In Depth

Is Indian Railways the most unsafe mode of public transportation?

OPINION: Is Indian Railways the most unsafe mode of public transportation? Given that millions of Indians travel by the state owned Indian Railways every day of the year, that has to be a question going through many minds as they, without any other alternative in sight, once again put their trust the notably shaky system that sees about 100 accidents annually!

Over recent years, Indian Railways has claimed safety is one of its main focuses. Unfortunately, this has not been borne out by facts. Each time an accident happens, the authorities promise an investigation. Whatever the result of those inquiries, the spate of accidents seems endless.

Since 2012, six of every 10 rail accidents in India have happened because of mistakes by or the negligence of railway staff, reported a study by NITI Aayog.

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The reasons of railway accidents can be manifold. It could range from seemingly minor actions like an incorrect signal, or acts of negligence, or compromised tracks – but these could result in fatalities.

In the year to 31 March 2017, 66 of 104 consequential rail accidents were attributed to failure of railway staff according to Indian Railways data.

An obvious reason is the shortage of railway safety staff. According to the railways itself, there’s the 16% shortage in safety staff. As of 1 April, 2017 the total number of vacancies in safety staff was around 124,201. The Indian Railways still depends on an army of trackmen for the maintenance of track infrastructure, and despite claims, little technology informs this process.

Of course, the Indian Railways is stretched to capacity. Even though Indians at large remain sceptical about the safety record of the railways, there has been a gradual improvement in the safety records. In the last one decade the figure for accidents per million train kilometres, the international standard to measure performance of railways, is down from 0.23 to 0.9 according to an Indian Railways spokesperson.

z The total track length of network is 119,640 km (74,340 mi) while the total route length of the network is 66,687 km (41,437 mi).
z Track sections are rated for speeds ranging from 80 to 220 km/h (50 to 137 mph)

The operations are divided – 66,030km of track are split into 1,219 sections. Of these 492 are running at 100% capacity, in some cases more. Most accidents occur on these over-capacity routes. In its report Safety and Security of Railways, presented to the Indian Parliament on 3 August, the standing committee on Indian Railways mentioned the difficulty in finding time for maintenance of assets due to saturation of the current network as a concern.

Oddly, and perhaps alarmingly enough, there is still no ‘safety division’ in the railways. There is Commission of Railway Safety (रेल सुरक्षा आयोग) is a government agency of India, and coincidentally is headed out of Lucknow, the capital of state, where this week’s accidents have happened. Most oddly – it is subordinate to the Union ministry of civil aviation!

Oddly, and perhaps alarmingly enough, there is still no ‘safety division’ in the railways.

The committee did not point constraints in the system – lack of coordination including inter-departmental differences, non-availability of funds to create additional capacity and modernise assets. The committee has recommended imely replacement of over-aged assets, adoption of suitable technologies for upgradation and maintenance of track, rolling stock, signalling and interlocking systems, safety drives, greater emphasis on training of officials and inspections at regular intervals, according to a report in Mint.

But given that political leadership – past and present has been more about lip service and patch up repair at best, there is little indication that Indian Railways will be comparable to global standards anytime soon.

Musafir Namah Bureau

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