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Heads Must Roll in Railways for Mishaps; Top-heavy Bureaucracy Hampers Agility

The Railways admitted in a reply to an RTI that there exist vacancies of almost one-and-a-half lakh safety staff.

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Amid heavy rains, a goods train hit Kanchanjunga Express on Monday morning from the rear at Rangapani in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal. The mishap accounted for the deaths of nine passengers, and more than 40 were injured.

Memories of last year’s heart-wrenching rail mishaps at Balasore (Odisha), Andhra Pradesh, and Buxar (Bihar) came rushing to remind grimly that harsh lessons are not being learnt by the Railway Board.

The Railway Board officials quickly began sharing unofficially that, once again, the mishap was caused by the error of the loco pilot of the goods train.

The regularity of rail mishaps appears to have ingrained a malaise of passing the buck to loco pilots. Sadly, the loco pilot cannot counter the claims, for he perished in the accident.
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Rail Mishaps: Usual Culprits and Ducking Accountability

Signal failure and human errors are the two most often cited reasons for rail mishaps.

The station master at Rangapani issued written permissions called T/A 912 for loco pilots to cross the red signal at 10 kilometres per hour speed. The rules of T/A 912 mandate that loco pilots halt their trains to the rear of a signal for a minute during the day and for two minutes at night, and then proceed at 10 kilometres per hour.

The deceased loco pilot is assumed to have disregarded the rules of T/A 912.

Rail mishaps normally should be probed by the Commissioner of Rail Safety (CRS). But the Railway Board often avoids referring rail mishaps to the CRS for a probe.

In the backdrop of the Kanchanjunga Express accident, former Union Minister for Railways Mallikarjun Kharge, in his seven-point-poser to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, quoted the 323rd report of the parliamentary standing committee.

The report stated that only 8-10 percent of train accidents are referred to the CRS, which comes under the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

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Elephantine Top-heavy Bureaucracy

The Railways is a national-level transporter.

The number of people who use trains to travel on a daily basis in India, in total, are just under the population size of a large country like Australia. The Railway Board in New Delhi is the top echelon of the bureaucracy. This is replicated at the zonal and division levels.

The principal job of the Railways is to run the trains. But it is the transporter who has an army of babus who sit in bhavans, supposedly to plan for the modernisation of the Railways.

The bureaucracy is often accused of working in silos. Some measures to ‘reform’ were initiated with the merger of cadres. But there is no visible impact of ‘reform’ on the ground.

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Missing Ground Forces

In reply to a question asked by Rajya Sabha MP Naranbhai J Rathwa last year, the Railways, in its detailed answer on the spate of rail accidents, listed as many as 27 measures to prevent train mishaps. The action plan majorly banked on strict adherence to protocol by ground forces, as well as mechanisation to eliminate human errors.

The Railways, however, admitted in a reply to an RTI (Right to Information) application that there exist vacancies of almost one-and-a-half lakh safety staff. There are 14,429 vacant posts of loco pilots against a sanctioned strength of 70,093. Additionally, there exist vacancies of 4,337 assistant loco pilots against a total strength of 57,551.

It's a common lament among union members of loco pilots that they work for long hours, suffer from stress, and stay away from family, while reports abound of them failing breath analyser tests.

Indeed, the Railways must replace the top-heavy bureaucracy with an agile workforce on the ground.

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Failing Modernisation Tests

Suresh Prabhu, as Minister of Railways in the first term of the Narendra Modi-led government, would often say that either he would modernise or leave the Ministry. The Railways hailed the indigenously developed anti-collision device Kavach. It went into trials in 2016 and was certified for use in 2019.

Against the total track length of 68,000 km, the Railways could install Kavach in just about 1465 km of routes and 121 trains. The Railways claims that the work is in progress for 3,000 km of tracks but is able to install Kavach on an average of just 300 km a year, while the cost is said to be Rs 50 lakh per km.

The Railways is notorious for its snail’s pace in undertaking modernisation. The promise made on the floor of Parliament for “ticket on demand” by 2019 has now shifted beyond 2026. The completion of the high-speed rail corridor between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, promised by 2023, is now being hoped for by 2027.

The CAG report in 2022 noted that despite enhanced rail infrastructure spending, ‘Mission Raftar’ (to speed up the trains) is far from achieving its goals. ‘Mission Raftar’, introduced in 2016-17, mandated modernisation of tracks, signalling, and changes in coach designs.

Parliament should bind the Railways with a deadline for the full-length track coverage by Kavach, to fill up all vacant posts of safety staff, loco pilots, and assistant loco pilots, and to replace all ICF (Integral Coach Factory) coaches (blamed for derailment) with LHB (Linke-Hofmann-Busch) coaches.

After all, it is Parliament that approves the Budget for the Railways and should fix accountability for the fulfilment of commitments within a fixed timeline.

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Normalising Rail Mishaps

The Railway Board officials take cover in political slugfests after rail mishaps. The ruling dispensation flashed statistics to compare rail mishaps during the UPA (2004-14) and the NDA (2014-24) tenures.

But even this statistical play has an evident warning for the incumbent mandarins in the Railway Board. Against 55 consequential rail accidents in 2019-20 (pre-COVID), there were 40 mishaps in 2023-24.

This accounted for just a 27 percent dip in the number of rail mishaps in the five-year span. This is roughly the same for the last five years of the UPA government, from 165 in 2009-10 to 118 in 2013-14.

The National Crime Research Bureau (NCRB) report of 2022 stated that there were about one lakh train-related deaths during the years 2017-2021. This should be a grim reminder that the Railways is crying for genuine reform to make it an agile, ground-based operator of trains.

Fixing accountability must be the priority.

(The author is a senior Delhi-based journalist. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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