Yet again, many lives were lost as Utkal Express derailed. This again brings to the fore the vexed issue of rail safety that remains widely debated and poorly implemented.
The report suggests that unofficial maintenance work was being carried out on the track. The driver of the train was not informed. There was no red flag at the maintenance point so that the driver could have either stopped the train or lower the speed. It again points to human error causing a grave accident.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways in its 2016 report on ‘Safety and security in railways’ has stated that underinvestment in Railways has led to safety compromise and congested routes. The Railways should completely switch to the Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB)coaches that do not suffer higher casualties in the wake of derailment as the coaches do not pile up on each other.
Every accident may have a specific cause. But, the underlying dimension is the derailment of safety ecosystem in Indian Railways. The High-Level Safety Review Committee (the Kakodkar Committee) appointed by the Ministry of Railways in 2012 observed: “Within the railway system everybody is supposed to look after safety but in reality… (it is) nobody’s baby.” The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports further substantiate the utter disregard for safety.
The reasons for accidents include continuing use of overage locomotives, incomplete safety works at level crossings, lack of modernisation of signalling equipment, inadequate and poor maintenance of assets and a failure to make recruitment to the crucial staff positions dealing with safety. Human failure accounts for 86 per cent of railway accidents.
But, fiscal austerity imposes severe restrictions on human resource costs leaving a very large number of basic manpower posts vacant. Estimates suggest that 1.42 lakh posts for safety are lying vacant across the country resulting in safety staff working under tremendous pressure and substandard working conditions.
The CAG report of 2012 indicted the Indian Railways for its inability to produce a reliable safety system. In fact, the Parliamentary panel itself described the pattern of probing of accidents by Commission of Railway Safety (CRS) as “disappointing” and its mandate as “greatly restricted”.
The Indian Railways is the largest rail network in Asia and the world’s second largest, under a single management. Yet, safety of passengers seems to be missing in the priorities of railways. Analysis of rail accidents reveals that derailment due to track defects account for a significant number of accidents.
Even as the existing rail tracks in India are accident prone, there is an attempt to superimpose high speed rail and even bullet trains on Indian Railway network. But, the urgent priority should be to serve the average Indian rail passenger with modernised track network among other things.
Railways are increasingly seen as a commercial utility rather than a vital infrastructure. As a result, the business plans of Railways levy more emphasis on running more and heavier trains on the poorly maintained tracks seriously compromising the quality of tracks and thereby the safety of passengers.