The original version of the article was published on 14th June 2023 in “The Daily Guardian”
The Indian Railways has been an integral part of India’s transportation infrastructure for over 170 years. With its vast network and extensive operations, the 68,000 km railway network facilitates travel for more than 350 crore people annually and plays a crucial role in the country’s economic growth. However, as the fourth largest railway network in the world just after the US, China, and Russia, it has seen the highest number of train accidents and deaths in the last ten years among these countries. Recent incidents like the Odisha train mishap, with a recorded toll of 288 dead and more than 1,000 injured, raise concerns about safety and highlight the need for improvements in the rail network. While several initiatives have been taken to improve the safety and efficient operation of Indian Railways, clearly, a lot more needs to be done as the country moves towards introducing more high-speed trains.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau data, there were around 1,00,000 railway-related deaths in the country between 2017 and 2021. According to a 2021 report from the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, nearly 70 per cent of the 2,017 train accidents in this period were due to derailments caused by old signalling equipment, poorly maintained infrastructure, track defects, and human errors. Poor funding or refusal to use the funding to fix railroad tracks can also be attributed to those accidents.
In this article, we will delve into the facts and figures of Indian Railways, discuss its significance for the Indian economy, analyse safety issues, and explore measures to enhance safety and reduce accidents.
Indian Railways: Backbone of Nation’s Transport System
Boasting the world’s fourth-largest railway network, Indian railways span over 68,000 km and connect more than 8,000 stations. It serves both passenger and freight transportation needs across diverse regions of the country. Every day, approximately 1.3 crore passengers travel by train, benefiting from various classes of travel tailored to different socio-economic backgrounds. Moreover, Indian Railways plays a pivotal role in the movement of goods, carrying nearly 30 lakh tons of freight daily and supporting trade and industrial activities. In FY 2022–23, Indian Railways achieved a record freight loading of 1,512 MT.
Over the last few years, the Indian government introduced several steps to revolutionise rail transportation in India. Apart from the introduction of new trains, high-speed rails were incorporated into the system to facilitate passenger travel. Introduction of foreign direct investment in the government-controlled entity, public-private partnership modes of investment for capital expenditure, capacity expansion and better service delivery, international collaborations to improve safety mechanisms and the installation of world-class technology have added to the efficiency and effectiveness of the vast railway network. As a result of the above and many other measures, the number of accidents per million train kilometres, a gauge of safety, fell from 0.10 in 2013–14 to 0.03 in fiscal 2021–22.
In 2017–18, the government also introduced a 1-trillion-rupee five-year safety fund to streamline the introduction of safety measures using technological extensions. The fund received a five-year extension from 2022–23, with an additional 450 billion rupees of funding, after the first plan led to an “overall improvement in safety indicators”. The Union Budget 2023–24 recorded the highest-ever allocation to the national transporter, a capital outlay of Rs 2.4 lakh crore. Apart from capacity expansion and the addition of new routes and coaches, there is a need to ensure that a reasonable chunk of this goes into improving the existing infrastructure with adequate technological interventions.
Rail Safety: Lacunas
In spite of the several measures to improve the functioning of Indian railways, there is an immediate need to address some issues that make the rail network safer for travel. In its 2022 report titled “Derailments in Indian Railways”, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) flagged multiple shortcomings in the safety and security of the railways in India. The audit covering the period from April 2017 to March 2021 was to ascertain if measures to prevent derailments and collisions were clearly laid down and implemented by the Ministry of Railways.
According to the report, there were several shortcomings in the functioning of the Indian railways, severely jeopardising the safety of the mass network. It reported a shortfall of anywhere between 30 to 100 per cent in the inspection of tracks amongst other things. Of the 1,129 ‘Inquiry Reports’ of derailment accidents in 16 Zonal Railways, 422 derailments were attributable to the Engineering Department. Within this, 171 cases were due to poor “maintenance of track” and 156 due to “deviation of track parameters beyond permissible limits”. Errors of the Mechanical department caused 182 derailments whereas 154 accidents were attributable to the loco pilots with “Bad driving/overspeeding” also emerging as key factors.
The report made several recommendations ranging from strict adherence to the scheduled timelines for conducting and finalising accident inquiries. The report also noted a significant reduction in funding allocations for improving the safety of the rail network. Total expenditure on Priority-I works from the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) declined from 81.55 per cent in 2017–18 to 73.76 per cent in 2019–20. With the expansion of routes and the introduction of modern coaches with better facilities and faster speeds, there is a need to upgrade the track infrastructure to support the capacity expansion. However, this is not in line with the funds allocated for track expansion and improvement. Fund allocation for track renewal went down from 9,600 crore rupees in 2018–19 to 7,400 crore rupees in 2019–20 due to underutilisation.
