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Accident which need not have happened

Aarti Khosla |

Another train accident and what a ghastly one it was. Thirteen bogies of the Utkal Express from Puri to Hardwar just flew off the track at Khatauli last Saturday and settled on top of each other hitting even houses nearby killing 23 people and injuring many, some of them critically. The accident is all the more tragic when, as it appears, it happened due to sheer negligence.

This of course is not the first accident of such grim nature. Have we forgotten the Indore-Patna derailment near Kanpur on 20 November 2016 which claimed 150 lives? Accidents by derailment have become too frequent. Out of 586 major accidents which took place during the last five years (these are official figures) some 53 were due to derailments. Even a layman can surmise that this could be due to poor maintenance of track which is under great stress because of increased number of trains and overdue repairs and replacements.

We are playing with the lives of travelling public by neglecting the maintenance work and adding more and more trains on a route, as also thinking of high speeds on the same terribly fatigued tracks.

When a train meets with an accident, killing and injuring people, we have the same formula to deal with it. Announce compensation (as if the price of a life is Rs 3 lakh or so), entrust the enquiry to the Commissioner of Railway Safety and then forget about it till the next such event. Of course in these days of terrorism we have another alibi as a first reaction on any accident which is that it was a ‘suspected act of terrorism or sabotage’.

For the Saturday accident at Khatauli too, TV channels first screamed about the “aatanki” angle. The anti-terrorist squad of U.P. government also rushed to the spot to probe this angle. It however transpired that the accident took place due to sheer callousness, lack of co-ordination and communication among two wings of the Railways – Engineering, which is responsible for maintenance of track, and Traffic, which is responsible for train operations.

The track was under repair and no precaution was taken to alert the station staff or the train driver so that he could slow down. As the details have come out, a portion of the track was taken out and the welding was yet to be done. Meanwhile labour just left the place for a break. Was no one supervising them? Why were standard operating procedures for track maintenance not followed whereby a traffic block is required for carrying out repair and maintenance work? If the block was asked for, why was it denied?

From reports now available now, it seems the Permanent Way Inspector (PWI) asked for a 20-minute block, a stoppage of all trains, to enable him to carry out the repair work. The traffic staff – the station master and section controller – said no as it would have delayed all trains and adversely affected their punctuality figures.

Here lies another rub which has become symptomatic of the skewed approach of Indian Railways. Someone is responsible for train punctuality. He is hauled up for late running of trains. To save his skin he does not bother to halt a train for 20 minutes to let repairs of track take place which is the job of another department. This clearly shows that there is lack of control from the top and things are left to be handled at the field level. Is being punctual more important than being safe?

At Khatauli, not even the basic safety precaution of showing a red flag near the site of repair was undertaken. A portion of track had already been taken out. If the block was denied then why did the PWI not resort to the basic procedure of showing red flags to alert the driver so that he could slow down or stop? There appears to be total breakdown of communication which is so very essential in train operations and that too in this age of mobile telephony and intercom networks.

The track was under repair. Station masters at the two ends, at Khatauli and Muzaffarnagar, were not aware of it. No one was there on site to alert the driver. Those of us who are familiar with procedures followed during such work are really aghast at the state of affairs. It seems there is complete breakdown of the command structure on Indian Railways resulting in laxity and indiscipline. How could the labour just leave the broken track when trains run regularly on the route? Was the work being done by a contractor? For in our zeal to reduce the number of employees, we are outsourcing even the most vital tasks which require supervision, dedication and coordination.

Another troubling aspect coming out is that newly recruited trackmen are not interested in doing the menial work of track repairs as they are overqualified for such jobs. They simply want a Railway job but do not want to do the work for which they got recruited. Why recruit such overqualified people? For a gangman’s job (designation changed now to the more prestigious trackman) basic education up to Class 8 was required. Later, a certificate from ITI was added. Why recruit graduates and postgraduates who are not interested in doing any manual job? The enquiry by Commissioner of Railway Safety should bring out all these facts.

But what happens to such reports is also well known. We perhaps do not even go through them and thus learn no lessons. Serious accidents are taking place at regular intervals. There is the usual noise. Those concerned visit the site. An enquiry is set up. “Guilty will be punished”, goes the refrain. Silence descends until the next accident. We do not even come to know what caused the previous accident, what to talk of remedial measures to prevent future accidents.

Many such reports are gathering dust on the shelves in some corner of Rail Bhavan. Two such reports are worth mentioning. The first is the Khanna Railway Safety Committee report with 278 recommendations given in two instalments, the first in 1999 and the final in 2001. Only a few of their recommendations were accepted and implemented. The most recent was the Kakodkar Committee report which gave some outstanding recommendations on Railway Safety. This committee was set up in 2012 and chaired by Anil Kakodkar, former Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Important recommendations of this committee were to fill all vacancies of Railway Safety staff. At that time 1.42 lakh posts were lying vacant. They also recommended setting up a Safety Fund with a corpus of Rs one lakh crore and also replacement of existing coaches with LHB coaches (if Utkal Express had those coaches they would not have gone on top of one another). The committee also recommended having a Member (Safety) in Railway Board responsible for all aspects of safety. It desired that a statutory Railway Safety Authority be set up. Hardly any recommendation of the Kakodkar report has been implemented. But see the zeal with which we went along implementing the recommendations of the Restructuring Committee appointed in September 2015 that came out with some radical and outlandish recommendations.

Some of those recommendations like merger of all the Railway services in one group, privatisation of train operations for some routes or merger of Railway Medical Services with Central Government Health Scheme would if implemented demolish rather than reform the organisation. Lot of energy is displayed in hawking grandiose schemes like high-speed trains, commercially developed Railway Stations, Wi-Fi on trains and choice of cuisine during travel. Already many authorities are in place to take care of these big projects.

We have got our priorities wrong if we are not able to provide safe and comfortable travel to crores of passengers. What to talk of safety on track, there is no security inside coaches. Robberies are taking place even in elite trains like the Rajdhani. Daily commuters have harrowing time in EMUs running between our capital and its suburbs when these carry people five to six times more than their capacity. Scuffles over seats and even standing place are common. A few murders have also taken place. All this needs to be corrected before we think of bullet trains. Basic needs require satiation before we move to luxuries. Painting beautifully the exterior of a dilapidated house will do no good.

The writer is a former Additional Secretary, Government of India and former Executive Director, Finance of the Railway Board.