Has Corrupt Bureaucracy at Zonal level eroded Rail Safety?

53% of 586 train accidents in last 5 yrs due to derailments. Less than 40% spend of the Rail Safety Fund by Zonal Railways for Safety Upgrade seems to be one of the biggest reason apart from corrupt Bureaucracy that eroded Rail Safety – an important task which is not a Rocket Science. Lack of determination and willingness to set proper practices in place and the lack of professional approach in meeting Safety Norms by few Officials at Zonal level is the cause of concern; leave alone the Laxity in Bureaucracy!

(The writer is Secretary, Consumer Protection Council, Tamil Nadu. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own).

Muzaffarnagar: The death of 23 passengers due to the derailment of the Haridwar-bound Utkal Express on 19 August is yet another instance of callousness of our Railways. This is not a one-off incident. Seventy derailments were reported in 2016, and almost 30 more have been reported this year. Derailment of goods trains and incidents with no casualty are hardly ever covered by the media.

Even when passengers escape death, frequent derailments are not a good sign. If anything, it shows that either the wheels are worn out or there is some mechanical failure. Nearly 53 per cent of the 586 train accidents in the last five years were due to derailments with the Utkal Express derailment being the latest. Notwithstanding the railways’ attempts to upgrade the safety apparatus, many such accidents continue to occur.

According to official figures, of a total of 586 rail accidents in the last five years, nearly 53 per cent were due to derailments.

Since November 2014, there have been 20 rail accidents, many of them minor.

The worst accident was the November 20, 2016, derailment of the Indore-Patna Express near Kanpur which resulted in 150 deaths and over 150 injuries.

The train pulled out of Pukhrayan station, on the outskirts of Kanpur, and derailed soon after. Several causes, including overcrowding and fracture in the railway line, were attributed to the accident.

On September 12, 2015, a narrow-gauge train, the Shivalik Queen, a chartered train from Kalka to Shimla, derailed on September 12, 2015.

36 British tourists and a tour guide were on the train. Two of the tourists died in the accident and 15 were injured.

Nine coaches of the Secunderabad Junction-Mumbai Lokmanya Tilak Terminus Duronto Express derailed near Karnataka’s Kalburgi town on September 12, 2015, resulting in two deaths and seven injuries.

On January 21, 40 passengers were killed and several injured when seven coaches and the engine of 18448 Jagadalpur-Bhubaneswar Hirakhand Express derailed near Kuneru railway station.

The Madhya Pradesh twin train derailments happened on August 4, 2015, when the Kamayani Express, on its way to Varanasi in UP, was the first to derail owing to flash floods in the area, followed by the Janata Express. The total casualty was 31 with over 100 injured.

The Rourkela-Jammu Tawi Muri Express derailed in Kaushambi district of Uttar Pradesh on May 25, 2015. Eight bogies of the train derailed, leaving five dead and over 50 injured.

On March 20, 2015, the Dehradun-Varanasi Janata Express derailed in Rae Bareli district resulted in the death of 58 passengers and injuring over 150.

On February 13, 2015, 10 people were killed and around 150 were injured when nine bogies of the Bangalore-Ernakulam Intercity Express derailed on the outskirts of Bengaluru.

Placing the Blame Without Proof

In some cases, even though sabotage is hinted at, the claims are not backed by proof. The sabotage angle is thrown in and by the time the enquiry is over, no one gets to read the report.

In a recent accident in Kanpur on 20 November, the Railways department immediately blamed the fractured tracks, without showing a photograph or any concrete proof. Later on 28 January, a Railway Safety Commission official ruled out sabotage and fog, fixing the blame instead on overaged wheels.

Funds Meant for Safety Misused

The amount, Rs 1 lakh crore, given to Railways for enhancing safety could now be misused — just as the Safety Fund created by Nitish Kumar was misused. The money will be spent on laying new lines and gauge conversion which should ideally come under capital expenditure. Hardly 30 percent would be spent on signal improvement, maintenance and technology upgradation, such as the remote checking of trains.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee report on the action taken on its recommendations says (SCR 188 2013-14) that less than 40 percent of the money allotted for safety had been utilised by the Railways!

Mr Suresh Prabhu has an onerous job of utilising this fund for its original purpose. One can hope a number of distressed bridges, old tracks, out of date signalling systems, and other safety enhancement devices are replaced using the Safety Fund.

A Long Pending Technology Overhaul

If you read the previous ten Railway budgets, you can find references to projects like anti-collision device, advance warning system, satellite-based global positioning system, train collision avoidance system, train protection warning system, fire-retardant coaches, vigilance control device, auxiliary warning system, self-propelled ultrasonic rail testing cars (for flaw detection). However, these are still pilot projects.

If you let them, the department will invent phrases for another ten budgets. It feasts on the ignorance of public, and an absence of overall accountability.

Railways would not install scoot and flash devices at unmanned level crossings, but they would appoint people (to generate a source of income) to close the gates. Several gatemen had been found sleeping or absent while accidents happened.

It is not true that more money means more safety. Most of the accidents have been caused by human errors, and this is the result of poor training and wrong recruitment policies. With no change in these, merely pumping more money will not make rail travel safer.

The Department Does Not Listen

For years, the suggestions that every coach must have a fire extinguisher (in SL too), engines must have fog lights (at least two accidents during every fog season), and that they must have helicopters at every zonal or even divisional HQ for quick relief during accidents, have fallen on deaf ears.

It is the height of callousness that the rescue team arrived at the Utkal train accident site on Saturday without a search light. They think it is cheaper to pay compensation than take better safety measures. After an accident on 13 February, a passenger had to walk 4 kilometres just to inform the authorities.

The Railways’ responsibility to transport passengers safely is now only a moral obligation. It must be made a legal one. Canadian railway safety management system regulations and their Safe and Accountable Rail Act ensures accountability are worthy of emulation.

Railway Safety is Not Rocket Science

An independent committee must be entrusted with the money and the plans to implement them. The Chief Vigilance Commissioner has said that corruption is on the rise in the Railways (4 August 2015 in the Times of India). This only goes on to show how far beyond accountability the railway bureaucracy actually is.

Efficiency has not increased even by one percent, as the Bibek Debroy Committee pointed out. Railway Safety Commission should be truly made independent by appointing engineers from outside the department. Although for namesake, this Safety Commission is attached to Civil Aviation Ministry, it is manned by Railway men on deputation.

Can you, trust them any longer? It is high time this monolithic structure is broken down to create five PSUs. They should have technocrats, industrialists, and financial analysts from outside on the Board which is now limited to employees. The self-serving, corrupt bureaucracy is the built-in danger.

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