Passenger safety critical 

Priorities For Indian Railways

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

There is no doubt a lot of development in Indian Railways has taken place, but accidents that occur at frequent intervals are a cause of serious concern. Just after a year of the Balasore accident of Coromandal Express, another such accident occurred a few days back near NJP station at Rangapani. Both are the result of collisions, but little is known whether such ramming of trains can be prevented. The recent collision at Rangapani is a reminder to the Railways why it is essential to expedite efforts to avert accidents by evolving a plan of how the congested routes would be tackled till such time the country can be brought under Kavach.

As is well known, collisions are caused mostly on account of failure of staff and sometimes failure of equipment. A running train collides with another head-on or rear-on when the preventive system of signalling fails, or the crew ignores the same. The interventions and actions needed are not quite adequate in the Indian railway system. The Kavach system has been devised but it is quite costly to cover the entire country while supplies at this point of time are inadequate. Obviously, this was not installed on the tracks where the accident of Kanchenjunga Express occurred.

It may be pertinent to mention here that the Railway Board Chairperson, Jaya Varma Sinha underscored the ongoing challenge of equipping India’s vast rail network with this crucial system. Moreover, the cost factor has also to be taken into consideration. The field trials for Kavach started way back in 2016 but have been installed in less than 1500 km of tracks out of the total 70,000 km covered by the Indian Railways across the country.

Developed by the Research Design & Standards Organisation (RDSO), this system has undergone rigorous testing and has achieved the highest safety levels. Kavach is also the world’s cheapest automatic train collision protection system. Deployment of this system involves installation of towers, laying of optical fibre cables along the entire track length and fitting radio frequency or RGID tags to tracks. Further ‘loco Kavach’ has to be installed in each locomotive and a ‘station Kavach’ at each station. Till date Kavach has been deployed on around 1500 km of rail route and in 144 locomotives of the South Central Railway.

Work to install Kavach on the high-density Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Howrah (approx.3000 km) is on. While the cost is substantial, equipping tracks and stations costs some Rs 50 lakh per kilometre while locomotives require an additional Rs 70 lakh each. The question that needs attention is that with devastating accidents occurring quite often, obviously passenger safety has to be given priority. But unfortunately, this has not been done. In this connection, apprehensions have been expressed about the bullet train project while beautification of stations could also wait.

Meanwhile in view of the need to avert accidents and save human lives, ramping up production by suppliers is crucial to expedite wider implementation. Till now, the railways have depended on indigenous suppliers but recently discussions are on with overseas suppliers like Japan’s Kyosan Electric as well as European majors Siemens and Alstom to step up supply. It remains to be seen how earnestly the railways would ensure implementation of the Kavach system in the main lines of the country.

It is often said that the present government is more interested in facilitating life of the upper and middle-income sections. This appears all the more true for the Indian Railways. For then, passenger safety would have got precedence over the bullet train project, which is obviously meant for the upper echelons of society who can also afford air travel. Though questions have been raised about beautification of stations, it is well known that this is a source of garnering revenue for the railways.

Before delving into the remedial issues, one may consider the ills plaguing railways. The first such problem is obviously congestion on tracks. Indian Railways covers 88,000 km. of which 16,000 were added post-independence. The number of trains introduced after the Britishers left was much higher than the tracks could sustain. Thus, trains are found on the same tracks after every 4 km. according to the railways. Congestion happens when the number of trains on a particular railway line is more than 90 percent of its capacity.

The manpower shortage with over 3.2 lakh vacancies, including posts related to railway safety, maintenance, signalling etc. is another crucial problem. Though the political leaders talk of generating employment, it is indeed surprising that such huge vacancies exist in the railway system. However, it is good to learn that in a very recent circular to general managers, the Railway Board said that 18,799 assistant loco pilots (ALPs) should be hired across zones, instead of the 5696 planned earlier. The zones have been asked to process the decision immediately though filling up the vacancies is expected to take at least six months, if not more. In other areas also, vacancies should be filled up with competent personnel.

Apart from passenger safety, adequate emphasis is also needed to track renewal and automatic signalling. In the case of signalling, while it goes without saying that proper maintenance has to be ensured, the changeover to the electronic system requires proper training, which reports indicate are lacking. In the case of the recent accident, signalling was not working but remained unattended to. These aspects, however, have received some attention but much more work remains to be accomplished in such a massive railway system. But along with these aspects, one cannot overlook the need to increase the number of express trains in several congested routes where getting a confirmed ticket is indeed quite difficult.

In trying to mitigate the hardships of the lower income groups, it is necessary that more AC-3 tier coaches may be added to the existing trains so that the lower middle class and even the LIG classes can travel, at least during the summer months. At one time, there were several Jana Shatabdi trains in several routes but now the stress is in Shatabdi and Vande Bharat trains whose fares are quite high and beyond the capability of a major section of the population. Also, the demand for a waiver of say 20-25 percent for senior citizens may need to be considered sympathetically in the coming budget to enable this section to travel in AC coaches. While better travel conditions are necessary, the safety aspect of passengers must be the top priority. —INFA