Following the biggest train disaster in the last twenty years, the Government of India has ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to find out whether the accident was the outcome of a deliberate conspiracy.
On 3 June, a day after the accident took place, the Railway Minister declared that he knew who was responsible for the disaster. He implied that the accident was a man-made disaster, most probably an act of sabotage.
The handing over of the investigation to the CBI to look for a conspiracy is aimed at diverting public attention from the criminal neglect of rail safety by the authorities.
Railway workers’ unions as well as many officials have repeatedly pointed out that adequate attention was not being paid to rail safety. A report last year by India’s Auditor General found that spending on basic rail maintenance had fallen since 2017, leading to serious lapses in safety. As far back as 2012, the Kakodkar Committee on Railway Safety had pointed out that at least Rs. 1 lakh crore needs to be spent in the next few years to improve railway safety. The recommendation of that committee was ignored.
Systems to safeguard against collisions not in place
The Rail Ministry has been advertising that it has been setting in place an anti-collision system called “kavach” on its trains, to prevent collision between two trains. However, this has yet to be implemented in 97% of the country’s trains. The superfast trains involved in the accident did not have this system.
Malfunctioning of the signaling system has been a critical issue for the railways since many years. Loco Pilots’ unions have drawn attention of the authorities to the issue of defective signals. The scale of the problem is obvious from the fact that signal failure has been reported 51,238 times in a single year!
There is a Block Proving Axle Counters (BPAC) system in place in the Indian Railways. This system is to ensure that the track section is empty before permitting another train in that section. It is aimed at eliminating human errors, and ensuring safe movement of trains between stations. Various private companies are supplying this system to the Indian Railways. However, there are reports that the parts supplied are of poor quality, leading to the malfunctioning of this system.
On 9th February 2023, the Principal Chief Operation Officer of the South Western Railways wrote to the Railway Headquarters that there was a near collision between two trains on the Mysore division because of faulty signaling equipment. The collision was averted by the timely action of the train driver who brought the train to a halt after noticing a false green signal. He pointed out in his letter, “The incident indicates there are serious flaws in the system … this contravenes the essence and basic principles of interlocking.”. After a train starts on signals, with correct appearance of route on panel, the route of dispatch gets altered. This means that the loco pilot believes that he is going on the correct route, but in fact, the route has been altered to a wrong route.
The letter of 9th February also stated, “The present incident must be viewed very seriously and immediate corrective actions are required to be taken to rectify the system faults and also sensitize the staff for not venturing into shortcuts leading to major mishap.”
The Railway Ministry took no action on this complaint of a senior railway official, made less than four months ago.
Neglect of Maintenance
Over 15,000 km of railway tracks are defective and urgently need repair and renewal. Every year, an additional 4,500 Km of railway track becomes due for renewal. Only about 2,000 Km gets renewed each year. Thus, the total length of defective tracks is increasing year after year.
The railway lines are mostly over-utilized and clogged, and because of this, the time available to carry out routine maintenance activity has been shrinking. Due to paucity of workers, there is a 30% to 100% shortfall in track inspection.
Trains are running on such defective and dangerous tracks at high speeds every day and every hour, risking the lives of thousands of passengers and railway workers.
Goods trains are overloaded beyond the loads recommended for tracks. This leads to a faster wear and tear of tracks. In other countries where superfast trains are run, separate new tracks are laid for them. In our country loco pilot unions complain that they have to drive superfast trains on the same old tracks at speeds in excess of the recommended ones. This further endangers lives.
According to a report tabled in parliament in December 2022, there were 1129 derailment cases in the Indian Railways in 4 years! Most of these derailments do not get reported in the media as they involve goods trains. However, in these cases too, the concerned railway workers get killed or injured and untold amounts of public property gets damaged.
Many railway bridges are dilapidated and neither maintained properly, nor renewed. Major accidents have occurred in the past because of collapse of such bridges. No action has been taken to ensure the safety of rail bridges.
