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To avoid repeat of Odisha tragedy, focus on infrastructure and decongestion and prioritise safety over speed, PCPSPS urges railway ministry

In a statement issued by People’s Commission on Public Sector and Public Services, eminent academics, jurists, erstwhile administrators, trade unionists and social activists have urged the Union government to professionally analyse the factors that lead to railway accidents in order to improve the existing safety systems, and to focus on infrastructure development, decongestion and prioritising safety over speed.

THE People’s Commission on Public Sector and Public Services (PCPSPS) has issued a statement on the Odisha railway accident, which has caused the death of more than 260 persons and injured hundreds. 

The commission urges the Ministry of Railways to ensure that safety is enhanced by investing in basic infrastructure and undertaking systemic evaluation. It raises concerns over several aspects that endanger rail safety, including congestion of trunk routes, overcrowding of railways and lack of accountability. 

The commission includes eminent academics, jurists, erstwhile administrators, trade unionists and social activists. It is involved in in-depth consultations with various stakeholders, policymakers, and activists questioning the government’s decision to monetise, disinvest and privatise public assets or enterprises. It is also involved in producing various sectoral and final reports.

At the outset in the statement, the commission expresses grief over the loss of lives and appreciates the thousands of villagers who provided immediate relief to injured passengers. It commends the prompt way in which National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel rose to the occasion.

Enhancing railway safety

The commission laments the lack of emphasis on the part of policymakers on investing in the basic infrastructure of railways to enhance the safety and capacity of railway movement. 

The statement expresses its disappointment over the failure of the Ministry of Railways to professionally analyse the factors that lead to railway accidents in order to improve the existing safety systems. It points out that instead of focusing on the technical factors and the institutional system of governance, senior public functionaries focus on announcing palliatives, including ex-gratia relief for victims and displaying sentiments. 

On the various reports by technical experts on ensuring safety in railways, the statement highlights that in 2012, the report of the High Level Safety Review Committee, under the chairmanship of Dr Anil Kakodkar, had made certain recommendations on railway safety, including setting up an independent statutory railway safety authority, strengthening the research designs and standards operation (RDSO), and adopting an advanced signalling system for the entire trunk route length of 19,000 km within five years. 

In the decade that has passed since the recommendations, the ministry has failed to implement the recommendations, the statement adds. 

According to the statement, the introduction of high-speed passenger trains calls for a focus on safety and investments in railway infrastructure, including the signalling systems, the anti-collision systems and other auxiliary facilities, and by analysing the carrying capacity of its ageing tracks. 

It remarks that before indiscriminately launching superfast trains such as bullet trains and Vande Bharat, safety should be prioritised. Increasing the speed of trains in a congested section will slow down other passenger trains catering to short and medium-distance, low-income passengers as well as freight trains, it warns. 

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Acute congestion on routes and overcrowding in trains

According to the commission’s statement, acute congestion on trunk routes and overcrowding in trains result in sub-par safety performance and slow speed of trains. 

Cautioning about the critical levels of congestion on around 10,000 kilometres of trunk routes, the commission apprises that according to the data in the National Rail Plan, the routes are carrying 125 to 150 percent of the capacity against the desirable 70 to 90 percent capacity utilisation.

The statement emphasises that such congestion results in inadequate windows of traffic blocks for essential routine repair and maintenance of tracks and other line infrastructure, as well as insufficient slack to deal with operational hindrances and emergencies. 

The statement highlights another serious concern that accounts for higher fatalities in accidents, which is overcrowding in trains. No new lines have been constructed on trunk routes to cater to the growing demand for more trains, it adds. 

Demands for a systemic evaluation and filling vacancies

Based on the indications in the Odisha accident case, the commission calls for a technical review of the functioning of the ‘block proving axle counter’ (BPAC) systems, which are electronic signal locking systems, particularly the extent to which they are failure-proof, and their vulnerability to manual interference or manual lapses. 

It opines that rather than hastily subjecting the factors leading to an accident to an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), such factors should undergo a systemic technical evaluation. 

