The disturbing state of train safety in India, in 4 charts

Drone view of a rescue operation after three trains that collided with each other resulting to a major accident in which at least 261 passengers lost their lives (ANI)
Drone view of a rescue operation after three trains that collided with each other resulting to a major accident in which at least 261 passengers lost their lives (ANI)


The recent train accident in Odisha's Balasore has once again brought into focus the issue of train safety in India. We look into the organisational structure of one of the world's largest transportation companies to untangle the complex process of inquiries into train accidents.

After the tragic Odisha train crash, the focus has now moved from rescue operations to investigation. But if official documents are anything to go by, the Indian Railways’ record in some aspects of investigation into accidents and giving final touches to the process appears to be dismal.

In this case, a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is under way at the railway ministry’s request. But a CBI probe is unusual. Serious accidents are typically looked into by the Commission of Railway Safety (CRS), which falls under the ministry of civil aviation. Other accidents go to senior railway officials based on severity. Inquiries are primarily meant to “ascertain the cause" and to “formulate proposals for preventing a recurrence". CRS inquiries should be finalized within six months. But there’s no deadline for an important step: the ministry’s final action-taken report (ATR) based on the CRS’ recommendations.

Train accidents inquiry process
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Train accidents inquiry process

The CRS has often complained of pending ATRs, including one for an accident dating back to 2013-14. In December 2022, the parliamentary panel for transport observed that such “inordinate delay...makes the whole effort of accident investigations fruitless".

An email sent to the railways’ media wing remained unanswered till press time. According to the CRS, the ministry explains the delay by citing “deliberation at various levels". The ministry acknowledged to the parliamentary panel that a deadline was vital as delayed implementation of recommendations was “not desirable" for public safety. However, to the Railways’ credit, when it does submit the ATR, it has a track record of accepting around 90% of the CRS’ recommendations for improvements.

Off the Tracks

Derailments are the most common of train accidents. The one on 2 June was likely caused by a signalling issue, but the most common reason relates to rail tracks.

A 2022 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audited 1,129 derailment inquiries from 2017 to 2021, and attributed 422 cases to the engineering department, with “(poor) maintenance of tracks" (171 cases) being the most common reason. The CAG observed that track inspections were not being done frequently enough in some zones. Notably, the report concluded that “deficiencies in setting up a foolproof system of learning from past mistakes" restricted Railways’ ability to prevent derailments.

A government white paper in 2015 pointed out that 4,500 km of tracks should ideally be renewed per year, but the aim was rarely met due to financial constraints. However, the figure has improved in recent years.

Funding Crunch

No doubt, the capital outlays for the Railways have seen a sharp rise overall in recent years. However, human resource constraints and less-than-optimum utilization of funding for safety still plagues the Railways. The government created a dedicated fund named Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) in 2017-18 with an annual outlay of 20,000 crore for five years, for critical safety-related works such as track renewals, work related to signalling and telecommunications and replenishing rolling stock. However, the fund remains underutilized, with only close to 72,000 crore being spent over a six-year period. Excluding 2021-22, the fund has not met its yearly funding target even once. The budgeted expenditure on RRSK for the current fiscal is 10,000 crore. The Railways is also running a critical staff shortage of over 300,000, with maximum shortage in Group C staff, as per a reply by the ministry in the Lok Sabha earlier this year.

Silver Lining


Despite the constraints, the Railways has made massive strides in reducing accidents. The number of train accidents has fallen from around 800 per year in the 1970s to around 100 in the 2010s. Advancements in technology made this possible. The electronic interlocking system, which was in the news in the context of the recent train accident, is being adopted at a large scale to enhance safety through digital means. The Railways is also adopting an automatic train protection system called Kavach that helps locomotive pilots navigate during challenging circumstances. The construction of road over- and under-bridges and level crossings has seen steady increase in funding, with an allotment of 8,100 crore in 2023-24, an increase of 20% from the previous year’s spending.

All said, as the Odisha accident shows, more forces must come together to make trains safer and to ensure zero deaths.

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