A day after the Patna-Indore Express derailed near Kanpur, killing 120 passengers (and counting), condolences have been paid by the top political class of the country, compensation has been announced to the kin of the dead, a postmortem of the accident is being conducted with officials assigned to look into the matter, and life has moved on.

The date 20 November, 2016 is already part of unfortunate statistical data on the worst train accidents in the country. It’s no relief that the last accident of such a magnitude — killing 170 passengers — was nearly seven years ago.

However, if the key recommendations of the Kakodkar Committee report — especially related to passenger safety — had been implemented, the Patna-Indore Express tragedy could have been averted, or at least minimised in terms of loss of life.

After the Maoists had derailed the Gyaneshwari Express in West Bengal’s Midnapore district on 28 May, 2010, killing 170 passengers, the railway ministry had constituted a High-Level Safety Review Committee in September 2011 the under the chairmanship of nuclear scientist and former chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, Dr Anil Kakodkar. The committee had submitted its report in February 2012, painting a grim picture of the Indian Railways plagued by inadequate performance largely due to poor infrastructure and resources, and the lack of empowerment at the functional level.

Rescue and relief work in progress after the Indore-Patna Express derailed near Kanpur Dehat on Sunday morning. PTI

Rescue and relief work in progress after the Indore-Patna Express derailed near Kanpur Dehat on Sunday morning. PTI

Some key observations of Kakodkar Committee

– Inadequate performance due to poor infrastructure and resources.
– Financial state of Indian Railways is ‘at the brink of collapse’ unless some concrete measures are taken. Passenger fares have not been increased in the last decade and the infrastructure is severely strained.
– All safety margins have been squeezed. This has led to a neglect of infrastructure maintenance.
– Need for an independent mechanism for safety regulation and creation of a statutory Railway Safety Authority with enough powers to have a safety oversight on the operational mode of Railways.
– The need for adoption of advanced signalling systems.
– The need to restructure the RDSO (Research Design and Standards Organization), the apex technical wing of the Railways, which is highly constrained.
– A much-needed switch over from the conventional ICF design coaches to the much safer LHB (Linke Holfmann Bush) design coaches. This is likely to cost Rs 10,000 crore over the next five years.
– Although the minister of state for railways Manoj Sinha had said in the Lok Sabha in December 2015 that out of 106 recommendations made by the Kakodkar Committee, 68 have been fully accepted and been taken up for implementation, the recent tragedy proves otherwise.

According to Northern Railway sources, besides cracks on rail tracks, another reason for higher number of casualties in the Patna-Indore Express accident was the absence of stainless steel LHB coaches. “LHB coaches have better and higher in-built safety features, which can absorb shock and high impact of derailment or collision. So many deaths could have been averted, had there been LHB coaches,” the source added.

“Although the NDA government has initiated transformation in railways, aiming at increasing capacity and re-designing the business model, the urgent need is to take bold and uncompromising decisions on passenger safety,” said a senior official in the Ministry of Railways.

“Every time a major train accident occurs, we get down to postmortem on the reasons that caused the accident. And every time, the  same old factors evolve after rounds of discussions — lack of maintenance, lack of high-level passenger safety, need for modernisation of tracks and coaches etc. The government announces populist measures in every Budget to please the masses, but who’ll be responsible for these accidents, which otherwise in many cases could have been averted?” the official asked.

Populist measures by any government of the day are a big curse plaguing Indian polity. In every annual Rail Budget, the government introduces new trains without considering the fact that the burden on railway tracks — most of them laid during the British Raj — has increased manifold.

Successive governments have ignored warnings given by expert committees and engineers of the Indian Railways on track safety and maintenance. However, new trains and subsidized fares are a big tool to please the voters for any incumbent government that prevents it from taking any bold steps.

On the other hand, the thrust of the Kakodkar Committee’s 106 recommendations was on various safety aspects like filling up of vacancies in critical safety categories and manpower planning issues; plugging the shortage of critical safety spares; removal of encroachment and sabotage; upgrade of signalling, telecommunication and the Train Protection System, rolling stock, track, bridges; elimination of level crossings; eco-system and safety architectures on Indian Railways, among others.

Rescue and relief work underway after the Indore-Patna Express derailed near Kanpur Dehat on Sunday morning. PTI

Rescue and relief work underway after the Indore-Patna Express derailed near Kanpur Dehat on Sunday morning. PTI

What’s wrong?

Senior officials and former members of Railway Board have admitted that poor network infrastructure and increasing burden on tracks have posed a big threat to passenger safety. The following factors are of particular concern:

– Creaky railway infrastructure is already stretched beyond its capacity, leaving little time for maintenance. With more trains set to run through the same network, the situation can only get worse.
– Capacity at maintenance yards is also limited and with a large number of trains being added each year, it is getting increasingly difficult to keep pace with hectic maintenance schedules.
– Indian Railways is using most of the corridors beyond 100 percent usage capacity.
– Difficult to carry out planned and systematic maintenance on trunk routes (20,000 kilometeres of high-density network) due to excess traffic and lack of time.
– Large number of passenger trains also affects the movement of freight, which is the main revenue earner for the railways. Goods trains are made to wait to let passenger trains pass as there aren’t enough tracks to accommodate. The backlog includes oil tankers as well.
– Railway unions have been blaming reduction in manpower as a major bottleneck in its development.

First Published On : Nov 21, 2016 09:53 IST

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Patna-Indore Express tragedy: Populism and British Raj tracks hold safety to ransom