On the wrong track: What ails the Indian Railways?
The Balasore triple-train tragedy is a warning sign of a railways in decline. Recurring accidents point to systemic failures that need urgent attention
Indian Railways runs some of the slowest trains in the world and yet has a safety record that is comparable to Tanzania, Nigeria or Pakistan. But why do some of the major train disasters in India take place in the eastern states in particular?
As Indian Railways comes to term with one of the nation’s worst tragedies on the rails, which took place on 2 June in the Balasore district of Odisha, several possible causes have been singled out. Among them are signal failure, a ‘shortcut’ taken by maintenance personnel, carelessness, callousness or even criminality (as in, sabotage).
What is not being talked about though is the role of acute congestion on the Howrah–Chennai line on which this accident occurred. There are also growing indications, if not outright irrefutable evidence, of negligence by overworked maintenance personnel working at the affected site.
Negligence can occur due to various factors, including exhaustion due to shortage of manpower; it is not merely a moral failure. It is no good pointing to negligence as a cause, therefore; it is more important to get to the cause of the negligence itself.
There are reports that Indian Railways has over 3.12 lakh vacancies, a staggering number of these posts directly related to railway safety, maintenance and signalling. Indian Railways’s trunk routes bear the brunt of congestion, both in terms of the number of trains and also in the volume of freight and number of passengers they carry, especially in the east.
Congestion happens when the number of trains on a particular railway line is more than 90 per cent of its capacity. The ideal capacity utilisation of tracks is around 70 per cent, but on around 10,000 km of the trunk routes, the tracks are bearing 125 per cent of the capacity, according to data made available by the Railways. What we therefore need are new railway lines. Just like the government is laying expressways adjacent to existing highways, our railways require more tracks to deal with this kind of congestion.
The most obvious impact of congestion is on track maintenance. Ideally, tracks need to be shut down for 2–6 hours at a time for proper inspection and maintenance. But this level of congestion rarely allows such a luxury, and one can easily imagine the consequences of hurried inspections and postponed or rushed maintenance—not just of tracks, but also for signals, the overhead electrical supply lines, etc.
Acute congestion also tends to slow down trains, resulting in delays. The Coromandel Express, when it resumed operations this week after the Balasore accident, took two extra hours to cover the distance from Shalimar to the accident site. Passengers reported that the train would stop every time a train approached from the opposite side on the adjacent track. The locomotive pilots were being extra cautious.
If trains are delayed, there is then not enough slack in the schedule, with the result that punctuality also deteriorates. The officers and staff become more stressed, as they work in fire-fighting mode. In such circumstances, compounded by being understaffed, train drivers, guards, stationmasters, trackmen, etc all end up working overtime.
As the schedule fails, hygiene may also suffer because adequate time is not available at the terminuses to carry out a thorough cleaning before trains must leave for the next station or trip. The worst possible fallout is, however, on safety.
Overcrowding on trains also adversely affects relief and rescue efforts following accidents, and leads to more fatalities and injuries. The long rescue operations necessitated in Odisha to extricate passengers trapped below the toppled and crushed coaches is a case in point. In most accidents, as in Balasore, passengers travelling in overcrowded general compartments and sleeper coaches suffer from more serious injuries.
Significantly, the Yesvantpur–Howrah Superfast Express, which crashed into the overturned coaches of the Coromandel Express, was also running late by around two hours. The issue of congestion has been repeatedly raised by the Railway Board as well, but successive governments do not seem to have paid much attention to the malaise.
And despite evidence of growing congestion on trunk routes, India failed to significantly add new lines. So much so, that we are now in the piquant situation where demand for neither passenger nor freight traffic is being met. The severe congestion on the main trunk routes is surely among the key factors for Indian Railways’s sub-par safety record?
In comparison to India’s ‘track record’, literally, accidents involving passenger trains are extremely rare in countries with developed railway systems—like Japan, China, Turkey, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Sweden or the United Kingdom. Trains on these railways clock an average speed that is three to five times faster than the average speed of Indian passenger trains, which is roughly 50 kmph.
Even the much-hyped Vande Bharat trains, deemed to be semi-high speed, clock an average speed of 70–80 kmph only. The average speed of Rajdhani Express trains is only marginally higher.
Globally, as the speed of trains has increased, safety has also improved along with punctuality, riding comfort and capacity. Today, high-speed railway lines in these countries offer far better safety, service, punctuality and comfort than the slower lines they have superseded. India, meanwhile, appears to have lagged behind.
Because of its similar geographic size and population, China provides a good, pointed comparison. The total length of China’s rail network in 1950 (21,800 km) was less than half that of India (53,596 km). However, India’s total route length (62,900 km) was surpassed by China (66,000 km) by 1997. Currently, China’s total route length (1,55,000 km) exceeds India’s (68,100 km).
A striking difference between China and India is that while China has allowed scores of its universities and research institutions to carry out studies on railways, there is hardly any study carried out in India by institutions outside the Indian Railways network. Independent insights and better feedback may or may not have made a difference though. We really do not know.
