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August 4, 1999


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'Single human error won't cause mishap'

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Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi

The accusing finger is being pointed at 'human error' as the cause of the accident at Gaisal in West Bengal which saw the Avadh-Assam Express and the Brahmaputra Mail collide head-on at 90 kilometres per hour. The impact saw 13 coaches destroyed, with numerous passengers trapped inside the wreckage.

Yet, it cannot be a single human being's error. "Our railway safety system is so designed that for any major accident to occur, the error has to be that of at least two or more humans in the whole process," an executive director of the Indian Railways told

The executive director, who was once executive director for safety and requested not to be named, denied that the Indian signalling system is flawed or technically inferior.

"It is possible that there could have been a signal failure or some technical error. That, only the inquiry will reveal. But again, a single technical failure cannot cause such a disaster because one signal failure is noticed either by a human or recorded by the next signal or the control room," he explained.

The Gaisal accident occurred because two trains were running on the same track. This is highly controversial because not only does the sector have a double track, but the site of the accident, being near a railway station, had some more.

"The Brahmaputra was on the right track, heading for Delhi. The Avadh-Assam, heading for Guwahati, was also cleared for this track. So the first error is that of a wrong signal being given to put two trains on the same track," said the director.

Such track clearances are given by the station master's office. "Also, it is likely that one, or both, of the drivers disobeyed a red signal," he said.

Putting two trains on the same track at railway stations, or in an emergency, is common practice. "But great care has to be taken when that is done, and there were some mistakes made in Gaisal," he said.

Unfortunately, the safety record of the Indian Railways is nothing to write home about. About 400 accidents occur every year -- easily the worst in the world -- of which 60 per cent are caused by human error.

Barely a fortnight ago, on July 16, the Grand Trunk Express derailed near Mathura, claiming 17 lives. Eight months ago, in November, a derailment in Punjab claimed 209 lives. And in August 1995, an accident in Uttar Pradesh killed 310 people.

The railways categorise accidents into four types: collisions, derailment, level crossing (manned and unmanned), and fire. "Derailments alone account for over 70 per cent of all accidents, level-crossing accidents for another 25 per cent. Collisions and fires are rare, but they are also the most devastating," the director said.

The executive director insisted that accidents in India have decreased even as traffic has grown exponentially. "In the 1960s and 1970s, our average annual casualty list would run into thousands, but now it is around 350 per annum." But he quickly added that one bad accident, such as at Gaisal, could turn such 'averages' topsy-turvy.

"But do also think of how much our traffic has increased since the 1960s," he pointed out, "which only proves that our safety record has improved. I am not trying to defend the Gaisal accident, which is a terrible accident. As a railway official, I accept the blame, but in the larger perspective, we are improving, though much remains to be done."

The Indian Railways is the world's second largest system, after the United States, but the largest under a single management, the railway ministry. The railways traverse 63,000 kilometres of track and ferry more than 12 million passengers every day in 11,000 trains that cover over 7,000 stations. But it must also be noted that of the 12 million passengers, five million are commuters of the Bombay metropolitan area alone!

The Indian Railways has another not so happy distinction. It is the world's largest employer, with more than 1.58 million people on its rolls. Yet, it is these humans who are often the cause of most accidents!

The executive director agreed that 'human error' was a primary cause.

"Though there is this tendency to dub everything human error, it is not wrong. For instance, even if a particular equipment is not working, there is a human hand behind the failure of that equipment or of the human who purchased such a faulty equipment or in failing to detect the fault," he said.

Going by the accident list available, one can be forgiven for assuming that the Indian Railways are extremely lax about the safety of their 12 million daily passengers. However, the executive director insisted that the notion was wrong.

"The Indian Railways has a railway safety committee, made up of IR officers to look after the safety concerns. But there is also a commissioner of railway safety, who actually comes under the ministry of civil aviation. Thus, when the commissioner makes an inquiry or probe, no one can say that the IR officials pressurise him. We do make great efforts at ensuring safety."

The commissioner sends his inquiry report to his secretary at the railway headquarters in New Delhi, and to the chairman of the Railway Board. The latter is supposed to act upon it. "Very rarely do we not act upon such reports. In fact, we accept almost all the recommendations," he said.

Yet, accepting the recommendation is the easy part. It is clear that implementation is lacking, that the orders are not being followed all the way down to the linesmen, who are supposed to monitor the tracks. Here, the executive director does not deny such a possibility. "Yes, very often, orders do not reach or are not carried out. And the staff can be lax in implementation. That is the reason for so many accidents," he said.

"There are two aspects to implementation. One is human frailty and the other is resources," he points out. "Safety cannot be seen as a stand-alone department. It is part of the whole process. It involves monitoring the four aspects of tracks, signals, wagons, and engineering works (bridges, etc). Every one of them involves safety, and if even one makes a mistake, the repercussions can be frightful."

To cut human error involves more technology. This is a political decision, since this directly affects the employees. Layoffs in India are simply not acceptable. "We do not make people redundant, but we have drastically cut down the intakes. Every year, about three per cent of our staff retires, while nowadays, we only refill one per cent of that loss, hence we are slowly slimming. But it will take time," he said.

Technology also costs money, lots of it, and the railways have for long complained of a resource crunch and falling revenues.

"The Indian Railways constantly innovates and uses new technology. Since obviously it cannot all be done at once, it is done in phases. We start with the busiest areas -- Bombay or Delhi -- and then slowly move to the least busy -- the western Rajasthan region. For instance, the Bombay Suburban railway is the world's busiest railway network, yet there have been no major accidents for quite a few years. It is because in that area, the component of technology is very high. And then we in India have places like Rajasthan where some tracks see just four trains per day and where it is simply not economically feasible to have such high technology. But if there is an accident there, then the media hounds us for being lax while missing the larger picture," he added.

The Ghaisal area would come in the category of middle technology. "This area is important -- it after all has a double-track system -- since it links to the North-East, but then it is not as busy as say the Bombay-Delhi area," the railway officer said.

In India, all the trains move on the same line, but the differences are awesome. On the one hand there are the high-end Rajdhanis and the Shatabdi expresses, that clock 140 to 160 kilometres per hour down to the express/ mail trains that average between 80 to 100 km per hour. Then there are the passenger trains that halt at every village that dots India's vast landscape. Such trains can rarely cross 60 km per hour in speed, the average being close to 30 km per hour.

In between come the long freight trains, carrying heavy loads, often in old and dilapidated wagons. These goods trains move even slower, and whose heavy loads can damage the tracks and the ground beneath.

"Many other countries keep separate lines for freight and passengers, and also for high speed and slow speed trains. But in India, everything is on the same line, putting immense pressure on the tracks, the signals and the humans manning them. It also causes more problems and accidents," pointed out the executive director.

Yet, there is no way India can afford new tracks along existing lines. Technology is being updated, but it is an ongoing process that never ends. It is also expensive, and therefore will take time. Under the circumstances, the railway officer agreed that the most urgent need of the hour is more human concern and care.

Railway Board member Shanti Narayan has admitted that 'human error' as the cause of accidents has been increasing.

Such 'human errors', which in seconds can kill 400 humans, will have to be reduced if the Indian Railways are to lose the reputation of being coffins on rails. And while the executive director insisted that action is taken against guilty officials, very clearly the action taken is not a deterrent enough to prevent the next human error.

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