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Editorial: Safety at stake

The report highlights that funding for the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) had fallen by a massive 79%.

Editorial: Safety at stake

Rescue and restoration work underway after multiple coaches of two passenger trains derailed following a collision on Sunday, in Vizianagaram district of Andhra Pradesh on Monday, Oct. 30, 2023 (Photo/PTI)

Last week, two passenger trains collided in Vizianagaram district of Andhra Pradesh, which left 14 people dead and 50 injured. The East Coast Railway said a human error could have resulted in the mishap, explaining that overshooting of the signal by the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada passenger train might have led to the accident. Neither of the two trains had the railway’s anti-collision safety system ‘Kavach’ installed. The episode prompted CM Jagan Mohan Reddy to seek an audit of all rail lines in the country.

The incident comes close on the heels of the Balasore train accident in June, when three trains collided in Odisha and led to the loss of 296 lives and around 1,200 injuries. The Vizianagaram incident is the third train accident since Balasore. On October 11, five passengers died and 30 were injured when the Delhi Kamakhya North East Express derailed in Buxar district of Bihar. It is troubling to note that about 55 percent of 292 train mishaps that took place between 2017-18 and 2021-22 were caused by an error of judgement on part of the staff, per data released by the Commissioner of Railway Safety. The frequent accidents point to glaring inadequacies in our railway system, compounded by government apathy.

Indian trains run on mixed tracks, i.e. both passenger as well as goods trains use the same track. Owing to this, the lines are over-utilised. The time taken to carry out routine maintenance activity has also been depleting year after year. The government has made staggering investments towards modernisation of railways, with nearly $30 billion being pumped into semi-high-speed trains like the Vande Bharat, modern coaches and locomotives, as well as redeveloping the stations. Such projects have led to a surge in rail travel and necessitated improvements in track maintenance and enhanced signalling systems.

However, a report last year by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) found that spending on basic railways maintenance had fallen since 2017, leading to serious lapses in safety. Between 2017-2021, there was a shortfall of 2,384 hours in the time given to maintenance of trains. The report highlights that funding for the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) had fallen by a massive 79%. There was also a decline in priority expenditure as a sum of Rs 13,652 cr allocated in 2017-18 came down to Rs 11,655 cr in 2019-20. On the contrary, expenditure on non priority areas had increased during these years.

Apart from this, around 4,500 km of tracks also need to be renewed annually. But, allotment of funds towards track renewal also declined in consecutive years. There was also a 63% shortage in track renewal in some zones, and the failure to renew these tracks contributed a substantial 26% to derailments. There is also the question of engaging trained manpower to keep the railways in good stead. Data presented in the Rajya Sabha in January revealed that there were 3.12 lakh non-gazetted railway posts vacant in India.

Among them, 14,815 vacancies were said to be in the signal and telecommunications department, whereas 62,264 were in the traffic and transportation department. There is a need for the government and the railways to go back to the drawing board on the matter of investing in rail safety, and in the right mix of people. Failure to do so could entail disastrous consequences for passengers and the goodwill of the Indian railways in the years to come.

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