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Achieve forgotten targets by unveiling rail safety blueprints

JUNE 19, 2023

By Naresh Minocha, Consulting Editor

"I would like to emphasise on one thing and that is the accountability. The accident took place and more than 300 people died. Earlier also the accidents had taken place. Some Ministers resign and some others do not do so. It is not the accountability of the Hon. Minister only but of the Government. The Government is accountable to the House. It is accountable to the railway passengers. If such a big accident takes place then what is the morality and what is the justification of constitutional morality, the House wants the reply to all this?" stated A.B. Vajpayee as an Opposition stalwart in Lok Sabha on 21st August 1995.

Mr. Vajpayee, a Bharat Ratna & BJP Marg Darshak, was participating in a debate on an accident involving Purushottam Express and Kalindi Express near Firozabad in UP.

His passion & vision for transparency and accountability has direct relevance to Balasore Trains disaster (BTD) in Odisha in which two passenger trains & one goods train collided.

A similar triple trains collision happened in Jharkhand on 20th March, 1959. On that day, No. 664 Dn. goods train from Rourkela side was waiting at the Down Outer Signal of Chakradharpur. Meanwhile, No. 656 Down Goods, also coming from Rourkela side, collided into its rear.

As a result, seven wagons of No. 656 Goods train got derailed blocking the Up Main line. A few minutes later, No. 2 Up Howrah-Bombay Mail (HBM) left Chakradharpur and collided with the derailed wagons. HBM's engine got derailed and capsized and two coaches next to it also derailed.

Several accidents in loop lines, including a tragic head-on collision with a parked Military Special train in August 1991 in UP, have happened over the decades. Train collision on main lines have been many more. Similarly, instances of derailed coaches or bogies, infringing an adjoining track, and thus becoming the cause of second accident have recurred.

Similar is the story of instances of hanging parts of rail infrastructure or any other obstruction on track becoming a cause of accident. Two such recent incidents figured in a safety conference presided over by Chairman of the Railway Board (RB) on 3 rd April 2023.

"Increase in consequential accidents (CAs) is a matter of grave concern" bemoaned RB chairman at the meeting with CAs rising to 48 in 2022-23 from 35 in preceding year.

The risk of BTD-type second accident due to derailed train fouling the parallel track is very strong. Notwithstanding this, Indian Railways (IR) has not framed a holistic, integrated guidelines to avert such tragedies at the spot of the first accident. And whatever guidelines exist, they fail to work in time.

This issue of second accidents worried IR in 2021 when One Double Stack Container Goods train derailed on 19th February 2021 in Mirzapur Bachhod block section of Rewari-Ringas-Phulera route under Jaipur Division of North Western Railway.

In this accident, 24 containers capsized and a few infringed the adjacent route owned and operated by Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Limited (DFCCIL). It is wholly owned public enterprise of the Railways that hauls goods on the western and eastern corridors.

IR realized there was no standard protocol for emergency communication between IR and DFCCIL in such cases.

RB cited this incident to the zonal railways (ZRs) in its letter dated 2 nd September 2021. As put by the letter, "it could have been disastrous had a goods train on DFC track been passing before any action could be taken by the Guard of ill-fated train. It might become more disastrous, if any derailment takes place on DFC route and infringes IR track whereon any passing passenger train might collide in the absence of real time communication system between DFCCIL and IR."

This issue figured in safety review meeting at RB held on 12th October 2021. According to minutes of the meeting, sections where the DFCCIL track is running very close to adjacent IR track should be identified. DFCCIL and the concerned zonal railways should finalize a joint procedure order (JPO) "to exchange the information about any accident/ obstruction in either system to avert any untoward incident in the other system."

RB instructed DFCCIL and zonal railways to finalize JPO by 31 st October 2021. This obviously did not happen. It is evident from East Central Railway's (ECR's) letter to RB on 18th February 2022.

