INCREASING RAIL DERAILMENTS - a cause for worry for the administration and the public at large
Recently, there has been increasing cases of trains getting derailed causing severe injuries and in some cases, deaths. The latest incidents of derailment of Sealdah- Ajmer Express and the Indore- Patna Express in November, 2016 near Kanpur (which caused atleast 146 deaths and 200 serious injuries making it one of the serious rail accidents in recent history) show that much is not right with the current way of functioning of Indian railways.
As per the official data available with National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), nearly 25,000 lives are lost due to train accidents annually, indicating that it is a cause for serious concern and cannot be taken as business as usual.
A natural question arises as to why these rail accidents are increasing. The current fiscal year has already witnessed a 33% rise with 87 rail accidents till the New Year arrives.
- There is no safety analysis done on rail accidents and problems are supposed to be solved by pinning it on the shoulders of the ‘staff members’ and not acknowledging it as a failure on the part of the ‘institution’ of railways.
- Rigid application of hierarchical traditions prevents quick flow of information from the grassroots to the top level leading to delays which may pose grave danger to human lives.
- Knee-jerk reactions after each disaster seems to be the problem with disaster management approach of not just Indian Railways but also elsewhere in public administration. The need of the hour should be prevention and not its cure.
- Focus should not be upon increasing more investments or blaming it on lack of adequate financial resources with the ministry, but rather on what has been achieved by way of past investments.
- With every budget comes new line of trains and tracks, whereas maintenance and repair work is neglected. This is where the merging of Railway Budget with regular budget from next fiscal year may help.
- Nearly 85 per cent of India's train coaches are ICF (Integral Coach Factory) coaches which are not equipped with anti-telescoping features and advanced coupling systems. In such cases, they “pile up” over each other and create huge delays in rescue efforts and the death toll rises proportionately.
- As early as 2012, the Anil Kakodkar high-level committee on railway safety had suggested switching over to LHB coaches completely but only after recent accidents, the ministry has decided to stop producing ICF coaches from 2018. This shows that despite there being sufficient evidence for this issue, it was kept on shelf for years.
- The accident enquiry reports are kept as confidential documents and not available for public scrutiny. This amounts to not only refusing the public the information most crucial for ensuring their safety, but also, not meeting with the spirit of Right to Information as guaranteed under RTI Act, 2005.
- When derailments occur in remote rural locations, it is difficult to provide adequate first aid and relief operations. Health infrastructure in rural areas is severely lacking and not suitable for major disaster rescue efforts. This causes delays and the limited window of “Golden Hour” is missed.
Moving ahead, we need to coordinate our best efforts towards reducing such mishaps in future including the following:
- First of all, we need to rationally analyze the factors behind and not let emotions and populism rule over the debate.
- Bureaucratic principles should not be given precedence over requirements of travel safety of the citizens and a Management Information System needs to be devised for the same for prompt responses.
- A lesson can be learnt from British Railways wherein they sought to receive information on “near misses” too which would have not been recorded via usual channels but only through active feedback mechanisms kept as confidential to encourage citizens to come ahead.
- ICF coaches need to be converted to LHB coaches with anti-telescopic features to prevent major disasters as early as possible.
- Special Railway Safety Fund was established in 2001 on the recommendations of a committee headed by Justice H.R. Khanna. Two years later, a Corporate Safety Plan was implemented in 2003. Both of these mechanisms led to perceptible reduction in road accidents from 0.44/million train kilometers in 2003 to about 0.13/million train kilometers by 2013. Clearly, we need to devise similar arrangements as soon as possible.
- An annual report on the summary of the findings of major accidents and the follow-up action taken needs to be put in the public domain. The U.S. Department of Transportation regularly uploads its reports on train accidents on its website. Same can be done by the Indian Railways too.
- An improvement has been made whereby the ultrasonic fault detection test will be taken more frequently in order to pre-detect rail fractures, if any.
- Finally, improved training, regular exercises and signaling technology upgradation can help in reducing such disasters in the immediate future.
With plans of launching superfast trains like bullet trains in near future, the challenge is only going to increase. One needs to realize that no compensation can ever bring the lost lives back to the families but it can surely be prevented in the future. Hopefully Indian Railways would rise to the occasion. Amen.