The tragic train accident in Khatauli near Muzaffarnagar has left 25 dead and over 100 injured. Early indications show that the death toll could go beyond 30 as some dead bodies are yet to be brought out from the debris.
Once again, the derailment is being blamed for the tragic accident involving Utkal express. Local residents alleged that tracks were undergoing repair works when the train passed through, leading to derailment and coaches to pile on each other.
This once again raises the safety issues of railway tracks and whether the successive governments have done enough to make them accident-proof.
Railways has approximately 13 Lakh employees which may seem to be a huge workforce but they maintain over 1,14,000 km of tracks, 7000 stations handling 25 million passengers with over 2.45 mil tonnes of freight everyday. There exists a clear deficiency of over 2.5 lakh workforce mostly in Group C & D employees which include the foot soldiers of Indian railways: The Gangman or The Linesman; individuals who are always the first casualties any cost cutting exercises.
Gangman or the Gangmate as they are called, walk the track and inspect for fracture signs, loose bolts, fish-plates and welding issues. They are like the infantry soldiers of Army, not as celebrated as the Armoured Corps, who are the backbone of the army.
Gangman’s duty involves working around the clock in eight hours shift, walk the track eight kilometres up and down with tool kit weighing twenty kgs and more. It is this workforce that gets killed while working on tracks almost 400 annually. Over 2000 gangmen get injured every year.
Over the years, Gangmen have been retiring but their replacements have almost been frozen. The average working age of a gangman is above 45 years, but their workload is ever increasing. They don’t even have decent raincoats and rainboots while they are out and about performing their duties in hostile weather and terrains. Yes, they are expected to perform in monsoon, fog and in summer heat.
Downsizing of this workforce over the last few years has only increased the risks of accidents many times over. Gangmen are now expected to travel longer distance in same working hours thereby compromising the tracks’ safety. Since they are always the last safety net that usually saves passengers’s lives, this safety work cannot be outsourced to contractors or be overlooked.
Aging tracks vs depleting manpower
The government must accept and understand that aging tracks would need more manpower to maintain the tracks which are being over utilised and under maintained.
Reducing manpower to save resources at the time when as many as ten derailments have taken place in 2017 alone point to wrong priorities of the government.
It’s time to invest into public safety because while the government has aggressively been raising the train fares, they have done very little in terms of ensuring passengers’ safety.
Dr Anil Kakodkar, Padam Vibhushan, Ex-Director of BARC, Ex-Chairman Atomic Energy Commission of India, had submitted in the Year 2012, a High-Level Safety Review Committee Report to Indian Railways with 106 safety recommendations of which till date only 66 of them have been accepted by the government. Of these 66, only 22 of the recommendations have been executed. This shows our commitment to public safety.
The report painted a very bleak picture on the overall safety environment of Indian Railways in all spheres like Maintenance of Tracks and Rolling Assets, Signal and Telecommunication assets, Manpower and Resource crunch that needed a big time overhaul requiring an investment of at least Rs 1 Lakh crore investment in next five years to effectively deal with safety related issues.
One such issue that found prominent mention in the report was of coach design. The experts highlighted that in the event an accident involved a Rajdhani train, which has LHB coaches, there would be lesser fatalities as compared to Utkal Express. Dr Kakodkar concluded that ICF coaches are unsafe as compared to LHB design coaches because the former climb over each other leading the bogies to get mangled.
This recommendation has been accepted by the railways but the idea is yet to come to fruition. Fatalities in Utkal Express could have been even fewer if the train had LHB coaches.
In March this year, India’s finance ministry refused to sanction Rs 1.11 Lakh crore towards Rashtriya Rail Sanrakhsha Kosh citing lack of funds. Depreciation Reserve Fund (DRF) to maintain aging assets requires Rs 20000 to 25000 crore every year. In 2016-17, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu allocated only Rs 3200 crore to the DRF.
Dr Kakodkar’s report had clearly stated that deficiency in critical safety spares in most departments is almost 50%. The manpower in safety related activities is suffering from deficiency by 27 to 32% at the working levels.
Despite this acute shortage of manpower adversely affecting the railways’ safety, Ministry of Railways has been consistently reducing manpower for the last three years with as many as 1100 staff scheduled to be laid off.
The ministry must make give up its ‘chalta hai attitude’ on railway safety and deal with crisis as a matter of urgency. It simply cannot believe in its own philosophy of ‘save money but lay off manpower’ and then expect a miracle on the tracks’ safety.
(The author is a retired Indian Air Force officer and our resident aviation expert. He has decades of experience in aviation safety and training. On Twitter he can be contacted at @khalid_ehsan )