Rationalising Train Schedules may be the Best Choice for Railways under the current constraints to ensure Safety

Within three days of taking over as the new railway minister, Piyush Goyal had to grapple with three derailments, that too in a span of 12 hours. Frequent rail accidents and causalities have eroded the public perception of train travel being safe, and unlike his predecessor Suresh Prabhu, Goel has about one and half years to achieve whatever is expected of him. Given the run-up to general elections 2019, the expectation from the railway minister is to make train travel safe, no more and no less.

This is not to say that Goel should abandon the visionary transformation initiatives of Prabhu, such as the establishment of non-fare box directorate, mobility directorate, world class station development through public private partnership, establishment of Rail Transport University, halting the production of ICF coaches once for all, retrofitting the existing ICF coaches with the safety features of LHB coaches to reduce fatalities during accidents, Mission Raftar for Delhi–Howrah and Delhi-Mumbai routes, Talgo trains, to name a few. He should take these initiatives forward to its logical conclusion.

But it would take more time to fructify and outcomes could be seen only during 2019-24 or beyond, So, the immediate task before Goel is to bring back public confidence in safe train travel. But is he going to ensure that?

A daunting task

The Modi government in 2014 inherited a dilapidated railway infrastructure from the previous governments and it would take even two decades to fix it completely. But, after being in power for three years, blaming the previous regimes for the sorry state affairs of Indian Railways (IR) cannot hold water with the electorate. In fact, what causes accidents and how they should be reduced have been elaborated in various reports, papers and articles. From this, one can conclude that there are at least two dimensions to accidents and fatalities. The first dimension is to avoid accidents altogether.

In the discussion note on Fund Deployment Framework for Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK), it was estimated that IR requires ₹1.54 lakh crore to carry out inter-departmental safety works, whereas RRSK funding provides ₹20,000 crore per year, which includes the budgetary support of ₹5,000 crore. At this rate, IR would take at least eight years to complete the inter-departmental safety works. Even if the entire ₹1.54 lakh crore is made available, the safety works cannot be completed in a year.

Reducing pain

The second dimension to safety is to reduce the casualties and injuries, once the accident has occurred. In November 2016, IR decided to stop manufacturing ICF coaches, which tends to raise casualities and injuries, by 2017.

However, the issue is much larger. About 50,000 passenger coaches of IR are ICF coaches, which constituted more than 95 per cent of the total coaches in IR. The Railways also made plans to retrofit all the ICF coaches with the safety provisions of LHB coaches.

However, the retrofitting would take years. Safe train travel and reduced casualties cannot wait till both these safety concerns are addressed by IR.

The maximum number of trains that can be run in a section depends on line capacity, the efficiency of signalling system, the speed of trains in that block.

However, about 65 per cent of the total railway network has been accommodating trains beyond their capacity. As a result, the maintenance staff does not get even two to three hours of uninterrupted window every day to carry out the maintenance work.

As a stop-gap arrangement, the NITI Aayog asked the Railways to redesign the time table in a manner that at least two to three hours of uninterrupted time is available for the maintenance staff to carry out safety checks for every block.

This includes combining few trains, increasing coaches or wagons and rationalising stops across all trains. However, a deeper understanding of how rail infrastructure is utilised by passenger and freight trains and how patronage for diverse types of passenger trains has been changing over the years would help here. It would throw light on how to rationalise the train time table.

Passenger trains (both ordinary trains and non-ordinary trains) and freight trains load rail infrastructure to the extent of about 67 per cent and 33 per cent respectively. IR ply about 2,800 non-ordinary trains (Express/Mail) with an average speed of about 56 kmph, which includes premium trains such as Rajdhani, Duronto and Shatabdi.

Most of the Mail/Express trains include overnight travel as they are meant for medium to long distance travel. In addition, IR ply about 2500 ordinary trains, which are essentially day trains of short to medium distance with an average speed of about 35 kmph.

An ordinary problem

The analysis of rail travel data shows that share of ordinary trains in passenger transport measured in Passenger Kilometer (PKM) decreased from 37.50 per cent in 2005-06 to 26.20 per cent in 2015-16. The North Central Railway and East Central Railway covering UP and Bihar witnessed a decline of 22.5 per cent and 18.5 per cent respectively in ordinary train travel between 2012-13 and 2015-16.

Given their average slow speed due to so many stoppages, ordinary trains load the rail network more than the passenger transport they carry.

The railway lines connecting Delhi and Howrah passing through the states of UP and Bihar are the most congested sections of IR. A substantial reduction in number of ordinary trains either by reducing the frequency or phasing out ordinary trains in this route would ease congestion. This would give an uninterrupted window between dawn to dusk for the maintenance staff. The same logic should be applied to other congested routes of IR in other zones.

The new railway minister does not have too many options to improve the safety of rail travel, given the time and fund constraints. Rationalising the schedule of ordinary trains on war footing may be the best choice for Goel under the current constraints to ensure safe train travel.