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The Rediff Special/Amberish K Diwanji

Human error remains bane of Indian Railways

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Sixty per cent of all rail accidents are caused by human error, says a study. And on an average, 300 to 350 accidents take place every year on India's vast railway network, the world's second largest. Most of the accidents are not serious. But a few are major, like the one at Gaisal, West Bengal, on Monday.

The Gaisal accident is also being blamed on human error. Apparently, quite a few people at different levels in different areas made mistakes that led to the Avadh-Assam Express running headlong into the Brahmaputra Mail.

The sector in which the accident occurred has two tracks. Hence, the very fact that both trains were on the same track, unnoticed, for almost 25 minutes points to gross negligence by the cabin men and station masters en route.

Reports say the Avadh-Assam Express was shifted to the up track somewhere near Kishenganj in Bihar, 27km west of Gaisal. Changing tracks is done manually after which the train is given a green signal. While the signals are automatic, at stations and intersections they are controlled manually.

As the express sped on the wrong track, it passed Panjipara station and two manned level crossings. Why no one at any of these places noticed that the express was on the wrong track needs to be looked into.

One reason being cited is that it was dark and late (0200 hours) and hence the staff was not all that alert. And fingers are also being pointed to the possibility of 'sabotage', the favourite bogey whenever there is an accident.

"Frankly, there is no credence in these stories of sabotage. But obviously there are a lot of worried railway men and officers who are now trying their best to wriggle out of the situation," said a senior official.

Given the media outcry, many heads are expected to roll. Yet the officer also pointed out that once the hue and cry dies down, nothing much will happen. "Yes, there will be an inquiry, someone will be sacked, someone demoted and some transferred. We will all say that we have learnt our lesson and everyone will forget the accident. Till the next one!"

The government has stated that a safety board will be set up. But there are enough boards and commissions on safety. What is lacking is application by the railway's 1.58 million-strong work force.

The railway ministry is a favourite with politicians who want to distribute largesse to their voters. And their huge numbers make the railway employees a very powerful lot that never shirks from showing its strength when demanding higher wages. It also means taking action against wayward employees is virtually impossible.

M G Arora, a spokesman for the Indian Railways, denied that negligent employees go scot-free. "In the last 10 years, we have punished between 8,000 and 9,000 employees, from officer grade down to the lowest," he said.

The punishment is of various kinds. It can entail dismissal or compulsory retirement, demotion or stalling of promotions and salary hikes, or minor disciplinary action. "Naturally, dismissal is very rare," said Arora.

Yet, when asked for details of specific action against railway officers and men indicted by the commissioner of rail safety for other accidents, Verma did not have the information, though he promised to collect it.

Arora agreed that there have been reports of negligence. "We are a huge organisation and it is possible that some people turn up drunk for work or don't do their jobs properly. We take the appropriate action at the appropriate level. But you cannot tarnish an entire organisation for a negligent few," he said.

Arora agreed that accountability is a problem, but said this is true of all government departments. "In fact, the railways is the only department where we can suspend any employee and press charges afterwards. Thus, whenever the need arises, officers have taken action against their juniors," he claimed.

Last November, a major train accident in Punjab claimed 209 lives. Yet, no action has been taken against the men involved.

"In this case, while the railways have concluded their inquiry, the Punjab government has ordered a judicial inquiry which is still going on. Hence, we cannot take any action. But we have made the technical changes recommended," said Arora.

Arora is legally correct, but it speaks volumes for the way passenger safety is treated!

Another complaint, this of the junior staff, is that after any accident, it is they alone who have to face the brunt of action while the officers go scot-free.

Again, the railway spokesman denied this. "Very often, an accident occurs because of a single person's negligence. In such a situation, naturally action will be against him alone. But whenever an inquiry has blamed the entire section or said the cause was systemic failure, action is taken at all levels," he said.

In the long list of more than 8,000 punished, how many are officers and how many junior staff is not known.

But a junior employee criticised the discriminatory practices within the railways. "After every accident, these officers blame the lower staff. It is always the lower-level staff who are suspended or dismissed. Rarely are officers punished. And have you ever heard of anyone at the highest level, such as the Railway Board members, paying any price? Why are they never held responsible? After all, in any organisation, the men at the top are responsible for mistakes below," he said angrily.

While the officers try to pass the buck, the lower staff use the unions to escape severe punishment. In the bargain safety is the casualty.

From April 1998 to March 1999, 397 accidents occurred for which a mere 503 people were punished, including 29 dismissed. That is an average of 1.2 persons punished per accident!

With punishment so rare, is it any wonder that "human errors" continue to cause gory accidents on Indian tracks!

The Rediff Specials

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