Misplaced Priorities And Inadequate Intervention On Safety Led To Odisha Rail Accident, Says Peoples’ Commission On Public Sector And Public Services

Railway Board should reconsider running super-fast trains, recommends the Commission

Statement on Odisha railway accident The Commission, at the outset, wishes to express its deep concern at the occurrence of such a ghastly accident as the one that took place in Odisha recently. The Commission further wishes to express its grief at the death of more than 280 persons and injuries suffered by hundreds of others.

Indian Railways (IR) is among the largest of the CPSUs in the country, annually moving 8.71 billion tonne-km of freight, 500 million passenger-km of passenger, employing more than 1.2 million personnel, who are professionally among the best in the world. IR provides one of the largest social security covers in the country, offering travel facilities at affordable charges for millions of short and medium-distance travellers belonging to low-income groups.

In particular, the Commission wishes its appreciation to thousands of local villagers who spontaneously provided immediate relief to injured passengers. The prompt way in which the NDRF personnel rose to the occasion is commendable.

Misplaced priorities and inadequate intervention on safety

In view of the critical dependence of the economy on railways and the increasing demand for railway movement of both freight and passenger traffic, the Railways ought to make additional investments in its basic infrastructure facilities such as the carrying capacity of its aging tracks, the signalling systems, the anti-collision systems (Kavach), and other auxiliary facilities, crucially required for enhancing the safety of railway movement and its capacity. Of late, the policymakers have chosen to introduce high-speed passenger trains such as bullet trains and Vande Bharats, which in turn call for matching investments in the railway infrastructure.

Unfortunately, the emphasis placed by the policymakers on speed has not been matched by their focus on safety, resulting in several ghastly accidents such as the latest accident thatoccurred in Odisha near Balasore. While one expects the planners in the Ministry of Railways to make a professional analysis of the factors that have led to such accidents and draw lessons to improve the existing safety systems, accidents come and go by without lessons drawn.

When an accident takes place, the senior public functionaries seem to feel satisfied by announcing palliatives such as ex-gratia relief for the victims and their families and displaying sentiment and emotion, knowing well that such limited relief does not address the immense human trauma to which the affected families are subject. It is also not uncommon to find senior public functionaries to place the blame on sabotage, rather than the technical factors and the institutional system for governance that lie behind those accidents. The latest accident in Odisha is yet another example of this.

Ignored Anil Kakodar committee recommendations, Justice Khanna Committee Report and CAG observations

There have been several reports on the ways and means of enhancing safety in railways, including those submitted by technical experts to the Railway Board, the reports submitted by the CAG to the Parliament and comprehensive reports brought out by Parliament Committees. A review of the action taken on each of these reports shows how the Ministry is yet to act on each of the important recommendations in those reports. For example, the High Level Safety Review Committee (“Kakodkar Committee”) submitted their report in 2012 and made several far reaching recommendations on railway safety which include the setting up of an independent statutory railway safety authority, strengthening of the RDSO and the adoption of an Advanced Signalling System (akin to the European Train Control System) for the entire trunk route length of 19,000 km within 5 years. More than a decade has elapsed since then but such an independent regulatory authority, directly accountable to the Parliament, is yet to be set up. As far as the recommendation on the signalling system is concerned, the Ministry could have involved highly professional CPSEs such as Bharat Electronics Ltd (BEL) and Central Electronics Ltd (CEL) in locating the most advanced signalling technologies in the world and indigenised the same for adoption in IR, which has not been the case.

Acute congestion on the trunk routes:

Today rail in India suffers from subpar safety performance and slow speed of trains. Both these problems have to be dealt with together, one at the cost of the other would be undesirable for the future of rail transport in the country, particularly passenger travel. By Railway Board’s own data in the National Rail Plan, congestion has reached critical levels on about 10,000 km of the trunk routes (the quadrilateral and the two diagonals and some other routes) which are carrying trains at 125 to 150% of the capacity against the desirable limit of 70 to 90% capacity utilization. This acute congestion has resulted in inadequate windows of traffic blocks for the essential routine repair and maintenance of the track and other line infrastructure and insufficient slack to deal with operational hindrances and emergencies. Overcrowding in trains, particularly in the non-AC general and sleeper class coaches, is another serious concern which also results in higher fatalities in accidents. Acute congestion on the trunk routes and overcrowding in trains are adversely impacting both safety and speed.

The Vision 2020 plan for the future growth and expansion of Indian Railways, presented to the Parliament in 2009, had envisaged raising of speed on the existing trunk routes to 160-200 km/ph and building new higher speed lines. Evidently, this acute congestion on the critical trunk routes is the main reason for the failure to raise speed on the existing lines through upgradation of track, signals etc to compete with the road and air modes. No new lines have been constructed on trunk routes to cater to the growing demand for more trains.

Demands a comprehensive systemic evaluation

RDSO seems to have relied on a few private companies for introducing electronic signal locking systems such as Block Proving by Axle Counter (BPAC) using UFSBI. Considering that the indications so far in the specific case of the Odisha accident point to a possible failure of the BPAC system, it calls for a technical review of the functioning of BPAC systems, the extent to which they are failure-proof and their vulnerability to manual interference or manual lapses. Such an examination will be possible if the factors leading to the accident are first subject to a systematic technical evaluation rather than being hastily subject to an investigation by the CBI, as is the case now, on a somewhat subjective assumption that the accident was caused by sabotage.

The Commission has come across a disturbing communication dated 9-2-2023 from PCOM, South Western Railway (it is available in the public domain) on the failure of the BPAC system at Hosadurga Road station of Birur-Chikjajur section of Mysore division on 8-2-2023, involving Sampark Kranti Express, leading to an “averted head-on collision” with a goods train. This was analert that should have woken up the Railway Board to the possibility of the BPAC systems failing at times. The Commission wonders whether the Ministry has acted on such an important alert and ordered a thorough evaluation of the BPAC systems in position. This also brings us to the question whether the RDSO needs further strengthening.

