Railways vows to replace older Coaches after tragedy

80% of railway coaches unsafe. While the aged and less technologically advanced ICF coaches make up the bulk of the Indian Railways’ fleet; the shortage of 1.3 lakh staff under Safety category as on date add up to the worrying safety performance of Indian Railways!

accident-coachNew Delhi: Shaken from its slumber by the worst train accident in six years, the Railways has promised to step up production of modern Linke Holfmann Bush (LHB) coaches to replace old Integral Coach Factory (ICF) designed coaches and to resist the temptation of announcing new trains on overburdened routes.

While Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu yesterday announced “strictest possible action” against the guilty, and a thorough probe aided by the latest technical and forensic analysis into Sunday’s train accident near Kanpur, in which over 140 people were killed, he said said that the exercise to replace old coaches lacking crash-worthy features announced in the Railway Budget will also be expedited.

To be fair to the railways, the number of consequential train accidents has declined in recent years. An index used for measuring safety performance is the number of train accidents per million train kilometres. This figure has come down from 0.14 in 2010-11 to 0.09 in 2015-16. Although statistically the performance has improved, the public perception about railway safety is decided by the horrific images and loss of lives in a single accident, such as the one in Pukhrayan. However, the replacement of overaged assets must be an ongoing process. It is possible that the arrears of overaged assets requiring replacement have again begun to accumulate. The safety performance of the railways during the first six months of current financial year to the end of September is also worrying. The number of derailments during the period has been 46 as compared to 31 during the corresponding period of the previous year. There have also been four collisions, while there were none last year. The trend must be arrested.

A major factor in declining accident numbers was the decision taken by the previous NDA government in creating a Special Railway Safety Fund of Rs17,000 crore, through which over a seven-year period overaged railway assets were upgraded and replaced. This included rolling stock, signalling, track and electrical assets. The funds were well targeted, expenditure carefully monitored and performance improved.

The toll could have been much lesser had the Railways completely switched over to the manufacture of LHB coaches – which do not pile up unlike the earlier coaches in case of an accident -as suggested by the Anil Kakodkar panel on railway safety in 2012.

And that is where the government could be faced with a huge problem: over 80% of passenger trains in the country use the ‘old’ Integral Coach Factory (ICF) coaches. The Integral Coach Factory, located near Perambur, near Chennai, is one of the railways’ main coach production facilities. The coaches are made of mild steel (a less ductile material, heavier than stainless steel) which is less effective in protecting occupants in the event of a collision.

Making a suo moto statement yesterday, Prabhu said that old technology coaches lack the crash-worthy characteristics of modern coaches. “I had informed this House during the previous Railway Budget that such coaches will be progressively replaced and phased out. This will be expedited,” he said.

The Railway Board, which on Monday reviewed the safety of rail network and operations, also decided to increase the usage of ultrasonic flaw detection devices which are capable of data logging, saving and transferring scan to computers with the aim of improving the quality of rails and welds on tracks.

Poor track maintenance including lack of proper fittings and ballast on the rail lines caused fractures which seems to have been among the causes contributing to the accident according to initial findings.

Rail tracks have deteriorated as the Railways is running more and heavier trains to raise higher revenues.

The board decided to go for integrated planning of maintenance schedules which at present is done by different departments such as civil engineering, signal and telecom and electrical at different times which has resulted in delays and disruption of traffic.

The transporter has ignored Kakodkar panel’s suggestions that ICF coaches are a serious safety risk and its manufacturing must stop immediately. The panel had proposed funds to the tune of Rs 10,000 crore for complete switching over to LHB production in five years.

Even on Monday , the board chose not to immediately stop manufacturing of ICF coaches, but decided that new coaches will be fitted with a coupler which will have anticlimbing features and old ICF coaches will be retrofitted with this couplers.

The decision, which came after a tragedy of such magnitude, reflects on the Railways’ poor finances and lack of political will to manage funds for enhancing safety.

