Divert Rs 25k cr to signals

Stop Razing Rail Stations

Economic Highlights

By Shivaji Sarkar

Railway accidents not only cause significant loss of lives and severe financial setbacks, but also undermine public confidence in the system. A recent incident near New Jalpaiguri, where a train collided with another, resulting in 11 fatalities and 40 injuries, has once again highlighted the issue of signal failures.

The railways have received less scrutiny since the decision to discontinue the presentation of a separate Railway Budget. This change has allowed many faults within the railways, including outdated equipment and complex signal failures, to go unnoticed. While accidents draw attention, derailments are equally frequent and damaging. The full extent of the losses is challenging to estimate, as they not only impact the railways but also disrupt the movement of goods and people, with far-reaching consequences.

The CAG audit found that while the Gross Budgetary Support of Rs 15,000 crore had been contributed, the Railways’ internal resources fell short of the target for funding the remaining Rs 5,000 crore per year to Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK), set up in 2017. The report highlighted a decline in the allotment of funds for track renewal works, from Rs 9,607 crore in 2018-19 to Rs 7,417 crore in 2019-20. The Railways’ Rs 2.55 trillion budget is self-generated.

Ignoring critical signal and track safety issues it has allocated Rs 24470 crore to be spent for 508 of the 1300 stations planned to be demolished and rebuilt in 16 states. The buildings may need some repairs and refurbishing but demolition is outrageous under Amrit Bharat Station Scheme. Many stations are already on the block though these hardly need demolition. The Railways should have prioritised its operational safety issues and utilised the station rebuilding funds for safety.

According to the CAG report 2022, Analysis of 1129 ‘Inquiry Reports’ of derailment accidents in 16 Zonal Railways (ZRs) revealed 24 factors responsible for derailments in the selected cases/accidents. The total damages/loss of assets in these cases was reported as Rs 32.96 crore. The report adds that nearly 75 per cent of the consequential train accidents between 2017-18 and 2020-21 were caused by derailments. Out of 217 consequential train accidents, 163 (around 75 per cent) were due to derailments.

The goods train ramming into the Kunchenjunga Express between Rangapani and Chattar Hat, off New Jalpaiguri, has almost the same pattern as the triple train accident near Balasore that killed 296 persons and injured 1100 people a year back. Like Balasore, this one is also blamed on manual failure at the initial stages. It was routine for Rail Board Chairman Jaya Varma Sinha and two zonal chief public relations officers to blame it on the deceased train driver for “disregarding” signals and speed limits. The signal failure in both the cases are responsible for the accidents as scrutiny of the system reveals.

The Rangapani goods train was issued a manual authorisation paper chit signal, called paper-line clear ticket (PLCT). It allowed goods train driver to pass all inoperative automatic signals. As per procedure the driver should have stopped for a minute at each signal and restricted speed at 10 to 15 km. Now it is being told that restriction should have been imposed on each of the trains in the section.

The document of the Railways says that all trains had the PLCT issued suggesting major signal failure. The rail officials said that the track circuits had failed due to the lightning and thunderstorms, rendering the automatic signals defunct since 5.50 am. In such situation absolute block comes under restriction. When signals are not operational it is covered with paper or a piece of cloth.

Railway Minister Ashwani Vaishnav had told Rajya Sabha on 21 July 2023 that the rear-collision at Balasore was due to lapses in the signalling-circuit alteration carried out in the past and during the execution of the signalling work related to replacement of electric lifting barrier for a level-crossing gate. Two months before this, the Railway Board had flagged the issue of signalling staff resorting to short-cut methods.

Referring to five alarming incidents where trains entered the wrong path due to short-cut methods adopted by the signalling staff, the Railway Board in a letter to General Managers of Zonal Railways expressed “serious concern” that despite repeated instructions the ground situation was not improving and “signalling staff continues with short-cut methods for clearing signals”.

In another incident of collision between two passenger trains, the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) has found the Indian Railways administration at fault for not implementing, harmonising safety norms and protocols, the lack of which led to the collision of two passenger trains in Andhra Pradesh on October 29, 2023. The collision claimed 17 lives including three crew members.

The CRS noted that senior officers continuously overlooked such violations in the recent past. The CRS found five flaws in safety system – 1. Officials Overlooked Multiple Violations Earlier, 2. Employees in Crucial Safety Posts Incompetent, not aware of basic safety rules, and assistant loco pilots should be trained on simulators even on brake use, 3. Mismatch of Two Sets of Rules – general rules peg speed at 10 km in case of signal failure and subsidiary rules at 15 km, 4. Every Passenger Train’s Last Two Coaches Need Crash-Worthy Features, 5. Record Walkie-Talkie Conversations Between Station Masters and Loco Pilots.

In yet another incident the South Western Railway Zone official wrote: “on 08.02.2023 the loco pilot of Up Train No: 12649 Sampark Kranti Express, had stopped the train before Point No: 65 A, while observing that the point was set to down main line (wrong line), while as per PLCT, the train was supposed to pass through Up main line.”

An audit report of the last year flagged serious lapses in rail safety. In a 2022 report focusing on derailments within Indian Railways, the CAG sought to investigate how preventive measures were implemented by the Railway Ministry against derailments and collisions. The Kavach system of bringing the trains to a halt has a cost of Rs 50 lakh per km and Rs 70 lakh per locomotive. It may take longer than the Railway has planned. The eastern region alone needs Rs 3000 crore.

Even if Kavach implemented till the Railways improve on signal and track maintenance, accidents would not be easy to prevent. Even now it is not late to divert funds from station demolitions to safety aspects. — INFA