One of the deadliest train accidents of recent period at Bahanaga Bazar station near Balasore, Odisha, on 2 June last, has sent shock waves throughout the country. This disastrous triple train collision has left, according to official source, over 300 casualties and more than 1000 injured. But unofficially, the numbers are stated to be more than double. The tragic accident happened after a passenger train, the Coromandel Shalimar Express, heading to Chennai, reportedly derailed and hit a goods train, after which many coaches flipped over. The Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express, coming from the opposite direction on the third track at a high speed, rammed into the derailed coaches. Pertinent to mention that, of late, there has been an overflowing exuberance on the part of the BJP government particularly PM Modi about progress made in railway operations. The PM has been inaugurating one after another highly expensive ‘Vande Bharat Express’ exuding pride that this train which would enhance ease of living, boost tourism and benefit the economy, would be a symbol of the potential of New India being on the path of rapid change. In fact, he was to flag off a ‘Vande Bharat’ train between Mumbai and Goa on 3 June, but the event was cancelled due to the horrific accident in Odisha. While the PM expressed customary sympathy with the bereaved families and the injured, announced financial grants to them and talked of stern action against those who are guilty for this accident, some questions do arise and arise loudly as to whether anything tangible is taking place in securing safety of train journey in the country.
All important safety issue
Let us state some facts. Railways safety depends on the efficiency of four parameters: 1) Traffic control system; 2) Bogie maintenance; 3) Track maintenance; and 4) Track barricading. From whatever initial information have poured in, the Coromandel accident has happened clearly due to failure of the traffic control system. And who does not know that there have been recurring lapses and omissions on other counts as well in recent times causing accidents? The government has gone into a Public Relations overdrive, releasing data on all that it has done to improve the functioning of the railways. But the government’s narrative is hard to square with what its own auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), said in its 2022 report, ‘Derailment in Indian Railways’. What is more, the data that the report provides is hard to reconcile with the official spin about the government’s commitment to passenger safety. The CAG’s analysis of railway accidents that took place between 2017 and 2021 indicates that out of a total of 2017 accidents during this period, derailments accounted for 1392 accidents, or 69%. If one focuses only at ‘consequential’ train accidents, the percentage of accidents caused by derailments and collisions is 80%. It has, for instance, become something of a general trend over the years to blame ‘human error’ for the majority of major train accidents. The PM has also indicated that about the Balasore accident. But the CAG’s data and conclusions suggest the problem to be institutional: “The Indian Railways managed the maintenance activities with vacancies in work force and with nominal outsourcing. This revealed that required steps were not taken for adequate staffing in safety category, which can impact quality of maintenance.” The CAG report said of the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) i.e., railway safety fund, introduced in 2017-18. “Out of 1127 derailments during 2017-21, 289 derailments (26%) were linked to track renewals,” the report noted—and the major reason was non-utilization of funds. “The overall expenditure on priority-I works from RRSK showed a declining trend from 81.55% in 2017-18 to 73.76% in 2019-20. The allotment of funds for track renewal works declined from Rs 9607.65 crore (2018-19) to Rs 7417 crore in 2019-20,” the CAG said. The railways could not cough up its share of funds due to “adverse internal resource position,” said the report, which “defeated the primary objective of creation of the RRSK to support absolute safety in railways”. Also, the report pointed out that the usage of funds for non-priority areas went up in several zones to as much as 25%. To illustrate, for Western Railway, during 2019-20, of the total expenditure, the money spent on track renewals was a mere 3.01%. “The sole purpose of creating a separate dedicated fund for financing safety related works was defeated, as safety related works were held up due to fund constraints,” the CAG noted. Incidentally, the railway minister himself informed parliament on 1st December 2022 that more than 3.15 lakh gazetted and non-gazetted posts across 18 zones as on 31 March 2023 are lying vacant in the Indian Railways. Quite a sizeable of these vacancies are in the posts of gangman, trackman, patrolman, cleaner, loco inspector, signal tele-communication, traffic inspector, trolleyman, gatekeeper and bridge inspector—most of which are linked with passenger safety. But there is no attempt to fill up these vacancies as handing over key, if not sensitive, areas of railway operation to private operators on contract has been the policy of the Modi government. Media reports reveal that the springs in the newly introduced LHB coaches of the railways often break. The resultant jerks sometimes lead to derailment. Track maintenance is also poor because the work is being handed over to private contractors. The quality and strength of human resources are not adequate to ensure safe running of the trains. The employees are overworked, increasing the possibility of negligence. Technical malfunctioning also occur because of the inferior quality of the equipment supplied by the private parties. There is no indemnity clause to ensure quality of these equipment. Without any supervision of the work of these contractors, safety of train journey is the biggest casualty.
