July 02, 2023

Increase in Train Accidents

J S Majumdar

While the Prime Minister Modi, in his usual style, has been flashing the programme of Japan made bullet trains, Vande Bharat Express etc; the Indian Railways has been suffering from lack of safety measures, cut in manpower even in safety operations in both - the installation and maintenance, large scale privatisation and outsourcing of work, and misuse of safety fund. About 26 works, related to Indian Railways including the maintenance of railway tracks, have been privatised and outsourced. Several more are in the pipeline.

ON that fateful Friday, June 2, 2023; the union minister for railways, telecom and information technology Ashwini Vaishnaw, as a part of campaign for next year’s general election, was briefing the media at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi about Modi government’s nine years’ achievements; inter alia flashing the programme of high speed 200 Vande Bharat Express trains reaching speed upto 180 km/h. Within two hours, at faraway place near Balasore in Odisha, two high speed express trains and a goods train have collided causing worst disaster in two decades killing 288 persons and injuring over 1,175 people.     

After visiting the accident site, the Prime Minister Modi announced that “nobody would be spared” and announced a CBI enquiry. This seems to be a cover-up exercise to deflect the citizens’ anger and misdirecting the enquiry towards human failure or even purported planned sabotage. It was later confirmed that the cause of the accident was related to ‘system failure’ – in electronic signaling – in absence of proper installation and maintenance.

For passengers’ safety, ‘Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh’ (RRSK) was created with a corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore in five years. Besides it was decided that each year central budget allocation would be Rs15.000 crore and Rs 5000 crore by railways in the railways safety fund.

CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) report in December 2022 exposed “incorrect bookings of expenditure” worth Rs 48.21 crore from this safety fund. “Special fund for railway safety was spent for foot-massagers, crockery, winter jackets etc”, CAG report states. The officials were spending money on non-priority works from 2.76 per cent in 2017-18 to 6.36 per cent in 2019-20.

“The increasing trend towards expenditure on non-priority works is against the guiding principles of RRSK fund deployment framework, which stipulates that the Priority-I works should be met with first charge on RRSK,” the CAG report has said. Civil engineering works, which include track renewals, are classified as Priority-I work under the RRSK (emphasis added). However, CAG report pointed out that the expenditure under the RRSK showed a declining trend from 81.55 per cent in 2017-18 to 73.76 per cent in 2019-20. The allotment of funds for track renewal works declined from Rs 9,607.65 crore in 2018-19 to Rs 7,417 crore in 2019-20.

The CAG report stated that 1,392 (69 per cent) derailments took place out of total 2,017 rail accidents during 2017-2021. “Analysis of 1,129 inquiry reports of derailment accidents in 16 Zonal Railways (ZRs) revealed 24 factors responsible for derailments in the selected cases/accidents. The total damages/loss of assets in these cases was reported as Rs 32.96 crore,” said the report.

While 422 derailments were attributable to the engineering department, the major factor responsible for derailment related to “maintenance of track” (171 cases). Of the 1,127 derailments during 2017-21, 289 were linked to track renewals.

In an earlier August 2017 report, the derailment of Utkal express in Odisha, in which 21 persons died on the spot and 97 persons were injured, the main cause of derailment was also related to track maintenance work.

In a statement on June 3, CITU, expressing its serious concern on the frequency in the increase of railway accidents, has stated, “It speaks volumes about the status of efficiency in maintenance of the railway tracks and other infrastructures and also preventive safety management of the railways. Substantial part of critical and essential safety jobs has been either outsourced / contractualised. There is serious shortage of manpower, including in the safety categories and loco running staff in all the railway zones.”

WFTU (World Federation of Trade Unions), to which CITU is affiliated; in a statement on June 3 has stated, “Train accidents are fairly common in India, where much of the railway equipment is out of date. These “accidents” prove once more the responsibilities of the government of India for the deterioration of the mass transport system.”