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Rae Bareli Janata failure calls for policy revamp, Rail needs to come out of hi-speed mania

By Shivaji Sarkar

An Indian train running on faulty engine is not rare. Rakes or coaches running without engines for kilometers are not also infrequent. Minor derailments often do not come to public notice but a major brake failure leading to over 30 deaths and 150 injuries as in the prime Rae Bareli constituency on March 20 bares the state of Indian railways plagued by many ailments.

Railways themselves have found that their locomotives often do not meet the standards. All over the country a number of trains every other day are stranded due to faulty locomotives. Blaming the railways is not difficult. It also should be remembered it works with great efficiency with a large number of faults as well. It has also one of the most dependable staff, who works under exacting conditions.

Studies have shown that rail loco drivers are forced to do overtime, suffer from fatigue and drowsiness as the train rolls on. The failures cause extra detention. A 2002 study found The extra detention resulted in loss of the earning capacity of those locos of Rs.117.72 crore. Over the last 13 years, it has at least quadrupled.

It raises the moot question whether the railways should have show-window bullets or invest that Rs 60,000 crore to create a spick and span system.

The Indian Railways (IR) carries over 25 million passengers through 7083 stations daily which is perhaps more than the entire population of Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania put together. Annually Indian Railways ferries 7.2 billion passengers (nearly 6x India’s current population).

It runs as many as 19,000 trains every day. Some 12,000 trains are for passengers and 7,000 for freight. These trains have various classifications, speed limits, coaches and it is no wonder some despite being extremely ramshackle reach destinations without a noticeable accident.

The task is enormous. Trunk routes have a train 90 to 120 seconds each. Railways claim that number of accidents and derailments have drastically come down. That may not be true but considering the number of trains its runs, the accidents are not that frequent.

They have reduced actual speed of trains to achieve this.

But it is also true that over the years a railway that boasts of having super speed also has the slowest running trains. They all move on the same track. Not only that, to run the so-called VIP and VVIP trains as Rajdhanis and Shatabdis, it keeps even yesteryears VIPs like Gomati, Neelachal and others stranded at roadside stations for hours further creating exacting conditions for the running staff.

So a Janata Express – Dehradun-Varanasi – is always on low priority – cleanliness, to running it on schedule and the quality of coaches and engine. An accident though shocking is not surprising. Slow moving passenger and Janata-type trains are looked down upon by the lowest rail staff.

The railways know these for years. Railways did not deny a news channel report that there were 250 hi-speed diesel engines were not up to the mark if not defective.

Much of it has come out in an IIT, Kharagpur study in 2011 published in international journal Physica A. So what caused the 11 railway accidents involving express trains in 2010 alone, and why has there been a sudden spurt in accidents during recent years?

The paper has in a very scientific way identified the reasons behind these. Aside from clearly establishing the well-known cause — the disproportionate increase in railway traffic compared with infrastructure — it has also identified zones that are insufficient to handle the congestion and reasons for this.

The authors Saptarshi Ghosh, Avishek Banerjee and Niloy Ganguly have identified two main reasons for the 2010 accidents. First, railway traffic has grown disproportionately to railway infrastructure, particularly railroads and routes. Second, there are serious flaws in the scheduling of trains on some routes. So much so that the railway system was not able to handle the traffic on certain routes if all trains were to run as per schedule. Hence, the Railways resort to making trains wait at signals, leading to long delays in trains’ run-time. This is alarming, as the system intentionally introduces the possibility of human error and/or system failure leading to accidents.

The 11 accidents were due to derailments or collisions between express trains or some sort of failure of the railway system itself. Incidentally, eight of the 11 accidents took place in a zone which they call the Indo Gangetic Plain (IGP). This is no coincidence, as the statistical analysis by the authors clearly identifies the reason.

They find that the IGP hosts some of the most traffic-intensive segments of rail routes — seven out of the 20 that they consider high-traffic. Comparing data gathered from 1992 to 2010 from “trains at a glance,” they conclude that this is because the infrastructure such as railway lines and tracks have not grown over the years, whereas the number of trains has increased manifold. They identify the most risk-prone ‘trunk segment’ as the Delhi-Tundla-Kanpur one and identify the Vishakhapatnam-Vijayawada trunk segment from the southern zone as the “safe standard” based on the empirical evidence that it has not had any accident so far.

They found that the safe standard itself is no longer very safe.

Another parameter is the headway, or time lapse between two trains as they cross the same point. The possibility of two trains coming dangerously close to one another increases as the headway reduces. They found two segments clearly coming out as risk-prone segments — the Delhi-Kanpur segment and the Ahmedabad-Surat segment. The Vishakhapatnam-Vijayawada segment has a much higher headway and is therefore safer, relatively speaking. Of the two lower headway segments, the Ahmedabad-Surat segment has trains with low headway running throughout the day, whereas in the case of the Delhi-Kanpur segment, trains get bunched up in the early hours.

Often it ends up in delay of four to five hours in normal weather conditions.

Runtime delays of trains on these segments were also studied. While 20 per cent of the trains on the Delhi-Kanpur segment were delayed by more than one hour, only about three per cent of the trains on the Vishakhapatnam-Vijayawada segment were delayed to that extent. The delays reflect the high degree of congestion and frequent waiting of trains at the signals, and hence a possibility of an accident.

So it requires investment and manpower. This government is expected to change that and not have fad for speed. Safer punctually running non- VIP trains are better than one hi-speed show window.

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