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Safety Concerns Tarnish The Sheen Of Indian Railways' High-Profile Projects

While authorities lay blame on human error, The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has a different consideration of India’s railway accidents

PTI
Mangled bogies of a train involved in the Kanchanjunga Express-goods train collision accident on Monday Photo: PTI
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A year after 296 people died in a train collision in Odisha, the Kanchanjunga Express train collided with a freighter on the morning of June 17. As with the 2023 accident, authorities are citing human error. However, white papers and CAG reports of the Indian Railways have been flagging systemic issues with infrastructure and finance for several years. 

What’s happened so far

At 9 am, this Monday, a freighter trainer carrying goods collided into the stationary Kanchanjunga Express train. The express train was rammed from behind by the goods locomotive near the Jalpaiguri railway station in Darjeeling district. Latest estimates say 10 people died while 41 more are injured. According to a statement by chairperson and CEO of Railway Board Jaya Varma Sinha, Anil Kumar who was the driver of the goods train  – among those deceased in the accident – “disregarded the signal.” 

Sinha, in her statement after the accident, had also stated that the goods train’s ALP Manu Kumar had also perished. 

Speaking to Outlook, former Senior PRO Indian Railways Samir Goswami said the comment from Sinha was premature, especially in light of the fact that the Railway Ministry has just convened an investigation and are awaiting its findings.

The day after the accident, it was discovered that Manu Kumar was alive and being treated at a private nursing home in Siliguri. While he is yet to recover, Manu is the only survivor among those accused in a criminal case under various sections of the IPC, Railway Act and Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act registered by the Government Railway Police (GRP). 

According to Goswami, while the Express train driver had been forewarned about the signal, the freighter driver’s papers did not categorically mention the signal failure. “And, if for any reason, we can assume he failed to understand about the non-functioning of the signal. There were other station personnel who were also there, but they failed in their duties. There were a series of faults here, not just one man,” said Goswami. 

Systemic Issues flagged by CAG

Derailments and Collisions account for 80 per cent of train accidents

While authorities lay blame on human error, The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has a different consideration of India’s railway accidents. Between 2017 to 2021, CAG’s analysis shows that 69 per cent of the 1392 incidents were derailments, and 80 per cent of consequential accidents, in which there were significant casualties, were caused by derailments and collisions, which in turn point to quality of maintenance and inadequate staffing.

In its conclusions in a 2022 report CAG wrote: “The IR managed the maintenance activities with vacancies in the (sic.) work force and with nominal outsourcing. This revealed that required steps were not taken for adequate staffing in the (sic.) safety category, which can impact quality of maintenance.”

“For any accident there are four to five reasons – track system, signalling system, quality of the rolling stock (wagon, cars, engines), qualified trained staff are necessary. Though they are sent for training, refresher courses are there, but proper supervising in everything, that rigidity and strictness are to some extent loosened,” pointed out Goswami.

A major factor in derailments was track maintenance, which also affects automatic signalling systems. “In automatic signalling, the signalling circuit system is attached with the track line. If the track is not proper, and if something is actually not functioning properly – either in the track or the signalling,” explained Goswami.

 CAG reported that 171 of the 422 derailments attributed to Engineering problems that it surveyed were due to improper maintenance of the tracks, and another 156 were due to ‘deviation of track parameters beyond permissible limits.’ Another 182 derailments were attributed to mechanical failures, of which 37 per cent were due to defects in coaches/ wagons. The accidents attributable to loco drivers, such as being blamed for the West Bengal tragedy, was 154, while 275 accidents were accounted for as due to the Operating Department – 84 per cent of which were “mistakes in shunting operations and incorrect setting of points.

Track maintenance

In a 2015 government white paper, it had been said that 4,500 km of track should be renewed annually. However, till at least 2022, no such renewals have taken place, according to CAG. Over 25 per cent of derailment accidents between 2017 and 2021 might have been avoided with proper track maintenance, said CAG.

Lack of proper spending

The report further pointed out that overall expenditure on, and allotments of funds for, track renewal works had declined by over 2000 crore since the fiscal year 2018-2019. “The overall expenditure on priority-I works from RRSK showed a declining trend from 81.55 per cent in 2017-18 to 73.76 per cent 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 reported.

The lack of funds, said CAG, was due to issues with the railway’s “internal resource position.” CAG’s report said that the funds of the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) were being used for non-priority areas – as much as 25 per cent in some zones. Meanwhile, the expenditure on track renewals in busy segments such as Western Railway was as little as 3.01 per cent. This spending pattern “defeated the primary objective of creation of the RRSK to support absolute safety in railways,” said CAG, adding that safety related works were held up due to “fund constraints.”

The CAG report appears to be at odds with the PMO which has previously shared that provisions made under RRSK have been over Rs 11,000 crore in 2022-23 and 2023-24. 

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The replacement and renewal of assets has also taken a hit, according to CAG. The Depreciation Reserve Fund received only Rs 3440 crore from internal resources, nearly half of the 2013-2014 allocation of Rs 7900 crore. In its 2022 report, the national auditing agency said that the Railway’s old assets in need of replacing were worth over Rs 94,000 crore, but of the Rs 58, 459 crore to be spent on track renewals only Rs 671.92 crore was claimed from the Depreciation Reserve Fund. 

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