Secondly, there is a Commission of Railway Safety (CRS), working under the administrative control of the Ministry of Civil Aviation of the Government of India, that deals with matters pertaining to safety of rail travel and train operation and is charged with certain statutory functions as laid down in the Railways Act (1989), which are of an inspectorial, investigatory and advisory nature. The Commission functions according to certain rules viz. statutory investigation into accidents rules framed under the Railways Act and executive instructions issued from time to time. The Commission is also entrusted with conducting statutory inquiry into serious train accidents occurring on the Indian Railways and makes recommendations for improving safety on the Railways in India. This Commission was supposed to be carved out of the Railway Ministry and established as an autonomous body, but it was not materialized. The members of this Commission had alleged before the Standing Committee of Parliament that the Railway Board was not consulting them before amending many rules and even taking away many of their powers regarding safety of train journey without informing them. The report of the Standing Committee also endorsed the view of the Commission members and mentioned that only 8% of investigations of railway accidents were assigned to the Commission and the rest were carried out by the Board itself. The Committee also highlighted that the Board was not listening to the recommendations of the Commission.
Further, four months back, Principal Chief Operation Manager of South-Eastern Railway had warned that faults in the signalling system could cause a major accident anytime. He also, in a letter to the Zonal Manager of South-Eastern Railway, pointed out that an accident due to discordance between the signalling system and the track changing device (pointing) was just somehow nearly averted a few days back. But no one cared to pay any heed to such timely warnings. Moreover, a few hours before the accident, there was brain-storming session (Chintan Baithak) in Delhi under the presidentship of the Railway Minister. All the Railway zones were supposed to place reports there regarding progress of safety measures in their respective jurisdictions. But only one zone was allowed to speak. Then the discussions were shifted towards running of more ‘Vande Bharat’ trains and means to increase revenue. As mentioned above, the PM was scheduled to inaugurate a new Vande Bharat Express the next day. Clearly, the Railway Ministry was busy with ‘Vande Bharat’ so much so that the issue of passenger safety was relegated to the back.
‘Kavach’ is not a cure-all
Next is about “Kavach” or Train Collision Avoidance System. The Indian Railways announced with much fanfare that it has developed an indigenous automatic train protection system named ‘Kavach’ to prevent accidents caused by human error, resulting in signal passed at danger and over-speeding. The authorities claimed that the system is so full-proof that there is no chance of this device faulting even in 10,000 years. Announcement poster of “Kavach’ device had displayed PM’s face because the system was developed in the country. On 29 March last, the Minister of Railways, Ashwini Vaishnav, said in Parliament that till March 1455 Rkm (Route Kilometer) of network route in South Central Railway has been brought under “Kavach”, out of which 576 Rkm comes under Maharashtra State. This was just about 2 percent of the total network of the Indian railways. The Kolkata-Chennai route where the latest accident occurred is not covered by “Kavach”. The Railway authorities argue that in order to install “Kavach”, the cost incurred is Rs 50 lakhs per km. So, in order to cover the entire 68,000 km long railway network, the expenditure would be around Rs 32,000 crores. But the government does not have that much funds to allocate though as much as 2.1 lakh crores were allocated as outlay for railways. This is another baseless pretext. Railways claim that by withdrawing concessional fares to the senior citizens, increasing platform ticket price phenomenally and extorting more money from the train travellers by just changing nomenclature of passenger trains into superfast trains and introducing so-called ‘dynamic price system’, it earned a record revenue of Rs 2.40 lakh crore in the 2022-23 financial year, up by nearly Rs 49,000 crore from the previous year. What have the authorities done with this increased revenue on the question of their confessed priority to upgrading safety measures? But now, Joy Verma Sinha, a member of the Railway Board said that even if ‘Kavach’ was in place, this accident could not be averted. Why? Because they said that the system would have worked if the driver of Coromandel Express overlooked the signal. But in the instant case, the driver did see the signal. This argument does not concur with the claim that ‘Kavach’ was so resilient as to prevent any accident caused by human error.