But considering the predominantly flat terrain we have on the trunk routes in India and the significant advantages of the broader Indian broad gauge tracks that British engineers adopted for this flat terrain of soft alluvial soil, India should have been able to build up to 200–250 kmph high-speed lines.
The total cost of upgrading 15,000 km of the existing trunk routes to 160–200 kmph lines and laying down 10,000 km of high-speed broad-gauge tracks should be around Rs 7 lakh crore over a 10- to 15-year period. This upgraded network would have sufficient capacity to meet our requirements of both passenger and freight traffic until 2060–70, with enhanced safety and punctuality. Indian Railways runs 13,500 passenger trains daily.
Also Read: Vande Bharat Express: On a Wing and a Prayer
Therefore, a few hundred Rajdhanis, Shatabdis, Jan Shatabdis and now Vande Bharat trains do not really provide a realistic picture of rail transport in the country or to the health of Indian Railways. Over the past 20 years, rail transport has consistently lost market share in both freight and passenger traffic to evidently far more expensive air and road transportation. It requires far more investment to buildhighways and air networks. Not more than 2–4 per cent of the population, it is estimated, can afford private vehicles or air travel. And yet, this is the direction in which we see a shift. Why?
Another worrying sign is that despite trains being the lifeline for 90 per cent of our people, passenger traffic has been declining. From an annual growth of 4–5 per cent between 2000 and 2015, it first stagnated around 2016, and then began to fall.
To successfully compete with air and road transportation, though, Indian Railways needs to improve safety and ensure a quantum jump in speed. But in the past 20 years, we haven’t achieved an appreciable improvement in either of the two.
Even as the railway budget has increased in recent years, resources are arguably being utilised not for improving competitiveness, safety or punctuality but on more cosmetic changes like ‘world-class railway stations’ and fancier inter-city trains like Vande Bharat or the bullet train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Meanwhile, Mission Raftaar— aiming to double the average speed of freight trains and increase that of passenger trains by 25 kmph—has been a dismal failure, confirms a recent report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG).
The Balasore accident is a warning sign for a railways in decline. Recurring accidents point to systemic failures that need urgent attention. The commissioner of railway safety (CRS) will hopefully look into systemic deficiencies, as was done for the newly constructed Lumding–Silchar line on the Northeast Frontier Railway in 2015. The CRS safety inspection there had found that inadequate ground surveys and investigations at the planning stage had ignored high landslide risks on the line. The CRS will hopefully look at the following aspects as well:
• If the Balasore tragedy was caused by negligence, what caused the negligence? Was constant pressure to keep trains running propelling the staff towards shortcuts, as happened in the case of the Khatauli accident in 2017, in which 23 passengers were killed?
• The impact of overcrowding on fatalities, rescue and relief.
• Why did the first coaches to capsize fall on the adjacent track? Was the track geometry, the resilience of the ballast bed and the suspension system of the coaches as should be?
• Finally, the effects of running late and whether any of them are pertinent to the particular collision in Balasore.
Three Costly Mistakes
Bullet Train. A case of misplaced priority and a vanity project. The train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai was not needed. The decision to run it on a standard gauge at an estimated cost of Rs 350 crore per kilometre was also a mistake.
Since most Indian trains run on broad gauge, what it means is that only the bullet train will be able to run on this new track. It would have been cheaper to upgrade the existing tracks or lay a new broad gauge track at an estimated cost of Rs 50 crore per kilometre if the bullet train had followed the existing standard.
To become viable, the bullet train will require 100,000 passengers to travel daily, at fares unaffordable to most citizens. It is, thus, a white elephant, because much of the cost was borne by Japan, a loan which has to be paid back.
Even the Japanese estimate that only after 10 years will the train be used by 35,000 passengers a day. Eventually, the total cost of our one bullet train could go up to Rs 7 lakh crore, factoring in the loan repayment. The amount would have been better spent on laying new broad gauge lines and upgrading existing lines to run trains at an average speed of 160–250 kmph versus this bullet train’s expected 320 kmph.
Vande Bharat. The truth is that India had acquired LHB (Linke Hofmann Busche) coaches capable of running at a speed of 160 kmph way back in 1995. The Vande Bharat coaches are an improvement in terms of comfort, better designed, but the aluminium bodies are more fragile. Because the trains are running on old tracks, they cannot achieve an average speed of more than 70–80 kmph and the journey time saved by the Vande Bharat over the Shatabdi is often just 10–15 minutes.
The cost of a Vande Bharat train at Rs 120 crore is almost double that of a Shatabdi, however, which is why the fares too are twice as high. Adding new trains without creating new capacity is eating into existing capacity and adding to the congestion.
Dedicated Freight Corridor. This is again turning out to be a white elephant because most countries make optimum use of capacity by running both freight and passenger trains on the same line. With this dedicated corridor connecting Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Howrah (near Kolkata)—of which only snippets are under construction—track under-utilisation is inevitable and will be a waste of resources.
(Alok Kumar Verma is an alumnus of IIT, KGP and Delhi. He retired from the Indian Railways)