New Delhi: As the Balasore triple train tragedy that killed 288 and injured 800 played out on national television Saturday, the government went into a PR overdrive, releasing data on all that it has done to improve the functioning of the railways.
But the government’s narrative is hard to square with what its own auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General, said in its 2022 report, ‘Derailment in Indian Railways’.
PMO sources on Saturday shared data with journalists to buttress the government’s argument that it has done a lot in terms of railway modernisation and safety. Prime Minister Modi’s own statement that those responsible for the disaster would be given the “harshest punishment” was perhaps also intended to tell the public that the accident was the result of individual action rather than systemic problems with the railways or his government’s financial choices. Only, the statistics released by officials in three different data sets didn’t quite match up. What’s more, the performance audit of the railways conducted last year by the CAG and the damning data the latter’s report provides is hard to reconcile with the official spin about the government’s commitment to passenger safety..
The CAG’s analysis of railway accidents that took place between 2017 and 2021 indicates that out of a total of 2017 accidents during this period, derailments accounted for 1392 accidents, or 69%. If one focuses only at ‘consequential’ train accidents, the percentage of accidents caused by derailments and collisions – i.e. what was witnessed at Balasore – is 80%.
While it has become something of a general trend over the years to blame ‘human error’ for the majority of major train accidents, the CAG’s data and conclusions suggests the problem is institutional: “The IR managed the maintenance activities with vacancies in work force and with nominal outsourcing. This revealed that required steps were not taken for adequate staffing in safety category, which can impact quality of maintenance.”
The CAG speaks of the railway safety fund, better known as the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, introduced in 2017-18. “Out of 1127 derailments during 2017-21, 289 derailments (26%) were linked to track renewals,” the report noted – and the major reason was non-utilisation of funds. “The overall expenditure on priority-I works from RRSK showed a declining trend from 81.55% in 2017-18 to 73.76% in 2019-20. The allotment of funds for track renewal works declined from Rs 9607.65 crore (2018-19) to Rs 7417 crore
in 2019-20,” the CAG said.
The railways could not cough up its share of funds due to “adverse internal resource position,” the report says, which “defeated the primary objective of creation of RRSK to support absolute safety in railways”.
Significantly, the usage of funds for non-priority areas went up in several zones to as much as 25%, the report says. For Western Railway, one of the busiest segments of the railways, during 2019-20, of the total expenditure, the money spent on track renewals was a mere 3.01%. The various railway zones have in fact been surrendering funds over the past few years, the report says. “The sole purpose of creating a separate dedicated fund for financing safety related works was defeated, as safety related works were held up due to fund constraints,” the CAG noted.
But that’s not the impression a PMO summary shared with the media by official sources sought to create. “Expenditure of Rs.74,175.75 crore incurred out of RRSK till the end of 2021-22, with contribution from Gross Budgetary Support of Rs.70,045.79 crore,” the summary said. “In 2022-23, expenditure of Rs. 11,797.42 crore incurred and in 2023-24, provision of Rs. 11,000 crore made under RRSK.”
The much-touted Kavach or anti-collision system which came into operation last year with a new nomenclature – it was first announced in the 2011 budget by the then rail minister Mamata Banerjee – was in operation in “over 1,098 route kms and 65 locos in on-going projects of South Central Railway”, the PMO handout said. Another release claimed, “Kavach is already functioning on 1455 kms on South Central Railway… Kavach tenders have been awarded on 2951 kms on Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi Howrah sections. This is targeted for commissioning in 2024.”
As far as derailments are concerned, the CAG report says, “A total 422 derailments were attributable to the ‘Engineering Department’. The major factor responsible for derailment was related to “maintenance of track” (171 cases), followed by “deviation of track parameters beyond permissible limits” (156 cases).
The number of derailments attributable to the ‘Mechanical Department’ was 182. Defects in ‘wheel diameter variation and defects in coaches/wagons’ were the major contributor (37%) to the factors responsible for these derailments.
The number of accidents attributable to the ‘Loco Pilots’ was 154. ‘Bad driving/Over speeding’ was the major factor responsible for these derailments. The number of accidents attributable to the ‘Operating Department’ was 275, out of which ‘Incorrect setting of points and other mistakes in shunting operations’ accounted for 84%.”
“The focus of the audit was to ascertain whether measures to prevent derailments/collisions were clearly laid down and implemented by the Ministry of Railways (MoR), the CAG said. “Timely conducting of investigations on derailments/collisions and implementation of the preventive recommendations were the other areas of Audit. Emphasis was laid on the deployment of funds in accordance with the guidelines of Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK).”