Safety standards derailed at Railways: 40 percent of 1,219 line sections of the Railways are utilised beyond 100 percent

After every train accident that takes away lives, it is natural for people to wonder how safe our trains are. The answer to this question is—not too safe. Excessive traffic and inadequate upgrading of infrastructure are the two main causes of train derailments due to track failures.

Congestion reduces headway, or the interval between two consecutive trains running on the same route, thus increasing the chances of collisions on very busy stretches. This also eats into the time available for maintenance, according to an IndiaSpend report in IANS.

Most of India’s high-traffic rail routes lie in the Gangetic plains, according to a 2012 paper on traffic flow along express train routes in the journal ‘Physica A’. Of the 11 major accidents due to derailment or collision in 2010, eight occurred in this region, the paper said.

“We found a correlation between the low headway during the busiest time of the day and collision accidents,” said Niloy Ganguly, co-author of the paper and a professor at IIT Kharagpur. On the overbusy Delhi-Kanpur segment, between midnight and 7 am, the busiest rail traffic hours, railway staff got just 13 minutes to check the tracks, according to the paper. The rest of the day, the headway would increase to an average of 19 minutes.

The railways has ramped up considerably its maintenance technology which is also quicker but insufficient headway remains a concern.

Saturation of a section makes it vulnerable to accidents. As much as 40 per cent of 1,219 line sections of the railways are utilised beyond 100 per cent, according to a February 2015 white paper. Technically, a section using more than 90 per cent of its capacity is considered saturated.

The number of trains keeps rising while the track length does not increase accordingly. Over the last 15 years, daily tally of passenger trains rose 56 per cent—from 8,520 in 2000-01 to 13,313 in 2015-16. The number of freight trains increased by 59 per cent in the same period. But the running track length for all these trains increased by only 12 per cent in that period—from 81,865 km to 92,081 km.

According to the ‘Physica A’ paper, rail traffic, especially in the Gangetic plains, is so excessive that if all trains were to travel in accordance with their schedule, then the present infrastructure would not be able to handle the resultant traffic flow.

The paper explains that this situation is managed by making many trains wait at signals, which results in frequent delays and also an increased possibility of collision in the event of human error.

India needs more railways tracks to decrease chances of collision. Two key projects launched in 2005 are the 1,504 km-long western dedicated freight corridor (DFC) and the 1,318 km-long eastern DFC, roughly corresponding to the overworked Mumbai-Delhi and Howrah-Delhi lines where the utilisation varies between 115 per cent and 150 per cent, according to the IndiaSpend report.

When commissioned, the new freight corridors will absorb 70 per cent of the existing freight traffic on those routes, significantly freeing up line capacity. They will also boost the speed of freight trains from 25 kmph—where it has stood over the last three decades—to 70 kmph, says the report.

Yet, Indian trains are safer than those in many European countries. India’s accidents per million train kilometres, a safety index, compares favourably with Europe’s. In India, this index has more or less declined over the last decade, reducing from 0.23 in 2006-07 to 0.10 in 2015-16. This figure is lower than that of France or Germany (both 0.17), the report says. Far higher speed of trains in Europe—250 km per hour—could be the reason for India’s better ranking in the index.

So, the big question is: Would these resignations improve the lot on Indian Railways? Theoretically it may but practically it is difficult. All of them are only technically responsible. None of them in reality run the organisation, except conceptually. So if any improvement takes place with the changes it would only be accidental.

The trains are managed and run on the tracks by people at control, other operational staff, including Station and Assistant Station Masters (ASM), and the crucial gangmen, who are the hands, eyes and ears of railway safety. The human errors that often are blamed happen at these lower levels.

Are they inefficient? Absolutely not! The operational staff in the traffic, ASMs and the staff below them is the most efficient. They are kingpin of railway safety. It is for them that over 95 per cent of the trains across 17 zones and running track over a route of 66,687 km and a total track of 119,630 km with 7216 stations, run almost to around 95 per cent accuracy. It is the world’s biggest rail network. The leaders at the top matter marginally. The unsung heroes bear the brunt of punishment but are rarely appreciated.

The Utkal-Kalinga Express accident at Khatauli apparently happened as the railway operational staff was put under pressure to run trains at high speed while ignoring safety fundamentals. It is unheard of that when the track maintenance staff demands a 15-minute block – stoppage of traffic – the control unwisely refuses it.

The enquiry is not about human lapse to find out why this block was refused and a train at a speed of 100km was allowed to pass through virtually un-mended track but to spot the responsibility on who or what circulars of Railway Board or member, Traffic led to such disastrous consequence.

The gangmen are experienced people, they use such jugaad — putting a small rail piece to cover broken portions often but that is for just passing a train at dead speed. At Khatauli, this was used to pass a train at high speed. Surprisingly even the station master, responsible for clearing the green signal, and others were not aware of this maintenance. That also calls for probe.

No less surprising was the accident next day of the Azamgarh-Delhi Kaifiyat Express hitting an overturned dumper that was carrying material for building a new rail track. The lapses here too are obvious. How on such a busy track, almost a train following another in 90 seconds, a vehicle was allowed to cross the track without basic safety procedures and information to control and the nearest stations?

The approach is fine. But the improvements that the system is looking for require minimum investment and improving coordination. Often it is said that the gangmen are illiterate.

One reason is stated to be the inadequate number of gangmen and their long working hours often because of lack of replacement due to shortage of staff. Yes, the railways need to put more people at this level to maintain tracks. It is often now being compromised. They are the least paid but have the highest value for safety of operations. So saving on this crucial component is penny wise.

Former additional member safety of Railway Board, Kamlesh Gupta after the 2016 Indore-Patna train tragedy commented that the accident was due to rail fractures, which is very difficult to detect. Another reason for high casualty is stated to be the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) coaches, which are said to pile up on collision as in the Khatauli accident.

The Anil Kakodkar committee suggested stainless steel Linke Hoffman Busch (LHB) coaches, which have more efficient shock absorption capacity. The railways have always been crying of lack of finances. But recent figures show that railways earn more, over 60 per cent from cancellation and dynamic fare structure. It means they earn for not giving any service and playing on psyche of shortage of berths.

The operating ratio of IR was high, at 93.6 per cent in 2013-14. There was a spike in 2009-10, from 75.9 per cent to 95.3 per cent, due to the Sixth Pay Commission. Staff costs comprise 54.5 per cent of the total expenses. There is something fundamentally wrong in railway accounting. The fare in many cases equal or surpasses the air fare.

The Railways need to revamp its internal mechanism, appoint more people at the track operation level, increase coordination to keep the tracks safe. Funds are needed but it is not the culprit for most of the rail accidents.