Upgradation VS Safety
According to experts, apart from the need to introduce technological interventions to improve safety, another major concern that needs immediate attention is the overburdened and underqualified nature of the railway personnel responsible for safety. The focus of railways on adding new trains that run at a higher speed has to run side by side with the investment in track and safety infrastructure. Experts also point to the slow rate of adoption of new safety-related upgrades in India’s railway system as compared to the likes of Russia, the US, and China. Moreover, most Indian train tracks, including some newer ones laid in recent years do not have an anti-collision system. The indigenously developed ‘Kavach’ system to prevent collisions also needs to be expanded across rail routes across the country.
Other challenges plaguing the Indian Railways range from overcrowding, inadequate maintenance, and human error. Over the years, India has witnessed several major railway accidents, resulting in the loss of life and property. Notable incidents include the Khanna rail fire in 1998, the Gaisal train collision in 1999, and the Kanpur train derailment in 2016.
From Technology to Training for Safety
Recognizing the importance of safety, the Indian government has taken steps to improve the rail network’s safety standards. Modernization and upgradation efforts are underway, focusing on tracks, signalling systems, and rolling stock. Embracing advanced technologies, such as train collision avoidance systems and remote monitoring, is a crucial aspect of enhancing safety. Additionally, the construction of dedicated freight corridors aims to segregate passenger and freight traffic, reducing congestion and enhancing safety.
Major initiatives to improve rail safety include the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK), a dedicated fund for railway safety to finance critical safety-related projects, including the elimination of unmanned level crossings, track renewal, and signalling system upgrades. The indigenously developed Automatic Train Protection (ATP) System, Kavach, is in the process of being expanded across the country in a phased manner. Introducing Modified Centre Buffer Couplers, Bogie Mounted Air Brake System (BMBS), improved suspension design and provision of Automatic fire & smoke detection system in coaches was also a major technological upgradation in recent years. GPS-based Fog Pass devices and Ultrasonic Flaw Detection (USFD) while testing rails to detect flaws and timely removal of defective rails are other measures undertaken to improve the safety of railways.
Investing in comprehensive training programs for railway staff is vital for safe operations. Providing training to drivers, maintenance crews, and signalling personnel can significantly reduce accidents and mishaps caused by human error. Continuous skill development and strict adherence to safety protocols are essential for maintaining a safe and efficient rail network.
Future-Ready Rail Network
As a result of the steps taken by the Indian Railways, the number of consequential train accidents decreased from 118 in 2013–14 to 22 in 2020–21, the lowest-ever figures in the history of Indian Railways. The introduction of the National Rail Plan (NRP) 2030 to cater to traffic requirements up to 2050 by developing infrastructure by 2030 will further streamline these initiatives. NRP has a Vision 2024 document to enhance the modal share of Railways in freight transportation to more than 40 per cent and to cater to the traffic requirements up to 2030. The introduction of Hydrogen-fuel cell-powered eco-friendly Vande Bharat trains to replace the older trains designed in the 1950s-1960s will also add to the safety measures.
Looking ahead, the Indian Railways must continue its efforts to modernise and upgrade infrastructure, implement advanced technologies, and enhance safety training programs. Additionally, strict enforcement of safety regulations, regular maintenance inspections, and timely repairs are essential to prevent accidents and ensure passenger and freight safety.
The Indian Railways holds immense significance for the Indian economy, facilitating passenger and freight transportation and contributing to economic growth. However, safety concerns persist, necessitating ongoing efforts to improve safety standards. Through modernization, upgradation, training, and better enforcement of safety measures, the Indian Railways can enhance safety and efficiency, reduce accidents, and fulfil its role as the lifeline of the nation. The recent Odisha train mishap serves as a reminder that continuous improvement and investment in safety are paramount to maintaining the trust of the millions who rely on Indian Railways every day.
Damini Mehta/New Delhi
Contributing reports by Shubhangi Jain, Swati Sinha, Sreetama Neogi and Harnoor Sandhu, Researchers at Polstrat.
From Polstrat, a non-partisan political consultancy which aims to shift the narrative of political discourse in the country from a problem-centric to a solutions-oriented approach.