Indian Railways struggles to remain on track, staff shortage, low funds, poor safety plague behemoth

New Delhi: Three back-to-back train derailments in less than 12 hours paint a grim picture of the track safety of Indian Railways.

While the first derailment of Howrah-Jabalpur Shaktipunj Express took place near Sonbhadra in Uttar Pradesh at 6.15 am on Thursday, when seven coaches went off the track, the second one occurred in New Delhi in the afternoon. Two coaches of Ranchi Rajdhani Express derailed near Minto Bridge. No injuries were reported. But, that doesn’t help the railways breathe easy. It was sheer luck that a major mishap didn’t take place, as Minto Bridge is situated at the National Capital’s major commercial and residential hub of Barakhamba-Connaught Place area.

 Indian Railways struggles to remain on track, staff shortage, low funds, poor safety plague behemoth

File image of Utkal Express detailment. PTI

The third incident occurred in less than 12 hours of the first incident when two coaches of a goods train derailed near Khandala in Maharashtra.

Let’s not forget, prior to these three derailments in one day, two major derailments had occurred last month. The first one was of the Puri-Haridwar Utkal Express near Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh, which claimed 23 lives, followed by the derailment of Nagpur-Mumbai Duronto Express on 28 August. Several minor accidents occurred in between.

There seems to be no end to train accidents – almost one major or minor incident taking place every alternate day. Railway passengers’ safety has become a major concern. Replacement of railway minister Suresh Prabhu by Piyush Goyal, Railway Board chairman AK Mittal by Ashwini Lohani and suspension of a few railway officials happened consequently but nothing would deliver results unless the attitude of total disregard towards safety undergoes a sea change.

"Hope this time it’s not due to any sabotage by the ISI or any terrorist outfit! The track safety of Indian Railways has reached its nadir. Right from routine maintenance to the replacement of age-old tracks, nothing is happening," a former Railway Board chairman sarcastically remarked while speaking to Firstpost on the condition of anonymity.

"There’s acute shortage of staff members in the safety category. Due to the shortage of funds, the railways has not yet announced the results for the Group C recruitment. Safety is compromised due to lack of funds in the railways. There are outstanding technical experts both within railway service and the retired ones. An internal audit team could have been formed with them to look into the safety issues, but the railways ministry prefers to get experts from abroad, who hardly have any knowledge about our ground realities," the ex-chairman said.

The track safety problem is not just an infrastructure issue but there are several other factors which have added to the woes.

Manpower shortage

Indian Railways has been facing acute shortage of manpower, especially in the track safety category for quite some time, and the list is getting longer with the years passing by. Broadly, as on date, there are 1.80 lakh posts lying vacant in various departments across the railways.

"But, the most crucial is the shortage of about 70,000 trackmen which comprises gateman, key man, gang man, signaling staff, etc, meant for track safety. Every year nearly 40,000 employees retire and no fresh recruitment has been taking place. By December end, there will be an estimated shortage of 2.20 lakh. Railways has issued an order to fill up 1 lakh posts, but it will take two years to do so. The track safety department is functioning with less than half its manpower," Shiva Gopal Mishra, general secretary of All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) told Firstpost.

Material shortage

According to the engineering department of the railways and railway unions, shortage of materials is another key impediment in maintenance and upgrading of rail tracks.

A survey conducted by AIRF of Lucknow division revealed that the complete track renewal (CTR) of 247 km track in the division is long overdue. It’s not just the Lucknow division facing a crisis, the situation is more or less the same in 68 divisions.

"Against the demand, the supply of materials is extremely low. SAIL is the sole supplier of rail to Indian Railways but it’s able to meet only 25 percent of the demand. The procurement policy is defective. As a result, track maintenance, repairing of fractures and renewal of tracks, have virtually taken a back seat. Given the situation, the safety of tracks can’t be ensured and it won’t be surprising if accidents and derailments occur every day," said Mishra.

Cash crunch

Lack of financial resources is another bottleneck in track safety.

"It’s a vicious cycle. Getting adequate fund for track maintenance and renewal is a cumbersome task. Lack of funds has not only prevented recruitment of fresh staff in safety category but has delayed the upgradation of tracks over a long period. We brought up these issues with Prabhu and his predecessors as well as with Railway Board chairmen, but nothing happened. This step-motherly treatment with the railways by the government is unexplainable," said Mishra.

Burden on tracks

Populist measures like increasing the number of trains by successive governments have put an immense burden on rail tracks making the situation dangerous.

Addition of new trains during every budget, especially the superfast ones every year, with hardly any replacement of age-old rickety tracks, has made the existing rail network vulnerable to accidents.

A latest Parliamentary Standing Committee report on Safety and Security in Railways has mentioned that during 2015-16, out of 64 casualties in various types of train accidents, 36 (56 percent) were due to derailment.

The report has identified rail fracture, weld failure, track defects particularly in turnout areas, improper protection at work sites, rolling stock defects (wagon and coach defects) and signal passing at danger (SPAD) by loco pilots as the major causes of derailment.

What Kakodkar Committee report says?

Kakodkar Committee — a High-Level Safety Review Committee constituted in September 2011 under the chairmanship of nuclear scientist and former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, Anil Kakodkar — had painted a grim picture of Indian Railways plagued by inadequate performance largely due to poor infrastructure and resources, and lack of empowerment at the functional level.

The Kakodkar Committee report had observed, "Inadequate performance due to poor infrastructure and resources, financial state of Indian Railways is at the brink of collapse unless some concrete measures are taken and all safety margins have been squeezed. This has led to a neglect of infrastructure maintenance."

A new order

After taking over as the new Railway Minister Piyush Goyal has ordered quick replacement of old tracks and directed Railway Board officials to expedite procurement of new rails to complete laying of tracks which have been pending for a long time. Now with Lohani at the helm as the new Railway Board chairman, with a proven track record on his side, it needs to be seen whether Indian Railways succeeds in providing its passengers a safe travel.

Updated Date: Sep 08, 2017 16:30:47 IST



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