sabotage, human error or dilapidated infrastructure?

A NITI Aayog discussion note written by Bibek Debroy and Kishore Desai gives a useful summary of rail-accident statistics in the last four years to answer some of these questions.

Government data on rail accidents from 2012-13 to 2016-17 presents an intriguing picture. The total number of consequential rail accidents was the lowest in 2016-17. However, deaths per accident were the highest in the same year. The number of derailments has increased every year during this period. More people died in derailment accidents in 2016-17 than the total between 2012-13 and 2015-16.

What is the cause of these accidents? Indian Railways is a mammoth organization. Running trains involves coordination and responsibility at multiple levels. Responsibility is fixed for specific departments when an accident happens. According to Railway Board statistics, Engineering (Civil) Directorate had the highest share of responsibility for accidents between 2012-13 and 2016-17. What is alarming is, this share has been increasing continuously from 2012-13. 

The Engineering (Civil) Directorate is held responsible when accidents occur due to failings of tracks, fillings etc. Logically, this adds up with the increasing number of derailment accidents. Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, 44% of derailment accidents were due to the failure of the engineering directorate. Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, the highest share of derailments took place on broad gauge routes rated for the highest speed limits (up to 160 km/hour). Many of these routes have a capacity utilization of more than 100%.

One should not rush to blame poor quality infrastructure for the increasing number of accidents. Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, 47% of consequential rail accidents took place due to failure of railway staff. Less than 5% were due to equipment failure or sabotage.

“Human factor cannot be replaced no matter how much money is put in for safety. There is a need for increased vigilance," said a member of the Railway Board, requesting anonymity. The Twelfth report of the Standing Committee on Railways (2016-17) on ‘Safety and Security in Railways" had also underlined the need for taking corrective measures over lapses by the railway staff which include carelessness, poor maintenance, adoption of short-cuts, non-observance of safety rules.

One caveat should be kept in mind while looking at railway statistics on consequential train accidents. Under this category, the Railways only takes into account accidents that result from the running of the trains (collisions, derailments, etc). As an earlier Plainfacts column had shown, total accidents, including people falling on tracks, being run over by trains etc, as per the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) is much higher. In 2015, total deaths as per NCRB stood at 26,006.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley in the Union Budget this year announced a Rashtriya Rail Sanrakhsha Kosh with a corpus of trillion over a period of five years for passenger safety. For the current financial year, the central government will provide a sum of 5,000 crore under budgetary support and transfer from the Railway Safety Fund and the remaining 5,000 crore will be put in by the Railways’ internal sources and the Depreciation Reserve Fund. It is imperative that the fund is used to address both the potential of human error in train accidents as well as ensure replacement and up-gradation of infrastructure assets.

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