Disclosing that ECR and DFCCIL have drafted JPO, the letter says: "It was agreed that DFCCIL will urge Railway Board to issue uniform policy in this regard from Railway Board itself as it will be necessary, because seven zonal railways are involved with DFCCIL project."

On 5th March 2022, RB circulated ECR's draft JPO to concerned zonal railways, seeking their suggestions on it. Why didn't RB enlarge this IR-DFCCIL issue into safety matter for all rail networks including few private point-to-point freight lines?

Would BTD's secondary accident have happened had RB framed the holistic guidelines on prevention of second accident at a derailment site?

A glance through IR's 39-pages Accident Manual, issued in April 2021, shows absence of comprehensive advisories on how to avoid second accident in the worst-case scenario where both loco pilots and guards get killed. Should other surviving staff of the derailed train not have been skilled and equipped to respond to prevent second accident?

Consolidated, all-inclusive guidelines on accident prevention on infringed track are perhaps also absent in the accident manuals. Each ZR has its own accident manual. Why has the Government not unveiled One Nation; One Rail Accident Manual?

This brings us to the need to streamline & standardize operational guidelines issued by different zonal railways to minimize risk of advisories becoming the cause of accidents!

This concern is illustrated well by different orders on speed restrictions issued by different ZRs. According to RB letter dated 12th April 2022 addressed to ZRs, while some ZRs issue caution order containing both permanent and temporary speed restrictions, other ZRs issue only temporary speed restrictions (TSRs). The latter assume that permanent speed restrictions (PSRs) are included in the Working Time Table.

The letter says: "This is leading to the situation where even the same crew working in different territories encounter two types of systems regarding caution order which is not desirable from safety view point ."

Neither the present Government nor the earlier ones learnt from recurring train tragedies including the one that happened in Punjab on 26th November 1998. Jammu Tawi Sealdah Express (JTSE) collided with derailed coaches of Golden Temple Mail that fouled the path of JTSE. As many as 209 passengers lost their lives and 140 passengers sustained injuries.

IR's little learning from past recurring accidents was the message of Mr. Vajpayee's speech. BTD has reinforced Mr. Vajpayee's anguish.

Modi Government could have achieved its forgotten 'Mission Zero Accidents' by 2020 target had it acted on Mr. Vajpayee's speech. This Mission was announced during February 2016.

The public thus expects presiding officers of both houses of Parliament to allow serious debate on avoidable rail accidents that bring miseries to hundreds of families every year and disrupt working of the country's prime mover of GDP growth and revenue. It is time to perform Shuddhi Yagya on Rail Safety with BTD serving as the last wake-up call.

The Yagna would show that successive regimes have neglected both safety of passengers and security of railway assets and transported goods. The Yagna can bring to the centre-stage stunning evidence of opacity, indecisiveness and neglect in governance of railways, in general, and safety and security in particular.

IR deserves better governance as it is a prime mover of the country's growth engine. The Railways is also a key driver of the national mobility and unity.

The public would thus feel overwhelmed to see Mr. Modi initiating a serious discussion on rail safety & security reforms in New Parliament Building (NPB). It is pertinent to note that the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao made a statement on Purushottam Express-Kalindi Express collision in Lok Sabha before the discussion.

Inaugurating NPB on 28th May 2023, Mr Modi described it as: "This is not just a building. It is a reflection of the aspirations and dreams of 140 crore Indians. This is the temple of our democracy giving the message of India's firm resolve to the world ."

Yes, NPB is reflection of public desire for safety and peaceful life. The citizens want the world to know that New India has resolved to revive railway reforms under Mr. Modi's leadership. Let the world know that the country has resolved to improve security of railway assets, passengers and goods hauled by it.

The IR reforms agenda is huge & requires a multi-volume study report. Thus, for the sake of simplicity and priority, this column would focus only on train accidents.

