The government after the devastating train accident in Balasore is trying to divert public attention by floating conspiracy theories and roping in the CBI into an inquiry of the accident. But the structural reasons behind such accidents are to be found in the neglect of basic rail infrastructure, along with the privatisation of important departments of an essential public service like Railways, reduction of workforce in the name of rationalisation, increasing of work load and unregulated or excessive working hours for employees, including loco drivers, and the obsession of the head of the government with Bullet and hi-speed Vande Bharat trains. In fact, these are some of the reasons which markedly increase the possibility of such horrific accidents in future. A report by Tarak Mehta.
In one of the worst rail accidents in recent times in India, at least 300 people are dead and more than 1000 injured (fifty-six of them are grievously injured) after several coaches of two express trains – Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express and Yashwantpur-Howrah Express – and a goods train, were involved in a deadly collision in Balasore district of Odisha on Friday evening (June 2). The magnitude of the accident was so high that numerous rescue teams aided by local people took the whole of Friday night and Saturday to pull out the bodies from the wreckage. Rescue operations are over by now and restoration work has started to resume train services in the section.
The cause of Friday’s crash still remains unclear, though preliminary reports from railway sources suggest that the accident is suspected to have been caused by a traffic signalling failure either due to a technical malfunction or human error. It is still not clear whether the Coromandel Express derailed first or switched tracks and rammed into the goods train and overturned. A high-level inquiry headed by the commissioner of railway safety, South Eastern Circle, has been ordered to understand what caused the accident. But the Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has said that the accident happened due to some issue with the computer-controlled track management system, called the electronic interlocking. The Railway Board said that signalling interference has been identified as the main cause of the devastating accident.
After visiting the injured at a Balasore hospital, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had on Saturday said: “Strictest action will be taken against those found guilty in the train accident incident. No one will be spared.” This gave the first hint of changing the narrative. Interestingly, the Railway Board too talked about the possibility of sabotage the next day and informed that the union Home Ministry was assisting the board in inquiries. On Sunday evening, the Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw announced that the Railway Board has recommended that the additional investigation into the Odisha train accident be undertaken by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). This came hours after he told Doordarshan in an interview that the “root cause” of the accident and the people responsible for it have been identified. Vaishnaw, under pressure to resign following the accident, said that the point machine or track configuration was changed, because of which the painful accident had happened. The social media IT cell warriors of Hindutva have floated the sabotage theory from day one and viral social media posts have alleged that a mosque and the Muslim community were purportedly involved in the train tragedy.
While expressing heartfelt condolences to the families of all those who have lost their lives in the accident, one needs to probe into the several important and uncomfortable questions about management of the Railways by the Narendra Modi-led union government that the horrific accident has raised. Though, the people will never be informed of the entirety of the inquiry report, the fact is now out in the public that the anti-collision systems are absent on 98% of the Indian railway network; about the terrible state of the Indian rail tracks; about inadequate workforce in the railways safety department. The accident has brought under scrutiny the union government’s policy of accelerating privatisation of railway services and operations, imposing a freeze on recruitment in vacant posts and its focus on running super hi-speed Bullet and swanky Vande Bharat trains for the affluent classes.
Indian Railways has been the life-line of the nation extending over the length and breadth of the country. India’s rail network, one of the largest in the world, was built more than 160 years ago under British colonial rule. Today, the network runs about 11,000 trains every day on over 67,000 miles of tracks. The Indian Railways transports about 25 million people every day and moves nearly 1.5 billion tonnes of freight. It currently employs about 13 lakh people directly and many more times indirectly. The railways have been introducing more and more trains to cope with the soaring demand, but it suffers from ageing infrastructure and poor maintenance – factors often cited as the cause of accidents. Just days before the Balasore accident, The Hindu on May 31 reported on the Railway Boards concern about the increase in train accidents across the rail network. There were 48 consequential train accidents in 2022-23 compared to 35 in the previous year. The board emphasised the shortage of manpower and flagged the problem of overworked locomotive pilots.