It also highlights a communication made on February 9 this year by the principal chief operations manager of the southwestern railway on the failure of the BPAC system

at Hosadurga Road station of the Birur-Chikjajur section of the Mysore division, where a Sampark Kranti Express was involved in an “averted head-on collision” with a goods train.

The commission raises questions about whether the ministry, acting on such information, directed a thorough evaluation of the BPAC systems about the need to strengthen RDSO. 

The statement remarks that instead of introspecting on whether its own policies and programmes have indirectly contributed to the recurrence of such accidents, the ministry presumes that there are manual lapses and holds lower-level functionaries responsible for the accident. 

The commission highlights the Parliamentary Committee on Railway Safety statement, which points out that 60 percent of vacancies among staff for maintenance of tracks, and inspection of railway bridges, amongst others, have adversely affected track maintenance and inspection, which is crucial for minimising the occurrence of accidents. It raised concerns on the complete lack of concern shown by the ministry in filling more than three lakh vacancies, increasing contractual labour by replacing regular ones, and focussing on asset monetisation and privatisation. 

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The statement makes certain recommendations towards preventing gruesome railway accidents in the future, as follows:

  1. The Railway Board should carry out an analysis of the adverse impact of super-fast Vande Bharat trains on the average speed of other trains on which lakhs of short-distance passengers depend. Before launching more such trains, the board should ascertain the speed-worthiness of the tracks and the efficacy of the BPAC systems.
  2. Considering that there was already one serious instance of failure of the BPAC system on February 8 this year in the South West Railways, followed by one in Odisha, the ministry should shift its focus from speed to safety.
  3. The chronic problem of heavy congestion of routes should be dealt with. The Railway Board should come up with a detailed long-term plan for removing the chronic bottlenecks and upgrading the existing lines for 160–200 kilometres per hour on key trunk routes and adding new double-track lines for a higher speed of 200–250 kilometres per hour. The plan should be diligently adhered to in the next 10–15 years. 
  4. As far as accountability for the lapses that led to the Odisha accident is concerned, those at senior levels in the government and in the railway ministry should own it more than those at the lower levels.
  5. Considering the magnitude of the accident and the wide range of complex technical issues, instead of CBI, a panel of three ‘commissioners of safety’, to be chosen by the chief commissioner of safety, should be constituted. 

There should be an inquiry into systemic failures including non-utilisation of funds allotted, huge vacancies in the safety category staff, inadequate upgradation of existing trunk routes and delay in adding new double-track lines on key trunk routes to eliminate congestion, lack of independence of the Railway Board and non-implementation of earlier recommendations and plans. Clear steps to address these issues should be identified and followed through. 

In the present scheme of safety regulation, the railway safety commissioner submits his report to the railway ministry. The statement warns that the ministry often glosses over the findings, without effective follow-up action. 

In order to obviate its scope, all railway safety commissioners’ reports should be placed before the Parliament for effective action. The RDSO should collaborate with Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) labs, and universities to develop technologies or adopt technologies suited to the country and to carry out studies on a range of topics such as demand and capacity, safety, punctuality, the competition offered by the growing road and air modes and prepare a long-term roadmap.

  1. The focus should be on strengthening the public sector railways instead of privatisation, filling up all vacancies immediately and converting contract employees into permanent employees with accountability.
  2. Autonomy with accountability should be provided to the Railway Board instead of making it subservient to ministers. Further, Parliament’s supervision should be strengthened.
  3. The railway budget should be separated from the Union budget. 
  4. The government and the ministry should take responsibility for the Odisha mishap and start remedial actions.
  5. Investments should be undertaken into the renewal of over-aged assets including tracks, bridges and signals. An effective plan should be drawn for dedicated freight corridors and express lines, expanding the network, increasing the average speed of goods trains and passenger services and increasing the railway share of goods and passengers with government investments, as done by China.
  6. The declining share of railways in the transport sector should be stopped and the railway’s share should be increased to provide social security and safety at affordable rates, with reasonable speed and adequate comfort to the majority of people.

The statement also shares that the commission is setting up a task force to monitor the action taken by the ministry on these recommendations, in order to ensure public accountability of government action. 

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