Passenger convenience-simply not on radar
Besides dismal picture of passenger safety, passenger convenience is also not on radar of the government. Most of the rakes are in a dilapidated condition due to lack of maintenance. This is more true about normal passenger and express trains. Some seats are also broken. Frequently, lights are either off or dimmed. Many of the fans do not work. Toilets are not clean. Often, water supply stops in a running train. Hardly any train runs precisely on schedule. Even premium brand trains like ‘Duronto’ or Rajdhani Express are often late, sometimes even by 4-5 hours. The Coromandel accident also brought another feature to the fore. Because of paucity of general coaches, many passengers are compelled to board reserve compartments. This causes embarrassment to the passengers who had reserved seats earlier for a relatively comfortable journey. A bogey which is supposed to carry 75 passengers is often shared by double the number. These are all perennial problems. But the government has no concern for that.
Projecting ‘Vande Bharat’ as signature of progress of Railway operation
The PM instead is busy with his signature ‘Vande Bharat’ project to bask in self-eulogy. What are the facts of ‘Vande Bharat’? High-speed trains of reasonable quality and comfort can be a middle-class dream and delight. Especially, in a country like India, where a burgeoning middle class is sick of travelling in smelly trains with dirty washrooms containing soiled toilet seats and often dried-up taps. No wonder, the news of Indian Railways launching the state-of-the-art Vande Bharat trains came as pleasant music to their ears. So, PM Modi did not miss the opportunity to project himself as the architect of ‘Vande Bharat’ and is on a spree to launch such trains. But even at first sight, one is struck by the mismatch between the hype and reality associated with these trains. What strikes us first is the mockery of running these much-hyped “high-speed” trains at the low speeds of ordinary express trains. This is because the railway infrastructure on the ground is still not developed enough to run high-speed trains. 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 Vande Bharat and other similar high-speed trains would require two-way dedicated tracks on which other normal express trains and goods trains should not be run. But, in India, at present, all trains run on the same track. This shows that Railways currently is not ready with its existing infrastructure for running 400 Vande Bharat trains. But the government is arm-twisting the Railway bureaucracy to fast-forward the project as the PM himself is interested in this. Moreover, merely upgrading the existing tracks and running ‘Vande Bharat’ trains on these tracks would hold up other normal trains to make way for these trains. This would inconvenience the passengers of all other trains. In fact, there were protests on the Bangalore-Mysore route recently when normal passenger and express trains were first held up for half an hour due to a Shatabdi train and then for another hour for passing the newly-run Vande Bharat train. Secondly, ‘Vande Bharat’ trains are an Indian Railways project. Indian Railways invest money to manufacture the trains. But these trains are operated not by the Indian Railways but by contracting private companies. The contract terms with private parties who would operate these trains specify that no trains would be run one hour before and one hour after these trains are run. One can well imagine the disruption they might cause for passengers of other trains.