The Modi-led union government has announced massive investment into modernising the country’s sprawling railway network and other infrastructure. Modi has repeatedly talked about completely changing the experience of rail travelling to a burgeoning middle class which is wary of travelling in overcrowded trains with dirty toilets and often dried-up taps. A new, semi-high-speed, fully air-conditioned train called the “Vande Bharat Express” is being showcased by Modi as evidence of this modernisation, and he himself is flagging off all such trains around the country. These trains are designed to be fully air-conditioned and equipped with automatic plug doors, on-board Wi-Fi, and many other modern facilities. Incidentally, Modi was scheduled to inaugurate one such Vande Bharat Express on Saturday, but due to the accident in Balasore, that program had to be postponed. Instead, he travelled to the site of the accident. The fact is that these state-of-the-art high speed trains are no speedier than the superfast trains that already exist. The only differences are that, the fares in these swanky trains are exorbitantly high, they have no general and sleeper class coaches, and are meant exclusively for the aspiring neo-middle classes.
Besides Vande Bharat trains, the Indian railways is building the country’s first bullet train from Ahmedabad, Gujarat to Mumbai, Maharashtra over a 508-kilometre route. The Bullet train, Modi’s other dream project, will run at a top speed of 350 kms per hour, covering the distance between Ahmedabad and Mumbai in three hours. It will cost over Rs one lakh crore and it is estimated that the fares may range between Rs. 4000 to Rs 5000 to make the running of trains economically viable.
Modi’s rhetoric – a mix of ‘development’ and ‘nationalism’ – touches the dreams and aspirations of the middle classes. He never talks about the pathetic conditions in which millions are forced to travel daily in general and sleeper class coaches without safety or dignity. Critics have been asking pointed questions that why instead of strengthening and upgrading the current infrastructure keeping in mind the safety of millions of passengers, the government is spending billions in railway projects catering only to the well-off sections? Will the deadly accident at Balasore shift the government’s focus to the safe and comfortable rail journey for the millions of general and sleeper class passengers? The majority of those who died and were severely injured in the train accident at Balasore were migrant workers hailing from West Bengal, Bihar and Odisha, who were travelling to and from their workplaces in the southern states. Most were the only bread-earners for their families.
The government and its pet economic experts view Railways as the White Elephant. They point to Railways being plagued by a high operating cost ratio. And in a capitalist framework, the commonest way of correcting this is to shift the blame on the workers and the employees. The railways tied up with Deloitte to suggest ways to trim employee strength to keep the operating ratio in check. It introduced austerity measures to cut operational costs, which actually meant a freeze on recruitment in railways, contractualisation of the workforce and outsourcing of various services to private agencies. The number of employees in important departments which involve the safety of passengers and the safety of the railway system itself is being reduced in the name of rationalisation of the workforce. The regular workforce of railways was 13.7 lakhs in 1970-71, 16.5 lakhs in 1990-91, 13.34 lakhs in 2015 and 12.53 in 2019-20 financial year. A response to an RTI query by TOI has revealed that more than 3.11 lakh posts out of 14,75,623 Group C posts and 3,018 out of the sanctioned 18,881 gazetted cadre positions are lying vacant in various departments of the Indian Railways. The 3,11,438 vacant Group C posts include jobs for Level 1 category staff, including trackspersons, pointsmen, electrical works, signal and telecom assistants (Source : 02 March, 2023; TOI).
The work of maintenance of many stretches of railway tracks is one amongst the many departments that have been outsourced to private contractors by the railways. Due to lack of manpower, continuous inspection and maintenance work on the railway tracks to identify and fix the buckling of the railway tracks during hot summer months is not possible. Besides allowing corporate houses to run freight trains, the railways has also increased the ‘allowed axle load’. This too increases the wear and tear of the tracks.
The Standing Committee on Railways, in 2014-15, had amongst other things, recommended a complete shift to LHB coaches to minimise the loss of lives in case of derailments. But this is yet to be fully achieved across all zones. The railways have been working on safety mechanisms such as anti-collision devices and emergency warning systems for years. The anti-collision system was conceived by the Railway Ministry in 2012 and was originally named Train Collision Avoidance System (TCAS). The railway has been pathetically slow to install them across the network. In 2022, Narendra Modi renamed it as “Kavach” and the government announced plans to bring the rail network under Kavach to achieve the goal of “zero accidents”.
But, just as the news of the accident in Balasore broke out, the railways confirmed that there was no “Kavach” system installed in the trains along that route, which could have potentially prevented the collision and saved hundreds of lives. A senior railway official even insisted that the accident in Balasore had “nothing to do with [the] “Kavach” anti-collision system not being in place on that route. The fact is that there are only 1,445-km of tracks where the Kavach system is operational – comprising a mere 2.1% of India’s vast 68,000-km rail network — and all of it in the South Central Railway Zone, with 576 km in Maharashtra alone. The railway minister needs to answer why the anti-collision system is not installed in that route, which happens to be one of the busiest in the country.
