The 1.4-million-employee strong behemoth, Indian Railways—with a 65,000-km long network—has unfortunately had a bad patch for last two decades with, political leadership steeped in populism and pandering to various demands for new passenger trains, oblivious to the fact that the existing system may not be able to sustain it.
Undoubtedly, the increase in passenger rail traffic due to these new trains introduced brought in much-needed revenues, but at a cost. Not only the freight traffic, the breadwinner, suffered, but also the maintenance of assets vital to safety (in particular, tracks) went for a toss.
The recent accident involving 18478 Haridwar Kalinga Utkal Express—it derailed at Khatauli, Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, killing 24 and leaving 70 injured—is symptomatic of a malaise—the lack of time available for adequate maintenance of the railway tracks.
Reportedly, the track maintenance gang at the accident site was denied permission to block the track for urgent repair work, but still went ahead in the hope that it would be able to complete the task in the very small window available between two consecutive trains.
Of course, the CRS (Commissioner of Railway Safety) has yet to establish if the track had been adequately protected by the repair gang by planting a red banner at an adequate distance from the repair site to warn the locomotive driver of any oncoming train to stop—this is mandatory under the existing General and Subsidiary Operation Rules as well as the track maintenance manuals.
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Reportedly, more than 150 track machines, meant to bring the present-day heavy track to correct geometry in a shorter time span, and of much superior quality than possible manually, have not been utilised to the desired levels for lack of an adequate time window, of about one-and-half-hours between two consecutive trains.
On one of the high-density, double-line route—such as Delhi-Howrah, which carries nearly 120 trains a day—the time between each train averages 12 minutes. This does not permit machanised maintenance to be carried out, unless some trains are deliberately delayed to create an adequate slot for the track machines to go into the section and carry out necessary work.
Suresh Prabhu, the erstwhile railway minister, kicked off an initiative to augment section capacity by doubling or tripling existing sections carrying more than 100% of their designed capacity—this will start to bear fruit in a couple of years, only after which mechanised maintenace could be carried out more frequently. Till then, good old manual maintenance will have to be the mainstay.
Piyush Goyal, the new railway minister, looking for ‘quick fix’ solutions, would be in for a surprise when he realises that there aren’t any. Any major changes, or even minor tinkering with the existing systems or procedures, would need to be well thought out for its effect on the long-term overall efficlency and perfomance of this vast organisation. Railways simply cannot afford any more initiatives for short-term gains.
It took the Railways quite some time to get over the trauma and confusion created by changes in the “command and control” system brought about by overnight creation of seven new Railway Zones, taking the number of zones from 9 to 16 more than a decade ago. The move failed to generate a quantum jump in traffic unlike what has been predicted by the promoters of this move, other than the yearly incremental one generated due to higher economic acitvity.
Furthermore, Lalu Prasad’s famous quip on the floor of the Lok Sabha during one of his famous Railway Budget speeches that ‘unless a cow is milked every day, it would fall sick’ was with reference to optimum utilisation of wagons.
His fiat increasing loadability over and above designed capacity had a deletrious effect on the health of wagons, with increased incidence of premature failure of roller bearings, and increased wear and tear of rail track, increasing possibility of derailments. A healthy cow had indeed fallen sick, but due to ‘over-milking’.
Past acts of commision and ommission are now fast catching up with this 160-year-old organisation, and it will be a long and slow struggle back to regaining health of its assets. Regaining its financial health is another battle to be fought, once the monster of accidents has been tamed.