Demands filling of vacancies and an end to outsourcing and privatization

The Commission wishes to point out that whenever an accident such as the recent one in Odisha takes place, the tendency on the part of the Ministry is to presume that there are manual lapses and hold the lower-level functionaries such as the railway station personnel responsible for the accident rather than introspecting on whether its own policies and programmes have indirectly contributed to the recurrence of such accidents. The complete lack of concern shown for the filling of vacancies in
Railways which is more than 3 lakhs, increasing contractual labour replacing regular ones, the efforts on asset monetisation and privatisation need to be mentioned as the other important example of misplaced priorities. The Parliamentary Committee on railway safety pointed out that 60% vacancy among staff for maintenance of tracks, inspection of railway bridges etc. has adversely affected track maintenance and inspection, which is crucial for minimizing the occurrence of accidents.

Speed vs Safety:

While faster trains no doubt help Railways provide relief to passengers, though a small proportion of the total volume of passenger traffic, thus helping it to compete with road transport and airlines, increasing the speed of trains in a congested section will slow down other passenger trains catering to short- and medium-distance, low-income passengers as well as freight trains. In fact, if at all speeding train movement is to be considered, it should be in the case of freight-carrying trains, to maximize economic returns.

The Commission feels that zero-tolerance for accidents is far more important than indiscriminately launching super-fast trains such as Vande Bharats. The highest priority should be given to safety, before introducing any more super-fast trains.

The Commission makes the following recommendations:

  1. The Railway Board must carry out an analysis on the adverse impact of super-fast Vande Bharats will have on the average speed of other trains on which lakhs of short-distance passengers who cannot afford to pay heavy charges depend. The Railway Board should not continue to launch more and more speeding Vande Bharats, without ascertaining the speed-worthiness of the tracks and the efficacy of the BPAC systems.
  2. Considering that there was already one serious instance of failure of the BPAC system on 8-2-2023 in the South West Railways, and one more now in Odisha, causing a large number of fatalities and injuries and the consequent human trauma, the Railway Board should reconsider running super-fast trains, knowing well that there is a possibility of more such BPAC failures occurring. To provide accident-free railway travel, the Ministry of Railways should shift its focus from speed to safety.
  3. To deal with the chronic problem of heavy congestion, which has reached critical levels on about 10,000 route kilometer of trunk routes, Railway Board should come with a detailed long term plan for removing the chronic bottlenecks and upgrading the existing lines for 160-200 kmph on key trunk routes and adding new double-track lines for the higher speed of 200-250 kmph. The plan should not only be prepared but diligently adhered to in the next 10 to 15 years.
  4. As far as accountability for the lapses that led to the Odisha accident is concerned, the Commission feels that those at senior levels in the government and in the Railway Ministry should own it more than those at the lower levels.
  5. Considering the magnitude of the accident and the wide range of complex technical issues, instead of CBI which has a history of inordinate delays (NIA has not filed any report on the Kuneru and Kanpur accident cases though 7 years have passed) a panel of three Commissioners of Safety (to be chosen by the Chief Commissioner of Safety) should be constituted to complete the study started by one Commissioner of Safety which should also look at the system failures like non-utilisation of funds allotted, huge vacancies in the safety category staff, inadequate upgradation of the existing trunk routes and adding new double-track lines on the key trunk routes to eliminate congestion, independence of the Railway board, non-implementation of earlier recommendations and plans, and suggest clear steps to be taken. A panel of three CRSs instead of just one can be expected to do a more thorough technical examination and be less susceptible to outside pressures. In the present scheme of safety regulation, the Railway Safety Commissioner submits his report to the Railway Ministry. The experience so far is that the Ministry often glosses over the findings, without effective follow-up action. In order to obviate the scope for it, we feel that all Railway Safety Commissioners’ reports be placed before the Parliament for effective action. The RDSO should collaborate with IITs, CSIR labs, Universities to develop technologies/ adopt technologies to suit our country,
    and to carry out studies on range of topics such as demand and capacity, safety, punctuality, competition offered by the growing road and air modes and prepare a long time road map instead of non-implemented National Railway Plan.
  6. The focus should be on strengthening the Public sector Railways instead of talking of Privatisation creating a confusion and demoralisation in the minds of executives and employees, filling up of all vacancies immediately, converting contract employees into permanent employees with accountability and development of appropriate technologies.
  7. Governance is crucial, autonomy with accountability should be provided to the Railway Board instead of making it sub servient to the Minister and Parliament’s supervision should be strengthened.
  8. Bring back Rail Budget instead of submerging it with the union budget as it existed before.
  9. Instead of finding scape goats and trying to shift blame, the Govt and Railway Ministry should own up responsibility and start remedial action as suggested.
  10. Invest in renewal of over aged assets like track, bridge, signal etc and clear arrears. Draw effective plan for dedicated freight corridors ,dedicated express lines, expansion of network, increase the average speed of goods trains and passenger services and to increase the railway share of goods and passengers with government investments like done by China 11. The declining share of Railways in the transport sector should be stopped and rail’s share should be increased to provide the social security and safety at affordable rates, reasonable speed and adequate comfort to the majority of the Citizens.
  11. The Commission is setting up a Task Force to monitor the action taken by the Ministry of Railways on the People’s Commission’s recommendations above, so that the
    Commission may keep the public at large of the action taken.

The above report is based on the press release/recommendations spelt out by Peoples’ Commission on Public Sector and Public Services

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