Modi has only been boasting about Kavach, without doing much on the ground. In the 2022 Budget, the railways had floated a tender to install the Kavach along 3,000-km of the Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Howrah routes. So, in reality, Modi’s dream Vande Bharat hi-speed trains are mostly running on the same old tracks, and that too without any anti-collision system in place. Despite the fact that the Railways currently is not ready with its existing infrastructure for running Vande Bharat trains in every zone, starting from January 15 this year, Narendra Modi has already flagged off many of such trains. Experts say that if trains like Vande Bharat are to be run at the originally intended speed of 160–180 km per hour, mere upgradation of existing tracks would not suffice. These high-speed trains would require two-way dedicated tracks on which other normal express trains and goods trains should not be run. What is striking is the mockery of running these much-hyped “high-speed” trains at the low speed of ordinary express trains. The rail budget does not give separate consolidated figures for the total investment in the Vande Bharat project. But the government is arm-twisting the Railways to fast-forward the project, disregarding the safety concerns, with an eye on the elections in 2024.
A fund named ‘Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh’ (RRSK) was created in FY 2017-18 with a corpus of Rs one lakh crore over a period of five years for critical safety related works. Accordingly, a provision of Rs 20,000 crore was made in Budget of 2017-2018 out of the RRSK to fund essential works for ensuring safety. What happened to this Rs 1 lakh crore five-year safety fund? How much of this has been utilised till now, and for what purposes?
The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had pointed out glaring disregard to safety by the railways as it spends 15-20 percent of the money (about Rs 2,300 crore) on non-priority areas (non-railway safety) from the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK). The CAG, in its 2022 report on “Derailments in Indian Railways”, had flagged 24 factors responsible for derailments. An analysis of 1,129 inquiry reports of accidents due to derailment between April 2017 and March 2021, showed that 171 cases were attributed to “maintenance of tracks” and 156 to “deviation of track parameters beyond permissible limits”. The CAG report showed that allotment of funds for track renewal went down from Rs 9,607.65 crore in 2018-’19 to Rs 7,417 crore in 2019-’20. Further, it was pointed out by the CAG that a substantial part of the RRSK fund, aimed at improving rail safety was not utilised. The report noted that decline in fund availability and non-utilisation of available funds for track renewals led to 26% of derailments since 2017-18.
Proper maintenance of the railway track is a prerequisite for the train operation without accidents. Audit analysis by CAG revealed that there were shortfalls in inspections by Track Recording Cars (TRC). The shortfall ranged between 30 per cent and 100 per cent in TRC inspections. The shortfall in TRC inspections had adverse implications on safe operation of trains on these routes. In one of the inquiry reports, it was noticed that a derailment of Seemanchal Express, which occurred in February 2019, the TRC run over the section was overdue by four months.
The report found that the percentage of vacancies in Indian Railways for the Civil Engineering department ranged between 9-36 per cent. Out of 10 zones, in two zones (ECR and WR) the percentage of vacancies in the Civil Engineering work force ranged between 19-30 percent. It revealed that in eleven zones, the Track Maintenance Machines were kept idle for 13 to 1881 machine days due to ‘non availability of track machine staff’. The under-utilisation of the track machines to their optimum capacity hampered the track maintenance activity having implications on safety of train operations. It noted that required steps were not taken for adequate staffing in the safety category. Decrease in deployment of staff for track maintenance has potential of adverse impact on quality of maintenance having implication on Indian Railways Vision 2020 of making railway operations free of accidents.
This year, a record Rs 2.4 lakh crore capital outlay has been earmarked for the railways, a 50 percent increase over the previous fiscal. A small percentage of it has gone into upgrading of tracks and safety enhancements. Most has gone into Modi’s pet Vande Bharat project. The National Rail Plan (NRP) for India-2030 highlights mainly the primacy of the private sector’s involvement in areas such as operations and ownership of rolling stock, development of freight and passenger terminals, development and operations of track infrastructure, etc.
So, neglect of basic infrastructure along with privatisation of important departments of an essential public service like Railways, reduction of workforce in the name of rationalisation, increasing of work load and unregulated or excessive working hours for employees, including loco drivers, and the obsession of the head of the government towards Bullet and hi-speed trains are some of the reasons which markedly increase the possibility of such horrific accidents in future.
Feature Image : Nirmal Das