BTD should lead the Government into drafting a new blueprint for accidents- free train operations in Amrit Kaal . The foundation for blueprint should be a one-stop mega website on rail safety.

The website should host all accident investigation reports beginning with the Raj Era that witnessed some major accidents. A case in point is the 1919 Moradabad accident in which more than 45 persons died. Another major tragedy was a tornado blowing over a passenger train in Bengal during 1902, killing 13 passengers and causing injuries to many.

As put by G. Huddleston, a railways expert, in his 1906 book ‘ History of the East Indian Railways ', "Strange to say a very similar accident had occurred

on the East Indian Railway some thirty years previously and very near the same place; in both cases the surrounding country was an open plain, the lines of the railway being laid on a slight embankment, about five feet high, with nothing whatever to break the force of the wind. Both these accidents were what is termed ‘acts of God '."

All such reports should be grouped under different categories such as head-on collisions, loop line accidents, derailment due to animals on tracks, second accident due to derailed bogies or coaches from 1st tragedy, etc. Each probe report should be accompanied by an action taken report (ATR).

Unfortunately, Digital India has not yet produced a single website where accident investigation reports of Commission of Railway Safety (CRS) and its predecessor Railway Inspectorate are available. Missing too are reports of judicial commissions that are specifically constituted by Government.

Same is the case with IR's internal enquiry reports on minor accidents and incidents that could have resulted in major disasters. Ditto for reporting of incidents in specified category to prevent their recurrence and thus minimize the risk of their turning into accidents.

The portal should have separate categories for defective equipment, worn-out equipment and wrong wiring of electrical or electronic system that trigger accidents or pose risk of accidents.

An instance of defective equipment is bogie-mounted braking system (BMBS) currently under probe as it is the suspected cause of a collision. Fitted on 88,000 bogies, BMBS supplier is rectifying the flaws in the system.

As for wrong workmanship, two alarming instances of wrong wiring deserve mention. First, wrong wiring in relay room done by signalling & telecom (construction) staff caused derailment of EMU train in CSMT (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) division on 28th February 2023. Second, an "unusual incidence of cutting of signalling cables and their subsequent wrong connections " was recorded at Lucknow station was recorded during January 2023, according to an official document.

The suggested portal should host agenda and minutes of safety review meetings. It should also have all safety circulars grouped into different categories.

The laxity on the safety front is multi-dimensional and alarming as is evident from official records. These include reports of parliamentary committees and Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).

RB penned at least three letters to ZRs, underscoring importance of immediate reporting of all accidents and incidents to it during last three years.

The 3rd letter dated 27th October 2021 says: "It is seen that Zonal Railways are reporting late or not reporting the accidents/unusual incidents including those incidents resulting in injury."

The letter continues: "The information in Board and Apex offices is received from other sources like electronic medial social media and not from zonal Railways. The information flow about accidents and unusual incidents to Railway Board should be prompt before the information reaches other sources."

An issue that creates persistent worries at RB is recurrence of incidents of Signal Passing at Danger (SPAD) by trains, which result in minor or consequential accidents.

It is apt to cite a shocking SPAD that happened on 16th August 2017 in Bilaspur division of South East Central Railway (SECR).

As put by RB letter to ZRs "loco pilot and assistant loco pilot have admitted that they passed the signal at danger due to napping. It is also understood that Vigilance Control Device (VCD) in the locomotive...was in isolated condition since 04.08.2017 ."

This is despite standing instruction that if VCD gets defective/isolated on run, the locomotive should be declared as failed at loco changing point or at the destination. VCD is supposed to monitor alertness of the crew.

Napping & other instances of negligence or mistakes by train crew are perhaps partly linked to persistent breach of duty hour rules over the decades.

It is here pertinent to quote record notes of meeting on breach of 12-hours ceiling for duty hours of crew in SECR held last month in RB.

