New Delhi: Is Mumbai’s suburban train service, the lifeline of the city’s transportation system, not part of the Indian Railways?
One may be tempted to ask this question in light of railway minister Piyush Goyal’s recent claims that this financial year so far has been the safest in the national transporter’s 166-year history as it has recorded zero passenger deaths in the April-December 2019 period.
Safety First: First time in 166 years, Indian Railways had zero passenger deaths in the current financial year.https://t.co/9tgqKSo9js
— Piyush Goyal (@PiyushGoyal) December 25, 2019
While talking to news agency ANI, Goyal said, “We have had occasional incident of accidents. But in the last nine months we have not had fatality of any railway passenger. I think its a great achievement.”
According to safety directorate data, there were a total of 49 ‘consequential train accidents’ from April 1, 2019 to December 19, 2019. These included eight fire incidents, 35 derailments and one manned level crossing mishap – none of which resulted in human casualties. The biggest railway accident this year was the Seemanchal Express tragedy, which occurred in February 2019, and is thus out of the time-frame provided by Goyal.
But how do we reconcile this with the estimated eight deaths that occur per day on the tracks of the local Mumbai trains?
Media reports are also replete with stories of people getting killed while falling off from trains – and also while crossing between platforms to get onto a train – on a daily basis across the country and particularly in Mumbai.
The crux of the matter is that accidents involving Mumbai’s suburban rail – which definitely comes under the aegis of the Indian Railways – are simply not accounted for as the Railways safety directorate record those as either “untoward” incidents or “trespassing” cases.
Railway officials say that another term used is ‘mishaps’, which take place primarily due to trespassing, boarding or alighting from running trains and falling off overcrowded trains among others. The implication here, ministry insiders say, is that in these cases, the fault implicitly lies with the traveller and not the railways.
While nobody in the Indian Railways would come on record to comment about this and how the government reconciles it with its claim of zero passenger deaths, hard facts speak otherwise.
On July 19, 2019, for instance, at least 16 people including a woman died on Mumbai suburban network in a single day.
In the same month, a passenger in Kolkata’s metro – the only metro in the country that is run by the Indian Railways – died after his hand got stuck in the automated doors.
Before that, in May 2019, a bank official died after being hit by a train in Bhopal. She was crossing the tracks after alighting from a train when she was hit by another speeding train.
Three railway employees lost their lives when the Samaleswari Express derailed and the engine caught fire in Rayagada during this period. But because they were not ‘passengers’, Goyal is allowed to safely make a proud safety claim.
While 3,014 people died on railway tracks in 2017, the number fell to 2,981 in 2018. Though the 2019 figure is being compiled, it is estimated to be above 2000.
Safety in overcrowded trains
What the Indian Railways has failed to do so far is ensure commuter safety on overcrowded suburban trains.
According to the safety departments of the Central and Western Railways, overcrowding results in trains running with up to 130% of capacity, as peak hour density for standing passengers averages at 12 people for every square metre of space.
Many commuters travel on the footboard during peak hours as they are unable to get inside the compartments, which is one of the major reasons for deaths by falling off trains.
Besides this, ‘cattle run over’ cases are also on the rise. Sources suggest more abandoned cows are coming under the wheels on a daily basis.
However, the national transporter has taken several steps to prevent rail mishaps. The replacement of age-old tracks and strengthening of rails have prevented rail fracture to a great extent. The Railways has also eliminated all unmanned level crossings, which were the main cause of train accidents.