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Amid Growing Safety Concerns, a Bumpy Ride Ahead for New Railways Minister

The state-run transporter is struggling with the absence of adequate security systems, deficiencies in track maintenance and a severe lag in adopting new technology.

Railways minister Piyush Goyal. Credit: PTI

Railways minister Piyush Goyal. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: Piyush Goyal, the new railway minister, will have to tackle the safety and security issues plaguing the Indian Railways, which is struggling to catch up with the advancement in rail technology worldwide.

Just recently, passengers traveling in AC coaches of a premier train were robbed during their journey from Mumbai to Delhi due to the absence of an effective security system. Two serious accidents in quick succession in the recent past have not only exposed the poor condition of tracks and signalling – crucial components of train operation – but have also highlighted the urgent need for adopting advanced technology for detecting and repairing defects in the over one lakh kilometre rail line across the country.

Failures at multiple levels, including at that of trackmen, supervisors, track engineers, station master and divisional railway manager, lead to the derailment of Utkal Express at Khatauli, claiming 22 lives. The accident was followed by another involving the Delhi-bound Kaifiyat Express, which derailed after hitting a dumper in UP’s Auraiya district early on August 23. A total of 81 people were injured in the mishap.

However, according to railway ministry data, the number of mishaps and fatalities has come down since Goyal’s predecessor, Suresh Prabhu, took over in November 2014.

During the UPA I regime, the average annual accidents were 207, while during UPA II the number declined to 135 per year. In the Modi government’s tenure this number has fallen to 115 per year.

Plagued by underinvestment for years, the state-run transporter is struggling with over saturated lines and obsolete signalling systems in the absence of infrastructure development. Even though rail technology has advanced worldwide, India lags far behind when it comes to adopting new technology. Even after it is adopted, the ground staff is not equipped to handle it.

Though the former railway minister tried to arrest the decline through an infusion of funds and took much-needed initiatives for rail expansion, up gradation of signalling and improvement in passengers amenities, it will be a while before we overcome the deterioration set in for years.

According to a senior official involved with the safety operation, despite several steps by the railway minister to prevent accidents, the basic deficiencies in maintenance remain. Pointing out that poor track maintenance is to be blamed for repeated derailments, he said: “The higher-ups in railways have failed to connect with people who are working on fields. Field inspection officers are getting away from reality on ground level” and added “basic maintenance like ballast cleaning and track fittings are not carried out for years.”

No wonder then that upon taking office the new chairman of the Railway Board, Ashwani Lohani, said, “The railways need to go back to basics and get it right.” Emphasising on safety, Lohani said: “Field visits, which are extremely important, have come down. We have to ensure that officers spend time on the field. We have to practice management by walking around. Indian Railways needs to effectively communicate safety expectations till the ground level employees.” Lohani also promised to undertake a large-scale audit of rail systems, end corruption and VIP culture in the Indian Railways.

Security issues

Besides safety, the security scenario at rail premises also seems to be gloomy as not all trains and stations are fully equipped to detect and prevent crime.

Only a few stations have integrated security system (ISS) – vital for fool-proof security at rail premises – and just a handful of trains are fitted with CCTV cameras. ISS comprises CCTV, baggage checking devices, door frame metal detectors, dog squad and adequate railway police force deployment at crucial spots.

Though the railways has been allotted Rs 500 crore from the Nirbhaya fund for installing CCTV cameras at 983 stations, RailTel – the telecom arm of the railways – is doing so at a snail’s pace. There are about 11,000 trains and 7,000 stations across the country.

“The CCTV job has to be done by RailTel. Currently, the tendering process is on and work order for installing CCTV is yet to be done,” said a senior railway ministry official.

Of the required 1000 sniffer and tracker dogs, the railways currently has only 462.

The New Delhi station, which handles about 300 trains and five lakh passengers a day, has 16 platforms but it has to manage with just three dogs.

Decongestion

In order to overcome the severe congestion, Prabhu managed a Rs 1.5 lakh crore fund from LIC for rapid rail expansion to cater to the growing need of decongestion of rail line and speedy train movement.

The gross budgetary support for the railways in the last three years also witnessed sharp increase as compared to the previous years which allowed the public transporter to go for track renewal, strengthening of rail bridges, replacement of old conventional coaches with modern ones which has anti-climbing features and better facilities for passengers at trains and stations.

Anti-climbing features prevent a coach from capsizing in case of derailment as the strong coupler fitted in the modern coaches prevent the coach from tumbling down.

Highlighting the deficiencies in the track maintenance, the senior official involved with the safety operation said the system has created proliferation of vendors for supply of safety materials which have led to cut throat pricing and drop in quality.

Privatisation

When asked whether privatisation of railways will help improving the situation, the official said it is very unlikely that allowing private players to operate trains would change the scenario. First, no private player will be interested in running passenger trains as it requires increase of passenger fares by at least three times more than the existing fare structure, he said.

Private players are interested only in freight sector as the railways makes profit in loadings.

There are about 11,000 trains running daily carrying about 23 million passengers and railways is losing about Rs 34,000 crore a year on passenger business. Railways manages passenger service through subsidy from freight earnings.

Highlighting the dire need of safety up gradation, Prabhu launched a zero-accident mission and managed to get Rs 1 lakh crore as special safety fund in the last budget, as a result of which rapid progress has been made in eliminating unmanned level crossings, the official said.

However, despite Prabhu’s best intent to make a turnaround with many reform-oriented steps in rail administration, it did not percolate to the ground level, resulting in a mismatch between the goal and result.

Long-pending technology upgrade plans such as the installation of Train Collision Avoidance Systems or the Train Protection Warning System have not moved forward in line with the requirement.

Pilot projects for new technologies like condition-based monitoring system for rolling stock and Track and Ultrasonic Broken Rail Detection System are being introduced in a limited section, the official said.

Since the rolling stock including locomotives, coaches or wagons are antiquated, Prabhu gave a go-ahead to setting up of two much-awaited modern loco plants at Madhepura and Marhaura in Bihar.

It has also been decided that only Linke Hofmann Busch coaches will be manufactured at all three railway coach factories and all existing conventional coaches will be replaced in phases.

Arun Kumar Das is a senior journalist.