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Indian Railways: PRIORITISE SAFETY, INFRASTRUCTURE, By Shivaji Sarkar, 27 March, 2015 Print E-mail

Economic Highlights

New Delhi, 27 March 2015

Indian Railways


By Shivaji Sarkar

An Indian train running on a faulty engine is not rare. Rakes or coaches running without engines for kilometers are not infrequent either. Minor derailments often do not come to public notice but a major brake failure leading to over 30 deaths and 150 injured as in the prime Rae Bareli parliamentary constituency on March 20 exposes the state of Indian railways plagued by many ailments.

Railways themselves have found that their locomotives often do not meet the standards. All over the country a number of trains every other day are left stranded due to faulty locomotives. Blaming the railways easy. However, it also needs to be remembered that the railways vast network works with great efficiency. The Indian Railways also has a very dependable staff that works under exacting conditions.

Studies have shown that rail loco drivers are forced to do overtime, often suffering from fatigue and drowsiness as the train rolls on. The failures cause extra detention. A 2002 study found that extra detentions of locos resulted in a loss of their earning capacity to the tune of Rs.117.72 crore. In the 13 years since, this loss is estimated to have quadrupled.

This raises the moot question of whether Indian railways should invest in expensive high-speed trains or use the Rs 60,000 crore to create a more efficient and modern infrastructure. Indian Railways carries over 25 million passengers through 7,083 stations daily which is perhaps more than the entire population of Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania put together. Annually, Indian Railways ferries 7.2 billion passengers (nearly six times the country’s India’s current population).

It runs as many as 19,000 trains daily of which some 12,000 trains carry passengers and 7,000 for freight. These trains have various classifications, speed limits and coaches and manage to reach their destinations despite being in an extremely ramshackle condition. The task of running the huge network is enormous. Trunk routes have a train every 90 to 120 seconds. The railways claims that the number of accidents and derailments has come down drastically.  This may not be true but considering the number of trains its runs, rail accidents are not that frequent.

A railway network that boasts of having fast trains also has very slow trains and they all run on the same tracks. Not just this, to run such premier trains like the Rajdhanis and Shatabdis, the railways is forced to keep yesteryears other important trains such as Gomti and Neelanchal stranded at stations for hours, further creating exacting conditions for the running staff.

So a Janata Express (Dehradun-Varanasi) is always low in priority–the casualty being cleanliness, punctuality and the quality of coaches and engines. An accident though shocking is not surprising. Slow moving passenger and Janata-type trains are looked down upon by the lowest rail staff. The railways have known this for years. For instance, the railways did not deny a news channel report that there were 250 hi-speed diesel engines that were not up to the mark if not defective. Much of it has come out in an IIT, Kharagpur study of 2011 that was  published in the international journal Physica A.

 So what caused the 11 railway accidents involving express trains in 2010 alone, and why has there been a sudden spurt in accidents during recent years? The study  has, in a scientific way, pin-pointed the reasons. Apart from clearly establishing a well-known cause—the disproportionate increase in railway traffic which the existing infrastructure is unable to handle— it has also identified zones that are insufficient to handle the congestion and reasons for this.

The study’s authors Saptarshi Ghosh, Avishek Banerjee and Niloy Ganguly have identified two main causes for rail accidents in 2010. First, railway traffic has grown disproportionately to railway infrastructure, particularly railroads and routes. Second, there are serious flaws in the scheduling of trains on some routes. So much so that the railway system was not able to handle the traffic on certain routes if all trains were to run as per schedule. Hence, the railways resort to making trains wait at signals leading to long delays in trains’ run-time. This is alarming, as the system intentionally introduces the possibility of human error and/or system failure leading to accidents.

The 11 accidents were due to derailments or collisions between express trains or some sort of failure of the railway system itself. Incidentally, eight of the 11 accidents took place in a zone they call the Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP). This is no coincidence, as the statistical analysis by the authors clearly identifies the reason.

They found that the IGP hosts some of the most traffic-intensive segments of rail routes—seven out of the 20 that they consider high-traffic. Comparing data gathered from 1992 to 2010 from the railways publication ‘Trains at a Glance’, the study concluded while the infrastructure such as railway lines and tracks have not increased over the years, the number of trains using this network has increased manifold.

The study identified the most risk-prone ‘trunk segment’ as the Delhi-Tundla-Kanpur one and identify the Vishakhapatnam-Vijayawada trunk segment from the southern zone as the “safe standard” based on empirical evidence that it has not had any accident so far.


The authors also found that the safe standard itself is no longer very safe.


Another parameter is the headway, or time lapse between two trains as they cross the same point. The possibility of two trains coming dangerously close to one another increases as the headway reduces. They found two segments clearly coming out as risk-prone segments—the Delhi-Kanpur segment and the Ahmedabad-Surat segment. The Vishakhapatnam-Vijayawada segment has a much higher headway and was therefore safer, relatively speaking.


Of the two lower headway segments, the Ahmedabad-Surat segment has trains with low headway running throughout the day whereas in the case of the Delhi-Kanpur segment, trains get bunched up in the early hours. Often, it leads to delays of upto four to five hours during normal weather conditions.


Runtime delays of trains on these segments were also studied. While 20 per cent of the trains on the Delhi-Kanpur segment were delayed by more than an hour, only about three per cent of the trains on the Vishakhapatnam-Vijayawada segment were delayed to that extent. The delays reflect the high degree of congestion and frequent waiting of trains at the signals and hence the possibility of an accident.

 The railways require both investment and manpower. The present government is expected to improve rail infrastructure and not just have a fad for speed. Safe,  punctual trains are the need of the hour rather than hi-speed trains. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)




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