Indian Railways—How safe are people in trains?

MOS Railway Manoj Sinha’s admission that safety may have taken a back seat and of 1,00,000 vacancies in safety-related posts puts the focus back on Indian Railways’ cavalier attitude to railway safety

Photo by Deepak Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Deepak Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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NH National Bureau

Have you ever heard an unusual sound while travelling in a train? Every passenger who has ever taken a train ride may well recall unusual grinding, grating or creaking sounds or experiencing sudden, spasmodic jolts. Some are frightening, a few lead to minor injuries but mostly passengers have learnt to take them in their stride. And why not?


While it is true that every year 125 railway accidents take place and approximately 15,000 people lose their lives on railway tracks, either while crossing unmanned crossings or because of derailment, fire etc., the figure constitutes much less than one per cent of the 21 million passengers Indian Railways carry every day.


And yet, after every accident there are inevitable questions about safety that are asked but which seldom get any satisfactory answer. It will be several weeks or months before the Commissioner of Railway Safety will give a report on what could have caused the derailment of the 19321 Indore-Rajendranagar Express near Kanpur on Sunday morning.

At least one passenger who had got down at Ujjain claims to have informed Railway officials about the strange, unusual noise that had disturbed him. But media reports quoted him as saying that officials at Ujjain did not take his complaint seriously.


Studies conducted by Indian Railways suggest that half the accidents are caused by derailment and 29% of which are caused by track defects.


At least one passenger who had got down at Ujjain claims to have informed Railway officials about the strange, unusual noise that had disturbed him. But media reports quoted him as saying that officials at Ujjain did not take his complaint seriously.


It however may never be known for sure whether there was anything wrong with the train or with the track because the accident, 60 km from Kanpur, took place nearly 10 hours after the train left Ujjain. Had there been something wrong with the rake itself, would it have endured for so long ? And surely in that case the attendants, the guard and the engine driver would have detected that something was amiss?


But significantly newspapers on Monday claimed that the engine driver was ‘missing’ after the accident near Kanpur. Initial reports also quoted unnamed Railway officials as saying that the manner of the derailment suggested that the accident was caused by cracks on the track. Minor cracks if undetected get enlarged and gradually get big enough to lead to derailment. Another official told the media, “Rails do contract early on winter mornings and if the welds on rails are not good enough, they crack”.


Indian Railways employ over 2,00,000 ‘gangmen’ each of whose job is to walk five kilometres along the track to look for cracks and other defects. A crack overlooked by one of them may theoretically lead to a tragedy. Each of the gangmen carries 15 kg of equipment on their back, which makes the task even more demanding.

The NDA Government’s emphasis on increasing revenue, speed and providing on-board entertainment, surveillance cameras and wi-fi on stations etc. may also have shifted the focus from safety, say insiders. At least one of them claimed that a large number of vacancies of posts crucial for safety, said to be around 100,000, have not been filled up for the past several years.


Railway officials admit that the sheer volume of traffic is such that there is no slack for maintenance. The same track, they point out, is used by fast trains, slower passenger trains as well as heavier goods trains, placing tracks under strain and leaving very little time for maintenance.


The NDA Government’s emphasis on increasing revenue, speed and providing on-board entertainment, surveillance cameras and wi-fi on stations etc. may also have shifted the focus from safety, say insiders. At least one of them claimed that a large number of vacancies of posts crucial for safety, said to be around 100,000, have not been filled up for the past several years.


The Kakodkar Committee in its report in 2012 had recommended an investment of Rs 20,000 crore every year for five years to upgrade the track and signalling systems. But it is only earlier this year that the Government finally accepted the recommendations. It has a long way to go before passengers can breathe easy.

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Published: 22 Nov 2016, 9:50 AM