While railway mishaps are turning alarmingly frequent — yet another derailment of coaches was reported near Mumbai on Tuesday morning — one reason for the poor state of affairs is paucity of manpower at the transporter’s safety-related departments. According to official data, about 20% of posts of track maintainers — who inspect and repair rail tracks — are lying vacant. Of the total requirement of 271,272 trackmen, the railways has 217,764 on board, leading to a shortfall of 53,508 personnel. It should be noted that apart from the Duronto Express that derailed due to a landslide on Tuesday, the other two recent major derailments — of the Utkal Express and the Kaifiyat Express — were due to human error. Also, there are many incidents that go unreported as tragedies have been averted.
According to a railway official who did not want to be named, at least on three instances in the last five days derailments have been averted. On August 24, the Pushpak Express arrived at a stretch in the Bhusawal railway division that was blocked for welding and stopped just short given a banner flag was put up by the track maintenance staff. On August 26, a similar incident happened when the Puri-Mumbai LTT Weekly Superfast Express was given the signal to run on a track under maintenance near Machapur railway station in the East Coast Railway Zone. In the Ajmer-Chittorgarh section of Ajmer division on August 25, a light locomotive entered a blocked stretch due to run-through signal given to it. Though mishaps were averted, in all three cases the railways has suspended one station-level officer each.
The Indian Railways is short-staffed across departments leading to stressful work hours, claim railway officials. In a letter, reviewed by FE, written to the Railway Board by the Federation of Railway Officers’ Association after the derailments last week, the federation said: “The field staff and officers of all departments are under great stress of working in managing over-aged assets, flogged over the past few decades without commensurate increase in manpower resources to maintain the same in safe state. There are still more than 15% vacancies, mostly in safety categories, to be filled up. Even the selections already held are kept in abeyance.
“Similarly, the newly created assets have not been provided with suitable manpower to maintain them,” the letter added. The railways did an internal analysis in January 2017 which showed that for new lines that were laid in the past five years, there was a requirement of roughly 7,500 additional trackmen of which only 3,600 were sanctioned and just 2,000 trackmen were actually appointed, according to another railway official. Taking cognizance of situation, the newly appointed chairman of the Railway Board Ashwani Lohani — who took over after AK Mital resigned from the post following the derailments of the Utkal Express and Kaifiyat Express — held his first meeting with officers related to track safety.
In the meeting Lohani asked to immediately fill up all vacancies, especially that of trackmen, and also asked to focus on their living conditions. Lohani, according to the second railway official quoted above, also asked officials to come up with new test criteria for the recruitment of trackmen wherein focus should be given on physical test. Later, in a letter addressed to 1.3 million employees of the railways, Lohani wrote: “Safety shall always remain our principal focus area. We have to always be on our guard to ensure the highest level of safety in train operations and instil a renewed sense of confidence in our esteemed passengers.