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Accident By Design, Raj Style

The Kadalundi mishap was a tragedy waiting to happen—committees come and go, but bridges are only getting older

Accident By Design, Raj Style
Accident By Design, Raj Style
The deep rhythmic booming sound of a train galloping over a bridge is a passenger's delight. The peculiar thrill always had an edgy undertone—a feeling of being in the presence of danger, but secure. That balance tipped over tragically last fortnight as the 139-year-old Kadalundi river bridge, 14 km from Kozhikode, collapsed under the weight of the Mangalore-Chennai Mail. Over 50 lives were lost, and the lessons hold relevance for many, many more.

A few facts first. Indian Railways is the world's largest rail network under single management with 1,07,360 km of tracks carrying over 11 million passengers a day. Yet, safety is always at a premium here. The priorities on the safety of bridges is even less. Till date, the Indian Railways has no properly defined, accountable safety department. Even the Commission of Safety is mostly concerned with post-event enquiries rather than precautions. And, strangely enough, its administrative control rests with the Union ministry of civil aviation.

Between 1962 and 1998, four review committees were set up to look into the issue of rail safety; none of the reports ever went beyond the confines of the files in which they were presented. The last committee, chaired by retired Supreme Court judge H.L. Khanna, was highly critical of the glaring neglect of safety-related issues. It was particularly severe on the state of bridges and track maintenance—two major factors responsible for most accidents in the last decade, including the latest one.

The committee minced no words in pointing out that of the 1,19,724 bridges that dot the network, a good 51,340 were built in the 19th century and were well past their usable age. "Going by the thumb-rule of structural engineers that the life of a bridge is around 100 years, the Indian Railways is faced with a grave problem," it commented, strongly recommending that the government either abandon or repair these within a year. Nothing much has happened—official data shows that as on March 31, 1999, 334 more bridges could be put under the 'distressed' category with the northern zones alone accounting for 209.

The government has routinely ignored warnings on bridges. In 1989, spurred by a spate of mishaps, a Bridge Rehabilitation Committee was set up. Another entity, the Bridge Steering Committee, was formed to implement the report with the help of professionals. Progress was stymied due to paucity of funds and lack of interest from the railways management. The committee was eventually wound up in 1992.

The Kadalundi mishap could have been avoided if only the government had taken the Rehabilitation Committee report more seriously—the bridge was declared 'distressed' way back in 1989 and the committee had recommended that it be scrapped within four years. If the 100-year principle had been followed, it should have been abandoned in 1952. The bridge was part of the Chaliyar-Tirur line, one of the earliest lines to be laid in the country in 1862—barely eight years after India's first passenger train ran from Howrah to Hooghly. Like 25 others identified by the 1989 committee, it was built by the British on a screwpile foundation, an inexpensive and quick technique—these "temporary structures" took less than a month to build—to ferry light steam locomotives. Its foundation rests on huge cast iron screws of 20 ft x 6 ft in size, manually pushed to the ground, and lacks the strength of modern bridges with deep foundation. In 1975, a small screwpile bridge on the Vapi river in the Mumbai-Baroda link was washed away.

In spite of all the warnings, the eastern, western and southern railway zones still use such bridges—there are about five bridges per every kilometre of rail track in the southern sector (it has 171 major and 1,951 minor railway bridges). In fact, most bridges between Shoranur and Kadalundi are over a century old and were built at the time when Southern Railways was established.

Officially, authorities claim that routine inspections are carried out to ensure safety. Says a top railway official: "We undertake inspection and repair of about 300 bridges on an average every year. Checking and re-checking is a regular affair." Adds former Railway Board member N. Venkatesan: "Bridges are the Railways' best-monitored asset, Their maintenance is extremely well-documented and follows a well-laid-down process. It's surprising that such a thing could happen when bridge records are maintained meticulously."

Experts, however, say it is difficult to find out which of these bridges were actually 'distressed' and needed immediate attention as there was no scientific evaluation technique. The Indian Railways don't even have the equipment or expertise to evaluate the safety of bridges on water. Unlike the west, India still relies on divers for underwater inspection, who, in most cases, are either unskilled or ill-equipped to identify faults. Also, this method can only detect superficial cracks. Most of these bridges could collapse due to internal flaws that cannot be inspected physically.

According to the Indian Railway Bridge Manual, a 'distressed' bridge is one which "shows signs of deterioration in its physical condition indicating the need for rehabilitation through special repairs or rebuilding". This, many say, could be misleading. Says one expert: "Several bridges may seem in perfect health from outside but they may need immediate repair. The Kadalundi accident is an example of this."

Railway officials point out that many frequently used bridges, apparently in perfect shape—like the Brahmaputra bridge in Assam, the Naini bridge over Yamuna near Allahabad, the Malaviya bridge in Varanasi and the metallic Mokama bridge in Bihar—may require proper and more frequent inspection as they are both old and used for heavy traffic.

And it's not just bridges one should be worried about. According to the Railways' own statistics, about 25 per cent of rail tracks are also classified as unfit for use. However, being part of major routes, they continue to take major traffic load. At the end of the Eighth Plan (1992-97), about 9,595 km of tracks was pending repair or replacement. By 1998, this increased to 10,957 km. The Khanna Committee put the figure at 12,260 km in 1999. The Railways Safety Report for 1999-2000 has this to say: "Defecation on the railway track by the public...(has made) the track so excremental and nauseating that it is next to impossible for the staff to even carry out routine inspections...."

Lack of money emerges as one of the key reasons for this lackadaisical approach towards safety. New tracks would mean a whopping Rs 3,251 crore and the bridges would demand at least Rs 650 crore which would mean about Rs 130 crore every year for the next five years against the Rs 58 crore that the government spends now.

The Rakesh Mohan Committee had suggested corporatisation of the Railways to solve its financial and organisational crises, as the Railway Budget, its only source of funds, has long become an exercise in competitive populism, focused more on announcing new trains and lines than safety measures.Till this changes, hapless Indians would continue to carry their hearts in their hands every time they are travelling by the Indian railways.
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