Utkal Express derailment: The rot in Indian Railways runs deep, can't be fixed with token action against a few

It is now clear that the Utkal Express derailment that snuffed out 23 lives and injured nearly a hundred was caused by a combination of criminal negligence and systemic failure. The railways has done a preliminary internal assessment which suggests that repair work was underway on a portion of the track near Khatauli town in Muzaffarnagar district when the train approached at full steam.

The derailment forced 14 bogeys off track. Eyewitnesses say some of those were airborne due to the impact. The question is, how could a train travelling at over 100 kmph run onto a track undergoing "routine maintenance work," bypassing an elaborate system of checks and balances? It hints at a complete breakdown of communication.

File image of the Utkal Express derailment. PTI

File image of the Utkal Express derailment. PTI

An audio clip, which has gone viral on social media, records the purported conversation of two railway officials discussing the tragedy. What comes out of the unverified exchange is that workers were negligent in fixing a part of the track post welding and the driver of oncoming Puri-Haridwar Utkal Express was not alerted to the danger by way of any signals, signboards or flags.

If this smacks of negligence, there is more. Let's look at a few media reports.

A railway ministry official confirmed to The Hindu that repair work was indeed being carried out but there were lapses at "multiple levels" including not taking of due permission. "Nobody is authorised to open the rail track without taking a (traffic) block and that too in the face of a running train — it is criminal. They started maintaining the track without the block," the official told the newspaper.

Muzaffarnagar station master Neeraj Sharma told The Indian Express that the monitor on his screen should have flashed red if maintenance work was going on near Khatauli but all he saw was green dots and assumed that "the track from Khatauli railway station was clear." The newspaper also quotes a few local residents in saying that a similar tragedy was narrowly averted in June when a local school employee used a red shirt to warn an oncoming train of cracks in the track ahead.

The Times of India reported of another narrow escape on Sunday when passengers of Tundla-Delhi MEMU alerted the staff of billowing smoke from a motor room near Chamrola Station.

Railway minister Suresh Prabhu is a technocrat who had built a reputation for efficiency as a Union minister for power in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's cabinet. In taking over the railway portfolio, he seems to be proving the axiomatic truth of Peter Principle. His honest effort notwithstanding, the magnitude of the problem is getting the better of him.

Prabhu has so far been unable to implement all recommendations of the 2012 Anil Kakodkar Committee. Among other suggestions, the high-level safety review panel had recommended the setting up of a statutory Railway Safety Authority, the abolition of both manned and unmanned level crossings, adoption of European-standard Advanced Signalling System within five years at a cost of Rs 20,000 crore and another Rs 20,000 crore towards the upkeep of infrastructure. The committee also advised urgent filling up of vacant posts.

In the wondrous ways of Indian democracy, even as youths remain jobless, critical positions continue to remain vacant in behemoths like the Indian Railways that ferries 23 million passengers and 1101 million tons of freight traffic daily. How does this affect public safety? Let's have a look.

Quoting a report by Niti Aayog, minister of state for railways Rajen Gohain told the Lok Sabha last June that in the last five years (2012-13 to 2016-17) out of a total of 586 accidents, 308 (or 53 percent) were due to derailments.

A parliamentary standing committee report presented last year finds that out of 1,517 train accidents during the period of 2003-04 to 2015-16, a staggering 1,197 were due to derailments (See Table 1). The full report can be accessed here.

The high incidence of derailments points to a rot in the system, the reasons for which are not unknown. As Hindustan Times points out quoting a member of the Indian Railways Loco Running Men Organisation (IRLRO), "While technology and funding issues are there, the big problem is that adequate time to carry out routine maintenance of tracks is never available as loco pilots (train drivers) are under stress to run more trains in lesser time".

Lack of financial and human capital resources is forcing the railway authorities to take shortcuts, consequently increasing the chance of accidents. Showing a marginal decrease in the number of accidents in the last two years — 107 in 2015-16 and 104 in 2016-17 (till 30 July) compared to 135 in 2014-15 — the Ministry of Railways has claimed that Prabhu's "mission zero accident" is slowly fructifying but the basis behind these claims are unsound.

Indian Railways continue to suffer from lack of funds and overcapacity and unless these chronic issues remain unaddressed, cosmetic actions won't prevent accidents. In a fit of anger and under fire from the Opposition, Prabhu has sent three high-ranking bureaucrats on leave and suspended four officials. But it is unclear how these will help in solving the real issue when over 40 percent railways tracks are in urgent need of repair.

The 2015 White Paper, commissioned by Prabhu shortly after he assumed responsibility, had pointed out that 40 percent of a total 1,219 sections are running at 100 percent or above 'line capacity'. The White Paper had also pointed out that in the last 64 years while the freight loading has grown by 1,344 percent and passenger kilometres by 1,642 percent, the Route kilometres have grown by only 23 percent.

Two years since the tabling of that paper, we find Prabhu still struggling for funds, straining to look beyond extra-budgetary resources. An amount of one lakh crore has been allotted for safety measures including the upgrade and maintenance of tracks, but unless more stress is laid on the non-sexy areas of governance such as fixing accountability, filling up vacant posts and rooting out corruption, the spending of money won't translate to tangible improvement in railways' health.

Updated Date: Aug 22, 2017 06:30 AM

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