September 19, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Cracks in the Tracks

It started even before I went to England last year. Anybody who knew I was going, and who was either English or had spent time there in the preceding few months, found a way to talk about the railway and, invariably, it was a lament. The tracks are in bad shape, privatisation has ruined the service, trains are running very slowly these days, on and on. And once I arrived in England, there was even more. The state of the British railways almost rivalled the weather as a staple of conversation.

And what had caused this uproar? The Hatfield crash of October 17, 2000. A London-Leeds train jumped the rails near the town of Hatfield, a few miles north of central London. The accident led to a national soul-searching that went beyond just rail accidents. How had this happened, how could it be prevented, what is the malaise with the rail system the world once envied? In fact, what is the malaise with the British themselves? As Ian Jack wrote in Granta,

    The unsettling impression grew of Britain as an unsound country, weakly equipped, under-skilled, easily made chaotic and only superficially modern; an incompetent society.
It was this, even more than the toll in the accident, that got the English talking. What had happened to this advanced country, one that had once been the mightiest industrial and military power the world had ever seen, one that itself took the railway to large swathes of the world? Was it now really no more than an "incompetent society"?

Still, what about that toll? Four passengers on the train died. That's right, four.

By no means must that be laughed off. But even in recent memory, Hatfield was not a particularly bad accident. (Just two years earlier, 31 were killed in the Ladbroke Grove crash). Yet it was this one, Hatfield, that had led to an unprecedented "degree of public anger, managerial panic, political confusion, blame and counter-blame" (Ian Jack again) in England. And I didn't need to read Ian Jack to know that: the talk about the railways in England told the story very clearly.

All the outrage led to a painstaking search for what caused the Hatfield accident. This is hardly the place to fill you in on what the search found, but here's the gist of it. On straight stretches of track, the wheel maintains contact with the top of the rail; rails are built to take stresses from this direction. But on a curve, as at the accident spot, the pressure comes from a different angle. The flange of the wheel hits the corner and side of the rail on the outside of the curve. This extra stress on that rail, repeated by train after train, can cause small cracks in the rail.

That was what had happened to one rail at Hatfield. When the Leeds train that October 17 roared on to it, the strain was too much for the rail to bear, veined as it already was with minute cracks. It shattered into 300 bits; four men travelling above that flanged wheel died; a nation plunged into an orgy of introspection.

I have no idea if the recent Rajdhani crash at Rafiganj in Bihar happened on a curve. Nor if there were cracks in the stretch of rail where it derailed. But I don't know how to read about Rafiganj and not think about the fallout of Hatfield. There are so many issues involved, apart from the straightforward parallel of a train crash.

Consider just three.

Jack writes about meeting a man who used to be a railway maintenance engineer in the north of England. As part of his job, he was:

    "required to walk every mile of his track twice a year ... many dozens of miles on foot, twice a year, peering at the rails. The inspectors under him walked every mile of track under their care at least once a month; in turn, the sub-inspectors under them walked it at least once a fortnight. [Labourers] would also walk their particular stretch. In this way, every mile of line was patrolled not less than twice a week. Passenger lines were inspected no fewer than three times [a week]."
The engineer also spoke of another major threat to rails: weeds on the lines. They "are unsightly, they're evidence of neglect, they clog the drainage in the ballast [the gravel on which the rails and sleepers sit], the ballast becomes uneven, the tracks sink or twist".

"In the old days," the engineer told Jack, "you'd never see a weed on the line. ... The days of a line being patrolled by a man every day have gone." That, of course, was one result of the much-praised privatisation of British Rail by Conservative British governments, starting in 1993. In particular, maintenance of the tracks was taken over by a private corporation called Railtrack. With that, inspection and maintenance practices quickly crumbled.

"We had a saying," the engineer also told Jack. "The uninspected inevitably deteriorates." One result of that deterioration was fatal for four men one afternoon in October 2000. One result of that accident was a major, system-wide, inspection of every inch of British rails over the next several months: which caused the massive slowdown in train speeds that travellers complained bitterly about.

This is not the place for a discussion on the virtues or otherwise of privatisation. But is it possible for a rail-traveller in India to read about these inspection regimens and not wonder about the state of our tracks, the kind of inspection and maintenance schedule Indian Railways follows? I mean, I may not myself have noticed tiny cracks in rails, but I've seen lines with weeds growing through the ballast. Not occasionally, but regularly. What of all this applied to the tracks under the Rajdhani in Rafiganj?

Consider next the speed at which people in England found out about the reasons for Hatfield. Jack's article appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of Granta, just six months after the crash. Admittedly, it was based on extensive research he did himself. But in November 2000, the month after it happened, the government inquiry into the crash examined a professor who had studied safety practices among railway maintenance workers. Railtrack introduced a system of calling for bids for maintenance contracts, which led to competition to reduce costs, which led in turn, said the professor, to "a smaller number of people ... coping with a larger volume of traffic in the network". And this caused a "worsening safety record".

This much was public knowledge a month after the crash.

Take just three previous rail accidents in India: September 1997, Ahmedabad-Howrah Express falls off a bridge and kills 81; November 1998, collision between Frontier Mail and Sealdah Express kills 212; August 1999, collision between Brahmaputra Express and Avadh-Assam Express kills 288 (those two trains actually travelled undetected on the same track for 20 minutes).

I'm sure all these spawned inquiries. How many of them concluded their investigations, what did they conclude, and how long did they take? Did any of them have any idea of causes within a month? The Times of India (September 15) tells me that the "official accident cause" for the last crash above was "signal defect". But apart from that nugget of meaningless information, what else do we know about it or the other two accidents? Where are the reports of any inquiries and why were they not widely publicised? Why have we not found out why nobody realised for 20 minutes --- enough time for brakes to be applied and a ghastly accident to be averted, surely --- that two trains were hurtling towards each other on the same track?

Consider last the very figures I've quoted in this article: 4, 81, 212 and 288 --- the tolls from four accidents I've mentioned here. The first in Hatfield, England; the rest in India. If four deaths in England set off a vast uproar that even called into question that country's sense of itself, why is it hard in India to even remember those 81 deaths in 1997? The 212 in 1998? The 288 in 1999?

Will we remember the 119 deaths in Rafiganj even six months from now?

According to The Times of India, the Indian Railways needs Rs 150 billion to "overhaul its overaged assets and ensure safety as a non-negotiable condition in rail travel". In the last two years, the government has given the railways Rs 26 billion and Rs 20.5 billion, respectively. So if you reach your destination safely the next time you take a train in India, call it luck. Because maybe that's all it is.

But please also remember those 119 in Rafiganj. They were not so lucky.

Ian Jack expanded his Granta article and published it as a slim book: The Crash That Stopped Britain (Granta Books, April 2002). Worth reading.

Complete Coverage: The Rajdhani Express Accident

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