By Kishore Desai
Last month’s Amritsar tragedy brought the spotlight back to railway safety. The average person usually doesn’t understand that Indian Railways (IR) has a very specific definition of accident. For IR, accident is an occurrence which does or may affect the safety of the Railways, its engine, rolling stock, permanent way and works, fixed installations, passengers or servants, or which affects the safety of others, or which does or may cause delay to the train, or loss to the Railways. We think IR reports all accidents. IR only reports “consequential accidents”, consequential accidents being those above some thresholds. A “serious accident” is an accident where there is loss of life or grievous hurt to passengers, significant damage to railway property, or where Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) decides to hold an enquiry. However the following are excluded: (a) Cases of trespassers run over and injured or killed through their own carelessness or of passengers injured or killed through their own carelessness, (b) cases involving persons being Railways servant or holding valid passes/tickets or otherwise who are killed or grievously injured while travelling outside the rolling stock of a passenger train or run over at a level crossing or elsewhere on the Railways track by a train, and (c) level crossing accident where no passenger or Railway servant is killed or grievously hurt unless CRS requires an enquiry.
Since 2014, the government started according highest priority to rail safety. Historical railway accident data showed that derailments and level crossing related accidents accounted for the highest share of accidents and consequently fatalities as well. The urgency was therefore to completely eliminate these accidents. While level crossing accidents could still be eliminated by measures such as manning level crossings, constructing diversions, road under bridges (RUBs) and road over bridges (ROBs), eliminating derailments was quite challenging. Technically, a train could derail if anything related to wheel and track interaction goes wrong. In other words, a train could derail if rail track develops a crack/fracture or the wheel profile gets damaged, parts hang loose from the underbelly of bogie, there are instances of human errors such as failure in complying with speed restrictions, application of sudden breaks and so on. With so many moving parts, eliminating derailment required co-ordinated efforts.
First, strong acceleration in track renewal related works. To eliminate track infirmities and to quickly replace old/damaged rail tracks, track renewal projects were prioritised. As a result, the speed of track renewal almost doubled from about 2,400 track km in 2014-15 to around 4400 track kms in 2017-18. Over the 6- month period April 2018 to September 2018, the government has already completed renewals of around 2260 track kms. This is almost 55% more than the achievement during the same period last year (April 2017-September 2017).
Second, modernisation of track and rolling stock monitoring and maintenance. To ensure that defects in track or rolling stock are detected and addressed, track and rolling stock monitoring and maintenance practices were modernised.
Third, de-congesting railway network and upgrading rolling stock technology. Heavy congestion in railway network and old rolling stock technology increased risks of accidents. To address these issues, the government increased the average pace of commissioning new lines from an average of about 4.1 km per day (2009-14) to 6.5 km per day (2014-18). It is also upgrading the existing rolling stock by shifting to new technology such as LHB coaches and gradually procuring state-of-the-art diesel and electric locomotives.
Fourth, complete elimination of unmanned level crossings. The average pace of elimination of unmanned level crossings was close to 1,140 per year during 2009-14. A recent press release shows that the government has successfully eliminated about 3,400 unmanned level crossings in just 7 months (April 2018 – October 2018). By the end of December 2018, the entire broad gauge network across the country is expected to be free from unmanned level crossings.
Finally, ensuring adequate funds. To ensure adequate funds for safety works, budgetary allocation was increased significantly. For 2013-14, the budgetary allocation for rail safety works was estimated to be around `39,000 crore. This almost doubled to around `73,000 crore in 2018-19 (budgetary estimates). The government also created a dedicated railway safety fund, referred to as Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK). This fund provides Indian Railways a dedicated corpus of `1 lakh crore for investing in safety projects during the 5 year period 2017 to 2022.
The above list is not exhaustive. Besides these, Indian Railways has also taken several other important initiatives to improve safety. Some of these include introduction of state-of-the-art signaling technology (European Train Control System (ETCS) level 2), proliferation of electronic interlocking, increased provision of foot over bridges, escalators, lifts in stations, filling safety related vacancies on priority and so on. All these measures have together helped Indian railways achieve a significant improvement in safety performance. Overall, the number of train accidents recorded a 40% reduction from 118 in 2013-14 to 73 in 2017-18. Latest data available for the yearly cycle from September to August shows that the number of fatalities and injuries also recorded a huge reduction. Fatalities and injuries reduced from 275 and 409, respectively, over the period September 2013 – August 2014 to 40 and 57 over September 2017 – August 2018. Almost an 86% drop on both accounts.
Clearly, safety in Railways has improved considerably since 2014. The year 2017-18 was probably one of the safest years for railway users in the recent past.