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How long will the Railways compromise on safety?

By Bibek Debroy
August 19, 2015 09:31 IST
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Until longer-term capacity constraints are eased and the number of trains rationalised, compromises on safety and mishaps such as the one in Madhya Pradesh recently are inevitable, notes Bibek Debroy.

Image: Railways continue to fail on safety. Photograph: Reuters

There will be a probe and eventually there will be some answers. At the moment, thanks to the double derailment between stations of Khirkiya and Harda, everyone knows about Machak river. But I wish reportage had been better.

It's a distance of only 32 km. Surely, we can make up our minds about the river's name. Is it Machak or Kalimachak? These two rivers are different. 

Harda district is part of the Narmada basin, so we are talking about the Narmada and its tributaries (Ajnal, Sukni, Midkul, Dedra, Syani, Machak and Kalimachak). As a river, Machak is larger than Kalimachak.

Machak and Kalimachak are in the general area, but there was no derailment on a bridge over either of the rivers. Along that 32-km stretch, there is an embankment and a culvert below it.

That's where the double derailment took place. In railway jargon, tracks are called permanent ways. Though technology keeps changing, a track has rails, supported on sleepers, which have a foundation of ballast.

And all of that is on top of earth. A railway track is hardly a flimsy tuft of cotton. Whether meteorological departments issue weather warnings or not is beside the point. If there is bad weather and if it rains, a railway track isn't meant to be washed away. 

Whether there is an influx of water from a dam and whether a river gets swollen is also beside the point, not unless a river in spate sweeps away a track completely.

There can certainly be exceptional situations and there are also innovative experiments to handle these. I am not sure if you have heard of "raksha dhaga".

These are sensors used by Konkan Railway, connected to wires that trip when there is a landslide. When tripped, lights, hooters and other emergency signals come into play and warn approaching trains. However, those are extreme situations.

Even otherwise, rails, sleepers, ballast and the base of earth can get disturbed, incrementally and gradually. Ballast gets crushed and dispersed because of vibration from trains. It needs to be re-levelled - this is known as tamping.

If not done, rails can become uneven, eventually leading to derailments. (Even there, technology has led to evolution of self-stabilising tracks that prevent ballast from becoming de-compacted. These exist on Konkan.) Indian Railways (IR) has detailed manuals on what can broadly be called maintenance - permanent way (published in 1986), bridges (published in 1998) and works (published in 2000). 

There are gang-men, patrolmen, patrol charts, divisional engineers, permanent way inspectors, with special monsoon patrolling thrown in.

These should have detected deviations in rails, movement of ballast, problems with sleepers and dislodging in embankment. People who know about IR have said safety has suffered because of emphasis on new lines, gauge conversion, doubling and electrification.

I understand the argument, but I don't understand its relevance to these two derailments. For capital expenditure, a general argument about depreciation and the Safety Fund suffering because of these is fine. But in this case, no one has complained about the lack of tamping machines, ballast cleaning machines or human resources. 

Ask yourself this. What happens to the Delhi metro tracks between 11.30 pm and 5.30 am? That's the window used for inspection and maintenance. Along most routes, it is impossible to find a four-hour window when the block (section) is free of traffic.

When there aren't passenger trains, there are goods trains. Until longer-term capacity constraints are eased, if we don't rationalise and reduce the number of trains, compromises on safety and such derailments are inevitable.

Note that maintenance of track is increasingly becoming mechanised and capital-intensive. Compared to labour-intensive situations, this also means that the window required is longer. 

While this is the bane of IR, it is an incomplete explanation for the Khirkiya-Harda stretch. That's not a busy route.

Only seven passenger trains pass through during the day and carving out a four-hour window is relatively easy. Let me therefore highlight something equally important, and this concerns the powers of divisional railway managers (DRM).

Who does a divisional engineer (or an assistant divisional engineer below and senior divisional engineer above) report to?

Through chief engineers and principal chief engineers in zones, it goes up to member (engineering) at the Railway Board-level. In multiple ways, compared to 20 years ago, the authority of DRMs has been diluted and the allegiance and accountability of divisional engineers is to the chief engineer and member (engineering) and to the Indian Railways Service of Engineers.

Divisions are supposed to have vulnerable location mappings and disaster management strategies. If a divisional engineer doesn't comply, there is precious little a DRM can do. DRMs have responsibilities and in several cases, have been penalised for accidents and disasters.

But progressively, they have lost their rights, such as deciding where (within the division) an engineer will be posted. The Railway Board has often said it is in favour of decentralisation.

That's welcome, but decentralisation is interpreted as decentralisation down to the level of general managers in charge of zones, not further down. In addition, that silo system across different railway services must be broken down.

You have seen storage silos rise vertically above the ground. Original silos were always pits, holes in the ground. 

The writer is a member of the National Institution for Transforming India Aayog. The views are personal.

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