Discussing the crew duty data for Bilaspur-Shahdol section for two-and-half months for period ending 15th May 2023, the record notes say: "These long hours of duty on a regular basis are a matter of grave concern; it grossly violates Board's extant policy and can lead to very unsafe conditions. No perceptible improvement is noticed so far despite serious case of rear-end collision in this section on 19.04.23 ."

Consider now a crucial reminder for RB on the need for timely decision-making on safety. This reminder is implicit in the latest available annual report (2019-20) of Commission of Railway Safety (CRS), a statutory authority under administrative control of Ministry of Civil Aviation.

According to the Report, "At the end of year 2019-20, no action taken report from Ministry of Railways was received and response was awaited on balance twenty eight reports. The oldest such inquiry report is of the accident which occurred in the year 2013-14."

The report adds: "There is generally delay in communication of ATR by ministry of railways, on the recommendation made by CRS in their inquiry reports. The report of the oldest accident of 2013-14 was submitted to Railway Board in December 2014. However, the same is still pending. In the year 2018-19 & 2019-20, no ATR has been received from Railway Board."

IR's ultra-slow decision-making process on CRS investigation reports increases the risk of recurring factors that contribute to the disasters. The Railways Act should be amended to stipulate time-limit for taking decision on CRS reports.

It is apt here to invoke Mr. Vajpayee's speech to drive home the need for public access to all accidents and incidents to promote safety as the way of life for all stakeholders. He stated: "When any accident takes place, we order for two types of inquiries. Sometimes a judicial enquiry is conducted or sometime the inspector of railway safety does this work and its report comes. Our complaint is that the whole of the report is not published, only 1-2 paragraphs are published. What happens to these recommendations, the House as well as the nation does not know anything about those ."

He added: "I have that the reports of all these are not published. There is a need to publish all those reports. Whether each of the recommendations has been implemented or not, it should also be taken into consideration. The faith of the people in railway travel has shaken. If that faith is to be restored then many steps will have to be taken and as I have said that Government should give example of its accountability towards the Parliament and the country ."

The suggested website on safety should serve as temple of learning on safety of the public, railway assets and the freight. It should host all forgotten and unfulfilled promises and claims made on safety front.

The sacred Sengol -guided Government should thus present a status report on why safety targets set by different regimes are not attained even today.

Be that as it may, thousands of crores were collected from railway passengers as safety surcharge, which was later subsumed in development surcharge and made part of regular revenue.

The Government created Special Railway Safety Fund (SRSF) in 2001­02 to clear backlog of renewals of vital safety equipment by 2006­07. SRSF was financed partly by introducing safety surcharge on passenger fare. The targeted, total accruals over five years were Rs.5,035 crore. The balance Rs.11,965 crore of the planned corpus was financed through additional financial assistance from the Finance Ministry.

The levy of safety surcharge was to end from 1 April 2007. After this timeline, safety surcharge was subsumed under passenger fares in the form of ‘ Development Charge ' to fund Dedicated Freight Corridor. The passengers thus did not get benefit of withdrawal of safety surcharge.

SRSF and subsequent Safety funding jugglery has been studied by CAG in its report over the years. The wished-for Status paper on safety should provide full truthful details of safety finance & audit objections.

The passengers have a right to know why IR's 10-year Corporate Safety Plan (CSP) for 2003-2013 proved to be a grand illusion.

CSP stated: "Collisions will be totally eliminated by extensive use of Anti-Collision Device (ACD)", which is now known as Kavach .

It added: "With the completion of track circuiting works, provision of block proving axle counters, data loggers and a comprehensive safety coverage proposed to be given by ACD over the next few years, it will become a `mission area' for Indian Railways to eliminate collisions and consequent deaths. In this direction, all works related to prevention of collisions are proposed to be completed in the Plan period. This is likely to take the IR to realize the dream of a collision-free system."

The rail safety blueprint for Amrit Kaal should be based on lessons learnt from recurring failure to achieve promises made to gullible public over the decades.


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