The CAG report of 2019-2020 said that the government needed to allocate Rs. 1,14,000 crores for safety measures. The government has neglected to do this.
Most of the passenger trains are in such a bad condition, that these days no one uses the Indian Railways if they can afford other means. However, about 2 crore people do travel every day. Many of them are daily travelers or commuters. Day by day conditions are worsening.
After Covid, many trains have been either cut or ordinary non-AC, non-reserved bogies have been drastically reduced. This results in overcrowding, traveling hanging out of doors or in between two bogies. The unreserved coaches in the recent Odisha accident were carrying many more passengers than their capacity. This is the reason for the large number of deaths and injuries reported.
Refusal to fill vacant posts is affecting safety
Railway unions have pointed out that there are 3,12,000 vacancies in the Indian Railways. This includes lakhs of vacancies in the safety category. At the same time, the number of trains is constantly increasing. This is putting enormous pressure on the existing workers. It is putting pressure on loco pilots and guards, station masters, signaling engineers, as well as track maintainers who have to maintain the tracks of the Indian Railways.
Loco pilots and guards are forced to work 14-16 hours a day without rest. Despite persistent demands of the All India Loco Running Staff Association and other unions of rail workers, the Rail Ministry has not hired adequate number of loco pilots.
According to the rules, the maximum number of hours a loco pilot should be made to work continuously is 12 hours. This rule itself is inhuman. Even these inhuman hours are being routinely exceeded, endangering the health of the loco pilots, and the safety of passengers and other railway workers on the trains. It is downright dangerous for all who travel on trains. A loco pilot encounters a signal every km, that is one every one or two minutes according to the speed. He has to control the train accordingly. Many Zonal Railways are forcing loco pilots to be on duty beyond the stipulated duty hours, citing shortage of loco pilots. For instance, in the South East Central Railway, loco pilots have been putting in an average 16 hours of continuous duty!
In the past 10 years, 260,000 people have died in train accidents in India, according to National Crime Records Bureau data. This does not include the 8,700 mowed down by trains during India’s 2020 covid-19 lockdown.
The number of consequential train accidents has increased to 48 in 2022-2023 as compared to 35 in the previous year. Consequential train accidents are those with significant repercussions, such as loss of life, human injury, property damage, and interruption to railway traffic.
Track maintainers play an extremely important role in ensuring safe running of trains. Out of 4 lakh track maintainers required for the maintenance of tracks of Indian Railways, there are only two lakh available on the job. They are forced to work in extremely difficult conditions, risking their lives. Many of them are on contract. The Railway Ministry has refused to spend money on hiring the required number of track maintainers or on ensuring safe working conditions.
It is shocking but true that on an average 2-3 track maintainers die while at work every day, amounting to hundreds every year. This happens because they are overworked as well as understaffed and not provided with adequate safety equipment.
Outsourcing of vital components
As part of the drive to privatize the Indian railways, the Railway Ministry has been outsourcing the supply of vital components to private companies. These include axles of coaches and wagons that are crucial for safe running of trains. Many instances have come to light of the poor quality of the axles supplied by private operators.
The BPAC System, which was shown to be faulty in the Mysore case, is supplied to the Railways by a number of private companies.
The railway workers’ unions, as well as other organisations of the working class have been repeatedly pointing out the necessity for urgent measures to ensure safety of rail travel. However, successive governments have refused to address these needs. The tragedy of Balasore is one consequence of this criminal neglect.
It has been the practice of all governments to blame the rail workers for rail accidents. In this way, they try to mobilise the traveling public against rail workers.
By talking about investigation of a possible conspiracy behind the recent tragic accident, the government wants to divert public attention from the root cause of the problem.
The root cause of the problem is that the entire economy, including state owned enterprises, are geared towards maximizing capitalist profits and not towards fulfilling the people’s needs. Indian Railways suffers from gross under-staffing, neglect of maintenance and safety measures, as a result of the push towards privatisation, outsourcing and profit maximization.