Also, ‘Vande Bharat’ operation has not been without glitches. On September 30, 2022, Prime Minister Modi flagged off a Vande Bharat train from Gandhinagar to Mumbai Central. Before a week could pass, on 7 October, it ran into a herd of four buffaloes and suffered damage. Two other similar incidents followed on other routes subsequently. On 8 October 2022, after the Delhi-Varanasi Vande Bharat train’s wheels got jammed, passengers had to be shifted to other trains. On the very first day of running, Howrah-New Jalpaiguri Vande Bharat was delayed in its time schedule and the passengers complained of being served with sub-standard food. A few days back, air conditioning failed in the same route forcing the train to be stopped in a station for over 45 minutes. And also, the passengers once again complained of serving rotten food for which many, including children, were taken ill. While the ‘dream train’ is being run simply by overlooking so many pertinent questions, the cost of passenger tickets is quite high, almost approaching air fares in budget airlines. For instance, a ticket for the Delhi-Varanasi Vande Bharat train costs Rs.3,310 in the executive class while in the ordinary chair car it costs Rs.1,760. In contrast, a flight ticket by Indigo Airlines costs Rs.4,087. Similarly, Bangalore – Mysore travel by Shatabdi Express costs Rs.380 whereas the cost by Vande Bharat is Rs.515 but the latter reduces the travel time only by around 20-30 minutes. Are such high fares sustainable in the longer run and on all the 400 proposed routes? Initially, there might be a rush of passengers who want to take a peep at the new facilities available in the ‘dream train’. The government obviously has not learnt any lesson from the debacle of the ‘Tejas Express’ experience. The private operators abandoned running these trains because of low occupancy once the novelty value evaporated. The privately-operated ‘Bharat Gaurav’ trains on religious and tourist circuits were launched in August 2022. As the private operators wanted to abandon running of the trains due to low occupancy and profitability, within six months the ticket rates were slashed by 20-30 percent hoping to attract more passengers. It is only a matter of time before these trains too run aground. Hence, can all the 400 ‘Vande Bharat’ routes become equally profitable and economically sustainable? Has the Railways Rates Tribunal come up with any study? No. It is evident that keeping elections in mind, only a few token services would be launched to generate high expectations. The government can take this gamble in the case of any other industry but not with Railways where the safety of passengers is of foremost concern.
A quick glance at railway budget
Railways has long been the artery of India’s travel and transport network under the aegis of the government with a huge establishment that used to provide substantial jobs and operated mainly on the principle of public welfare. It was never viewed as a commercial proposition before last two decades when privatization and outsourcing of activities had commenced. On the other hand, bulk of road transportation, aviation and shipping are with private operators and run on commercial basis. A slew of measures, including merger of general budget with that of railways, adopted by the government in recent years clearly indicate that with passage of time, train service was poised to be completely privatized and run on the principle of profit maximization entailing hefty and continuous escalation of tariff increasingly hitting the passengers’ pocket. While fares are climbing, passenger amenities including safety are ebbing. While the government has been spending around Rs 115 crore for manufacturing two ‘Vande Bharat’ trains per week, why should not that fund be spent instead for bettering the safety system?
Further, for running high-speed ‘Vande Bharat’ and other trains, doubling of the tracks is essential. But far from the importance that it ought to get funds have even been further slashed for that vital aspect as, there is a budget constraint. On the other hand, the usage of funds for non-priority areas went up in several zones to as much as 25%, the report says. For Western Railway, one of the busiest segments of the railways, during 2019-20, of the total expenditure, the money spent on track renewals was a mere 3.01%. CAG report clearly mentioned that “Timely conducting of investigations on derailments/collisions and implementation of the preventive recommendations were the other areas of Audit. Emphasis was laid on the deployment of funds in accordance with the guidelines of Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK).” Moreover, what is more astonishing is that when the entire railway operation is in the doldrums causing immense hardship of the passengers, mostly the poor and middle-class people, PM Modi is embarking on an ambitious bullet train project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad at a cost of whooping Rs 1.1 lakh crore. This highly expensive train meant for the elites is often showcased as India’s ‘technological advancement and modernization’ during the BJP rule under PM Modi. What could be more farcical than this!
After the Coromandel accident, the railway minister has claimed that the cause has been identified. At the same time, to shield the perilous condition of railway operation and callousness on the safety aspects by the government, a ‘sabotage theory’ is also being aired. It is also reported that the Bahanaga station, automatic locking system was non-functional for a long time. Now the government has advised CBI to look into the matter. CBI, as everyone knows, is supposed to investigate crimes. But both the railway minister as well as Jaya Singha, a Railway Board member, have claimed to have identified the cause of the accident. Then, why is CBI investigation is ordered? For what is the rationale behind asking it to probe into an accident which is due to a technical fault and associated problems, yet to be precisely identified, not least shortage of staff in a situation where over 3 lakh job vacancies in the railways have been filled up, which may lead to shortcuts in safety measures.
