The Pukhrayan train derailment (Near Kanpur) has resulted into loss of around 140 lives. As a usual course of action, the inquiry committee has been set up which will look into the causes of accident. The preliminary inquiry has indicated towards rail fracture or emergency brakes applied prematurely or failure of rolling stock.
When such an incident of severe magnitude occurs after 7 years, it demands peeping into what is ailing the railways which still causes human deaths.
Increased load on railways
Traffic load on the tracks have been growing with new trains being introduced each year and the goods trains also being put on the same track. With such increased load, the necessary track renewal actions are not taking place correspondingly.
Many committee reports have been submitted to government to increase rail infrastructure. Expert committee reports have gone into subject of safety, especially Kakodkar Committee and they have recommended huge investments for safety of railways which have actually not happened.
Kakodkar Committee recommended almost Rs. One lakh crore investment for overhaul safety of the railways. Sam Pitroda report also recommended 8 lakh core modernisation roadmap for Indian railways to be carried out in ‘mission mode’.
Main recommendations of all these reports include:
Level Crossing elimination or constructing RUBs and ROBs.
The largest cause of railway accidents is at the level crossings.
Kakodkar committee recommended that there should be railway underbridges and overbridges which facilitate accident free infrastructure. Elimination of level crossings will reduce railway accidents to a great extent. However, this process is long and will take huge time to complete such infrastructure all over India.
Till that is in place, attempts are made to man the level crossings.
Dealing with human failure
The railway staff has to be adequately trained to perform all the skilful and complex functions of railways
The operational staff like locomotive drivers, track gangman etc. should be given specific work hours so that fatigue doesn’t lead to inefficiency.
It had come to notice that locomotives engine bogey did not even have a toilet!
Increased spending on infrastructure
As per Kakodkar Committee, the funds should be allotted by the government to renew the rolling stock and the tracks.
Replacing ICF coaches with LHB coaches as the LHB coaches have much better safety records as the coaches don’t mount on each other in an event of an accident and neither derail. These are present in the premium trains like Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto and should be soon extended to other trains.
There are 1000 LHB tracks and 1000 rake production capacity in country, but it will take around 30-40 years to phase out the ICF coaches.
Problem of railway safety
Inadequate training of manpower
There may be defects in material which may go undetected and under stress they can cause problem
Maintenance of assets, rolling stock, tracks and various other equipment.
How to reduce accidents?
There has been distinct improvement in reduced number of accidents, derailments and casualties as well in Indian Railways. Yet, it required more targeted and dedicated approach and funding to cater to its basic needs. There should be now efforts to reduce the accidents from 3 angles:
Massive investments– increasing the capacity conversion from ICF to LHB coaches
Improve maintenance– This requires consistent supply of Depreciation Reserve Fund. The tendency has been whenever the railway financial position deteriorates, the DRF is axed to some extent. This is a very short sighted policy. It is so because the moment DRF allocation is cut down, there is creation of problem of arrears of maintenance which is very dangerous.
There have been serious arrears of track maintenance for which 17000 crore were released by government to specifically clear the arrears.
Training of staff– Among the government departments, the railway training programme is probably considered the best. It is done regularly with refresher courses and hence keeps the staff abreast with latest knowledge. Yet, accidents take place. This means that often the failure takes place with the operating staff- the drivers who have to work for long hours and that can cause lack of efficiency.
What can be done?
Detecting equipment failure- If there is rail fracture, it should be immediately be sensed. If the sensing is done, the train can be controlled in advance. Even if there are problems in coaches, there are sensing equipment that are available which can detect any discrepancy.
Signal and breaking system- automatic train control systems are there. It ensures that if signal is at red, and even if driver is not able to control the train, the brakes apply automatically. So these are technology inputs that are required to avoid accidents under these circumstances.
Paucity of funds?
The issue is if funds for the above safety steps are available or not. The government has said that Rs. 8.35 lakh crore will be invested in railways. However, in last 10 years, it has been seen that railways have not been given enough investment of the funds. Rather railway tracks have been over exploited by running more number of trains, more goods trains.
In 2004-05, the railway minister brought the policy change allowing additional 40 tons per wagon goods of carriage. This added weight on tracks and there was no investment in the track renewals. Even in current times, the focus appears on the laying of the new rail lines in place of replacing the old railway lines which may have exhausted their capacities.
Thus, funds are not utilised at right places which is hampering railway growth.
One of the recommendation was to defer the dividend payments to the central government so that the funds available could be utilised for the safety works. On that front, the parliament approved policy moved by railway minister. Now railway will not have to pay dividend as it had to pay earlier and instead use it for railway development.
Addressing elephant in the room
There is an apparent hesitation on part of government to take tough measures on increasing passenger fares that are highly cross subsidized. So railways is always under financial crunch as there are no funds available for investment. It has to borrow from LIC and other financial institutions to maintain its operational and investment expenses.
The fare prices decision is a political one and lacks political will. The argument given is that fares cannot be raised because poor people travel. But these poor people are travelling by buses which is 4 times the fare. Hence, there is no logic on providing subsidies on railway fares.
When prices of everything has gone up, the railways shouldn’t hesitate to raise passenger fares. Earlier it gave subsidies on diesel, kerosene and petrol and then it was removed in a phased manner. The point is once the government takes a decision, it is not necessary to do the thing in one year. But initiation must be taken. The passenger fares of second class and suburban classes can be increased by 5% every year or 6 months. This will increase the revenue slowly and people will find suitable options for their travel plans.
The demonetisation policy decision did create problems but that’s atleast is a long term solution for the intended causes of removing black money or inducing digital mode of transaction. Similarly, if there is a crisis on railways, there has to be a way out. This cannot be delayed even if they are going to be unpopular decisions. The government has to balance conflicting aims of job creation, skilling existing resources, and automation.
Depreciation Reserve Fund
DFR is one of the five key funds maintained by the Railway Board and is channelled to meet expenditure for upkeep and replacement of crucial assets including railway tracks.
This fund, used to maintain assets such as tracks, bridges, wheels, coaches, wagons, has generally been tinkered with to show a good operating ratio or profitability. (The operating ratio represents the amount of money spent to earn every Rs 100 and acts as a yardstick of financial prudence.)
Appropriation to this fund is met from revenues by charging it to the working expenses of the railways. Hence, Depreciation reserve fund is required to be funded totally under all circumstances. The policy decision taken in recent past is that DRF will not be cut. It means that maintenance requirements are fully met. But the reality is not similar to what is decided.
Connecting the dots:
The Indian Railways are in dire need of modernisation as well as safety. But both together is not a fiscally feasible option. In such a case, what can be done to improve health of railways as well as increase its modernity?