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Balasore Accident & Indian Railways: A Chequered System That Compromises Safety

Several systemic ills contributed to India's deadliest train accident of this century.

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The Balasore train accident involving three trains on the evening of 2 June 2023 is India’s deadliest rail accident in this century (288 killed and over 1,000 injured). Over 3,400 were travelling in these two passenger trains. 

Although the precise cause will likely emerge only after the detailed inquiry (the Commissioner of Railway Safety works under the Ministry of Civil Aviation), there are systematic ills that have contributed to this accident.    

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Inhumane Working Conditions, Compromised Capacity

Paucity of Manpower:  The Indian Railways is beset by a debilitating paucity of non-gazetted staff – about 3.12 lakh posts (out of 14.75 lakh Group C posts) are lying vacant. Additionally, 3,018 out of the sanctioned 18,881 gazetted cadre positions, are vacant in various departments. This paucity has also led to locomotive pilots working far beyond the stipulated 12 hours. The All-India Locomotive Running Staff Association has been long agitating for better working conditions and eight-hour work while underlining that in many cases, locomotive pilots have been denied leave, rest, and on occasions, did not get time for toilet breaks.

Notably, protracted working hours and associated stress are believed to be some of the reasons for the increase in rail accidents. In March 2023, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways had castigated the Railways for recording a negative net revenue/loss of INR 5024.58 crore in FY 2021-22, which the Railways attributed, largely, to increased staff costs after implementation of the 7th Pay Commission and the adverse effect of the COVID 19 pandemic. However, in FY 2022-23, the Railways earned a record revenue of INR 2.40 lakh crore. Yet, the vacancies lie unfilled.
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Increase in Number of Trains versus Overall Expansion:  While the number of trains has been increasing since 1947, the past few years particularly have witnessed a rise in trains being introduced; eg, it is proposed to connect 200 cities with the Vande Bharat trains prior to the 2024 general elections (according to the statement by Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw) and the government has set a target of 75 Vande Bharat trains to be rolled out by 15 August. Yet, the lack of capacity to meet this target is leading to the rollout of eight-coach train sets instead of the standard 16-coach versions merely to showcase the introduction of new trains.

Further, in Oct 2022, the Railway Ministry increased the speed of 500 trains. Presently, the Railways run about 3240 mail/express trains, 3000 passenger trains, and 5600 suburban trains. However, there hasn’t been a corresponding expansion of railway infrastructure including tracks. As a consequence, many trains are running with short time gaps in between, which calls for precision control. Thus, even a minor failure of a control system holds the potential for a disaster.

Reportedly, the Railway Board had, in a letter dated 9 February, warned about “serious flaws in the [signalling] system”, particularly the 'failure of interlocking', after a head-on collision with Sampark Kranti Express was narrowly averted in Mysore division on 8 February.
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"An Illusion of Progress”

Emphasis on Augmenting the "Passenger Experience” :  An unwarranted weightage is being accorded to the “passenger experience”. This includes 'modernising’ train interiors as well as 1,275 railway stations. Many experts question why train interiors must mimic an airplane or the proposed terminals look like "second-rate shopping malls” given that the Railway’s largest clients are the poor. They also point out that vis-à-vis Vande Bharat, the Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches are cheaper, sturdier, spacious, capable of similar if not higher speeds, and incur lesser maintenance costs.

Besides, speed is not contingent on the train per se, but also requires compatible track upgradation. It is for this reason that some of the Vande Bharat trains, with a touted top speed of 160 kmph, are travelling at an average speed of 64 kmph (eg, the new, eight-coach Delhi-Dehradun Vande Bharat). Nevertheless, the focus remains on creating an illusion of progress.   

Low Emphasis on Passenger Safety:  The implementation of contemporary signalling and train anti-collision systems have not kept pace with the expansion of railway traffic. Evidently, train and passenger safety are not the foremost priority, with primacy being given to the “passenger experience” and the ongoing privatised modernisation drive for 1,275 railway stations.

The Kavach Train Collision Avoidance System (TCAS), under development since 2012 and finally cleared in March 2022 by Vaishnaw and the Railway Board Chairman, works by deploying brakes automatically when two trains seem headed for a collision. However, it covers just 2.13% of India’s 68,000-km railway network – and was not available on the Balasore route. 

Politicisation of the Railways:  The Indian Railways, with its long history of 170 years, runs one of the largest rail networks. It is a competent organisation with a large number of exceptional professionals amidst its ranks. However, one of the main problems this organisation has had to grapple with is the 'politicisation of trains’ – a trend which has enlarged exponentially in the past few years, with leaders seeking to extract maximum political benefit by showcasing the augmentation of train numbers and improvement of "passenger experience” as “development”. Add to it the funds, time, attention of officials, the overall focus of the railways, etc, being diverted for the inauguration of each of the new trains.

The government has responded to this accident typically by swiftly deploying response forces, organising medical treatment, and announcing ex-gratia grants. While this is a mandated need, the imperative is a swift addressal and resolution of the accident’s cause(s).
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On 3 June, Ms Jaya Varma Sinha, a member of (Operations & Business Development), Railway Board, explained the sequence of the triple train accident– that only one train, the Coromandel Express, encountered an accident; its engine/bogies hit the goods train on the loop line, and then bounced back into the path of the Yesvantpur-Howrah train on the adjacent mainline. She added that even Kavach couldn’t have thwarted this accident as an obstruction came suddenly in front of the speeding train.

The same day, while visiting the train accident site, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that those responsible "will be severely punished". It remains to be seen whether that list will include those who dithered in filling the vacancies, neglected passenger safety for optics, or did not perform their bounden constitutional duty of underscoring the problems related to the rapid rollout of trains.

If censorship of data on Joshimath is a guide, it is well possible we may never know the real cause(s) of this grave accident.

The tragedy of our country also lies in our fallible memories - this tragedy knocked off the news related to the sexual harassment of women wrestlers. With the 2024 elections looming, another scandal, another event, or mishap may demote this disaster too - till the next accident - thereby, thwarting due public scrutiny, accountability, and in turn, improvement.

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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