In the first half of Modi rule, the investigation responsibility of a serious train accident in Kanpur in 2016 was assigned to National Investigation Agency (NIA). The PM himself during his electoral campaign in 2017 indicated that the accident was fallout of a conspiracy. But in 2018, NIA stopped investigating the matter in which around 200 precious lives were lost. NIA report has not yet seen the light of the day. So, no one knows who was responsible for so many deaths. Meanwhile, CBI was asked to probe into the horrific Jnaneswari Express accident (near Kharagpur on 28 May 2010, death toll over 200) and Uttarbanga Express-Vananchal Express collision at Sainthia on 9 July 2010, death toll nearly 1000 in West Bengal. The findings have not come even after more than 12 months. In the meanwhile, there is also an effort on the part of vested interest to communalize such a tragic incident.
An under-construction temple near the accident site has been morphed as a mosque and minority community is being targeted in the social media allegedly by the infamous IT cell of the BJP. The railway minister hitherto was hardly in news as PM Modi was seen in all inaugural functions and other important events. But now when a disaster has happened, PM Modi has cleverly kept himself away from shouldering any responsibility and pushed the railway minister in front to handle the damage control exercise. At the same time, in the twitter handles and social media accounts of the BJP ministers and leaders, one would hardly find any sympathy with the victims and their families. Instead, there is a shower of praise on PM Modi for inspiring the rescue and repair works as well as the immense pain the railway minister bore by being stationed at the spot for 51 hours to oversee the relief and restoration operation. Political whataboutery and pro-Hindutva solgan shouting vouched for lack of sympathy for the victims. But alas! within 48 hours, another incident of derailment of a goods train in Bargarh, Odisha, has been reported. Moreover, one more major disaster was prevented when alert railway staff noticed a crack on the chassis of a coach of the Kollam Junction-Chennai Egmore Express at Tamil Nadu’s Sengottai railway station on 5 June. Not just that. Another major accident was averted at the Kootagulla railway gate on National Highway No. 42 in Kadiri town in the early hours of 3 June as the gate remained open while the Nagercoil-Mumbai (CSMT) Express was about to pass the gate at 12.04 a.m. with the gateman allegedly deserting his workplace. Even on 6 June, the Delhi-Bhubaneswar Rajdhani Express almost crashed into a tractor carrying barrels of diesel near Santaldih station of West Bengal. All these glaringly expose how the railway system is premised on a tottering base and the risk with which passengers travel in trains. But the priority of the PM and his colleagues has been on introducing highly expensive trains, that too without proper infrastructure, only to spruce up their images before the world as harbingers of modernity and skillfully pass on the buck of any horrific accident or lapse on ‘unidentified miscreants’ or concoct story about minority community being involved in the offence. Does it not smack of an attempt to divert attention from the failings or responsibility of the government and instead foster its communal and electoral agenda?
Should the suffering countrymen allow such sordid state of affairs to continue unabated? Or they must rise up to ameliorate their hardship? What is incumbent on all is to form innumerable passenger safety committees round the country and release organized movement to compel the government to take effective steps to ensure safety, security, amenities and convenience of the train passengers and bring down the fares within the affordable limit of the masses at large. Privatization and commercialization of railway service must be reversed and the government must shoulder the responsibility of running this essential travel service with adequate manpower, proper supervision and judicious allotment of resources keeping the interest of the common people in mind.
Let there be an end to the overdose of gimmickry centred on ‘Vande Bharat’ or ‘Bullet Train’ to shield the rickety skeleton of Indian railways from public gaze. If people get united and organized in right earnest for a right cause, the autocratic rulers will have to bend. This is the lesson of history. Let us join hands to forestall disastrous accident like that of Coromandel Express in future.