On Thursday, January 13, came the first real bad news of the year for the Indian Railways. It is also bad omen for the latest occupant of the corner room of the Rail Bhawan, bureaucrat-turned-entrepreneur-turned-Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, rather early in his tenure.
Around 4.30 pm, 12 coaches of the Guwahati-bound Bikaner-Guwahati Express (15633) derailed, with some coaches telescoped into each other. Nine people have died and 50 are injured in the first major railway accident in 34 months.
Last time, a spate of railway accidents shook the conscience of the nation in 2017 and then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu had assumed moral responsibility and vacated the corner office of Rail Bhawan. This need not be the fate of the current minister who has just assumed the charge of the ‘terminally-sick’ Indian Rail system. But it is a reality check, a wake-up call that stewardship of Indian Railways is a crown of thorns.
The accident took place between Domohani and New Maynaguri stations near Siliguri in North Bengal. The toll could have been much higher if not for the local bravehearts, district administration, local police, NDRF personnel, BSF team and the railways accident relief team acting in unison in the dark and chilly night to extract the passengers from the jumbled-up coaches. Omicron-led third wave of Covid-19 was an unlikely saviour as the number of passengers in the train was much less than in normal times.
Also, instead of blame-game, this accident showed coordination between Bengal chief minister and the Prime Minister. Despite the accident site being remote, the railway minister, the chairman of Railway Board and the director general (safety) of Railway Board reached there immediately. It was a pleasant change.
Rituals to be followed after every rail accident have begun — statutory enquiry ordered to decode the reasons behind the accident, ex-gratia compensation swiftly announced (Rs 5 lakh for the dead, Rs 1 lakh for critically injured and Rs 25,000 to those with minor injuries).
The ball is now in the court of the Chief Commissioner of Rail Safety (CCRS) to find the causes for the derailment. The report will be out sooner or later, will be filed in the railway board library and forgotten till another accident happens. Indian Railways will continue to talk about its stellar track-record of being one of the best globally in terms of incidents per million passenger kilometre.
But this incident brings us back to three key questions. One, why does Indian Railways doggedly refuse to have ‘zero tolerance’ to accidents?
Two, why does it not look at the root cause analysis of the accidents?
And third, why does it continue to keep the salutary recommendations of the High Level Safety Review Committee headed by noted scientist Dr Anil Kakodkar locked in the library?
The reasons for why accidents happen in the Indian Railway system are well-documented. A study of railway accidents between 2000 and 2016 revealed there are four major categories of accidents. These are: a) Derailment b) Level-crossing accidents c) Collisions and d) Fire in trains. Further, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways looked at the railway accidents between 2003 and 2016 in detail and noted that derailments were the second biggest reason for railway accident-led casualties during this period.
The Committee had also identified key reasons for derailment. It found that of the 4500-5000-km track that were required to be renewed annually in 2015-16, only 2700-km track renewal was planned. As earlier recommended by the High-Level Safety Committee, the parliamentary committee too recommended that Indian Railways should switch completely to the Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches as they do not pile upon each other during derailments and hence cause lesser casualties.
The visuals of the January 13 accident, where coaches have piled upon each other, clearly show that the Kakodkar Committee recommendations are yet to be implemented in totality.
One can argue that the current financial state of the railways is such that it has no internal accrual for taking up key safety related expenditure, commissioning track renewal work on war footing, eliminating all unmanned level crossing and replacing the ‘killer’ ICF (Integral Coach Factory) coaches with LHB coaches.
But money apart, the organisational culture at Indian Railways needs a paradigm shift. Zero tolerance for accident and incident must be a part of the work ethic. Employees have to stop considering a posting in the safety department at the zonal and divisional level as ‘punishment posting’.
It has been a decade since the High Level Safety Review Committee headed by Dr Kakodkar submitted its report. It is high time its key recommendations are accepted and implemented. Three key recommendations were:
One, it had asked for a special committee to study why defect and cracks on tracks occur. It is not known if such a committee was appointed, if yes, what were its findings and what was the action taken.
Two, the committee asked for phased elimination of ICF coaches and their replacement with the LHB Coaches. It is not known what the progress on the ground has been.
Three, and most importantly, the committee had recommended an independent new safety architecture on the lines of the UK Rail Safety and Standards Board. It seems the recommendation was shelved altogether.
However foolproof a system, an accident can always happen. That is not the question here. The big concern is, if the organisation does not gear itself for the challenges – with 360-degree overhaul of infrastructure, organisation and culture – the next railway accident will happen sooner than later.
A decade ago, China was rattled by a major accident in its high-speed rail (HSR) network. Today, China has 40,000 km-long HSR network including trains running at 350 kmph without driver. The Chinese rail system learnt from its singular accident and there has been no accident in the last one decade on its HSR network.
The author is an infrastructure expert and President, Advisory Services, BARSYL Limited. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and neither represent the stand of this publication nor the author’s company.