The Railways plan to replace the existing compartments on passenger trains with Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches. At the moment the Indian Railways only has around 10,000 LHB coaches out of a total of 60,000 passenger coaches. LHB coaches, which cost over Rs 2 crore, are safer and more crashworthy than ICF coaches. The coaches, which are made of stainless steel, are also equipped with disc brakes as opposed to ICF coaches that have a threadbrake system, which impacts their stopping distance. They can absorb the shock and impact of derailment more effectively than ICF compartments and, as a result, do not topple, thus reducing the loss of lives in case of an accident. The coupling system on LHB coaches reduces the relative motion between two compartments and also prevents one coach from ‘rising’ on the other in case of a mishap. LHBs also have better suspension, ride quality, significantly larger windows and sound reduction.

According to experts, LHB coaches are safer as compared to ICF coaches. “If we were to talk about this recent mishap, LHB coaches would have significantly reduced the number of casualties, ” said Subodh Jain, a former member (engineering) of the Railway Board and former general manager, Central Railway. Another former official said that replacing the coaches could take as much as eight to ten years.

The Railways had imported a set of coaches from Linke-Hoffman-Busch (now a part of Alstom) for testing and use in India in the late 1990s, and LHB coaches became popular once a few glitches were ironed out. Today, they are manufactured at the Rail Coach Factory, in Kapurthala, under a Transfer of Technology agreement.

The number of people India loses to train accidents every year could be directly linked to the huge shortage of frontline employees in the “safety category” of the Indian Railways — 1.27 lakh such posts remain vacant as of 2016.

The safety employees, who include trackmen, pointmen, patrolmen, technicians and station masters among others, are directly responsible for the safe running of our trains. And, this crippling shortage of the key force on the ground, experts and unions opine, imperils the lives of passengers.

This has also resulted in the overworking of existing workers, almost all of whom are toiling more than 15 hours a day — leaving enough room for mistakes that could result in grave incidents like the one on Sunday, which claimed more than 100 lives.

The railways, which has been more than enthusiastic in spending on ‘designer uniforms’ and other branding exercises, has exhibited nothing but apathy when it comes to filling up safety posts.

As of 2013, the number of such vacancies was 1.42 lakh and in three years, that has only reduced by about 19,500. According to information accessed from the ministry of railways, the national carrier has an overall shortage of 2.17 lakh employees. Of this, 56% or 1.27 lakh are in the safety category.

All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) general secretary Shiva Gopal Mishra said, “Where we need three patrolmen, we don’t even have one.”

A trackman, for example, says, “I work a 12-13 hour shift on any given day, and more in case somebody takes ill or on days of high maintenance. On an average any trackman needs to carry about 15-17 kg of equipment and we have to work whether it is raining or it is 42 degrees. We have no respite from harsh conditions and the least we hope is that the vacancies are filled up so that we at least get the deserved rest.”

Among the 18 railway divisions, the most such vacancies are in the northern division (14,442), followed by east central (10,034), south eastern (9,967) and central (9,910). The north central division, under whose jurisdiction Sunday’s tragedy occurred has a shortage of 9,223 safety employees.

Pointing out that the pressure is immense, a loco pilot, who did not want to be named, said, “Depending on the route and division, a locopilot could be driving continuously for 8-13 hours. The shortage affects us because we are all humans, we become sick, we get tired, and then mistakes can happen. When we have lives of so many people in our hands, you must understand the kind on pressure we work under.”

While the Railways officially maintains that it accords the highest priority to safety with measures like “replacement of overaged assets, adoption of suitable technologies for upgradation and maintenance of track, rolling stock, signaling and interlocking systems et al,” union members say that the sheer lack of people to implement all these is what is resulting in accidents.

A redeeming feature in this accident was the relief and rescue effort where different agencies such as the railway teams, state government authorities, the NDRF and police appear to have responded early and worked in close coordination.

However, this can be little consolation to families who have lost their near and dear ones.