Speed or safety. How to combine both. That’s the solution Indian Railways has to find now after the tragic triple train mishap at Bahanagar Bazar station in Balasore, Odisha, last Friday, as questions have been raised about its functioning.
Having had a relatively major accident-free record in the recent past, the government and the Indian Railways may have missed a key step of giving signalling and telecommunications network upgrade and human resources development upfront a priority while infusing large capital into the gigantic network to improve rail infrastructure and introduce modern and faster trains.
The public sector behemoth is a 24/7 365-day organisation with its staff covering every inch of the track on a daily basis. Yet, the horrific accident — human error or a system failure — had resulted in big loss of human lives and this has rightly led to doubts about safety protocols that should get priority.
Reshuffling on the cards
Senior Railway officials explain that after much debate, the unified managerial cadre bringing top recruitments into traffic, engineering, electrical, mechanical, signal-telecommunications, personal, accounts and other wings into a single stream, was brought about to deal with the inter-department one-upmanship. Now, a shake up in the recruitment process and at the lower level staff is imperative.
Safety and punctuality of trains depend on the ground staff – trackmen, maintenance staff of telecom and signalling, loco-pilots, guards, station masters and the likes.
Need for highly skilled staff
With technology upgrade and demand for more as well as faster trains, Railways cannot afford to have semi-skilled staff at these levels anymore. We need to have highly skilled and motivated personnel with better pay and training, they insist.
These personnel should become part of the working group protocols rather than be looked down, while the signalling and telecommunications wing should be given its due in decision making, they explain.
Most of the posts at this level are not filled on time, either due to the recruitment process itself or because posts are being done away with due to shift to the automatic-digital system. The issue of outsourcing certain critical works had also received flak as it is allotted to the lowest bidder resulting in tardy maintenance.
Regarding South Central Railway (SCR) with about 6,500 kms of track and carrying around 7.50 lakh passengers per day and running about 600 trains (passenger and freight), there are over 16,000 vacancies out of the sanctioned posts of about 93,000 in all departments. In the safety category, the vacancies have been to the tune of 11,012.
Vacancies in the signal and telecommunications department amount to 543 out of the sanctioned strength of 3,893 or 13.95%. In the civil engineering wing, there are 4,943 vacancies out of 23,637 posts or 20.91%, electrical wing 1,084 vacancies out of 7,689 posts or 14.1%, mechanical 2,182 vacancies out of 23,424 posts or 9.32% and operations wing 2,260 out of 70,367 or 15.65%.
While targeted safety works such as screening of tracks, points and crossings, are very much as per schedule, manned level crossings have been eliminated. About 133 road-under-bridges or road-over-bridges have been completed and 99 are in progress.
Railway records show, mercifully, there have been no collisions but a couple of derailments and one fire accident in the last financial year. There have also been about 354 ‘minor’ accidents during the same time, up from 354 in 2019-20, if we are to leave out the COVID pandemic years when limited trains were running.
The signal telecom issues (assuming these are identified glitches) are about 1,044 last year, up from 1,306 in 2019-20. Rail weld failures got reduced to 120 last year as against 313, loco failures 344, down from 900 but signal failures rose dramatically from 9,000 to 5,748 during the same period.
The trend of increasing sectional speeds (90-110 kmph in certain corridors) of about 1,000 km, where the usage of infrastructure is up to 150% or more, without barring free movement of either by animals, people or vehicles on tracks by barricading identified spots, is causing uneasiness among a section of senior officers.
The idea of enhancing speeds is to run more trains and see to it that the trains are running on time (set timings are good). Yet, we cannot simply increase speeds without ensuring tracks are free of encroachers by fencing or setting up walls in populated areas.
Vande Bharat’s average speed has been about 80 kmph only, when it can touch 160 kmph as maximum speed, they added.
The zone mostly has a single line of about 3,663 km, double line of 2,645 km and a triple line of 165 km, which should explain the congestion and reasons why loop lines near stations play a vital role. These sectional points help the Railway authorities to move the slow moving passenger and freight trains into loop lines to enable faster trains to speed through.
This year, SCR got funds of about ₹14,000 crore for new lines, safety works, track renewal and so on. Retired as well as serving officers are suggesting a modern signalling system equivalent to European Train Control System (ECTS), at least on the new lines under construction, to begin with, by spending a few crores extra (it costs ₹10-₹20 crore for a km of railway line to be laid).
With this, we can have a total tracking of the system, remove the human element, and have a fail-safe method, along with running more trains at better frequency and timings, they said.