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White Paper on Safety of Railways — Little cause for alarm

Santanu Sanyal

While the need for maintaining high safety standards can hardly be over-emphasised, it is also true that the gigantic scale of operation of the Railways makes it almost impossible to bring down the risk level to zero.

THE White Paper on Safety of Indian Railways, published recently, focusses on various aspects of safety in the railway systems. Sharing public concern over train accidents, the paper points out that the number of train accidents declined from 524 in 1992-93 to 414 in 2001-02 and the majority of the accidents were non-fatal in nature as these involved freight trains mostly. But, then, even one fatal accident of the dimension of Gaisal, or Kadalundi or Khanna or, more recently, at Ludhiana, in enough to shake up those who travel by rail and those employed in the Railways.

While the need for maintaining high safety standards can hardly be over-emphasised, it is also true that the gigantic scale of operation of the Indian Railways makes it almost impossible to bring down the risk level to zero and thus to achieve "absolute safety''.

Indian Railways has 63,000 route km, 44,000 coaches, 7,700 locomotives, 2.16 lakh wagons, 6,850 block stations, a workforce of more than 15 lakhs, 1.2 lakh bridges, 16,550 manned level-crossings, 21,800 unmanned level-crossings, 97 loco sheds, 50 workshops and production units, 318 carriage wagons or coach maintenance depots in addition to daily staff expenditure of Rs 52 crore, daily revenue expenditure of Rs 99 crore and daily transport output of two million train km, 14 million passengers travelling by 8,700 passenger trains and 1.5 million tonnes of freight loading in 5,700 freight trains.

Over 51,000 of the total of 120,000 bridges are of the 19th century vintage yet, as the Railways Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, observes in his remarks in the White Paper, no alarm needs to be raised about adequacy of safety parameters of these bridges. A "distressed bridge'' is not an unsafe bridge but a tired one which needs to be `rejuvenated' with necessary inputs.

Despite the existence of more than 38,000 level-crossings, both manned and unmanned, and a very complex nature of road traffic, less than 100 accidents take place a year on these level-crossings and, thus, the level-crossing mishap of 0.10 per million trains km, places India above several advanced countries.

Derailments (about 75 per cent) account for the largest number of accidents (66 per cent of derailments involve freight trains and 34 per cent passenger trains), followed by accidents caused on unmanned level crossings (12 per cent), collision (7 per cent), accidents on manned level-crossings (4 per cent) and fire (2 per cent). However, the majority of deaths (38 per cent) is caused by collisions, followed by deaths in accidents on unmanned level crossings (37 per cent), derailments (14 per cent), accidents on manned level-crossings (9 per cent), and fire (2 per cent).

Derailments are caused primarily by two factors — track and rolling stock. A non-lapsable fund of Rs 17,000 crore was created by the Government with effect from October 2001 for replacement of over-aged assets such as track, bridges, rolling stock and signalling gears. The objective is to replace, renew or rehabilitate by 2007 over 16,000 km of track, 2,700 bridges and 1,500 signalling installations. These overdue assets have been built up over the years as a sequel to inadequate allotment from the Depreciation Reserve Fund.

Collision is the most dreaded word in the Indian Railways as it accounts for the largest number of deaths. Yet, in the past one decade, the passenger trains were involved in only four per cent of the collisions; also, the incidence of collisions per million train km was only 0.19 in the 1960s, dropped to 0.08 in the 1980s and further to 0.05 in the 1990s and to 0.03 in 2000-02. Not all collisions cause deaths but the impact of even one collision on the railwaymen and the travelling public can be terrible.

The introduction of devices such as track circuiting, auxiliary warning system, block proving axle counter and recent indigenous and innovative development of anti-collision device are considered important steps by the Railways for providing accident-free services as far as possible. Providing walkie-talkie sets to drivers and guards and equipping locomotives with automatic SOS flashers and the training of drivers and guards on simulators are various other measures being adopted in this regard.

Is manning the ideal solution for preventing accidents on unmanned level-crossings? The issue has been discussed at length in the White Paper with no definite answer. For understandable reason. Accidents do take place even on manned level-crossings. Between 1992-93 and 2001-02, as many as 16 accidents, on an average, took place every year on manned level-crossings as against 56 on unmanned level-crossings. Besides, the cost of manning unmanned level-crossings is huge. It is estimated that the Railways will require approximately Rs 2,500 crore as capital cost to man all the unmanned level-crossings and another Rs 700 crore per annum as maintenance and operation cost. The cost of manning with interlocked signals is estimated at Rs 5,500 crore. Perhaps the best solution would be to construct either railway overbridges or underbridges at unmanned level-crossings. However, the total cost of such constructions is estimated at Rs 400,000 crore.

The White Paper dwells at length on various other interesting but important issues. One is the rescue and relief system and post-accident disaster management. There is scope for faster response, better facilities and equipment, expanding the resources base and strengthening the safety organisation. Another interesting issue is the complaint on the suppression of facts after a train accident.

As expected, the paper makes it clear that there is hardly any scope for under reporting or hiding of facts as the system of reporting accidents has been standardised in the Railways. Finally, the White Paper strongly feels that the Commission of Railway Safety, now functioning under the Ministry of Civil Aviation, should be placed under the Ministry of Railways. The Commission's independence will still be maintained, it is emphasised.

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White Paper on Safety of Railways — Little cause for alarm


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