AS the dust settles after the ghastly train crash near Balasore in Odisha state on June 2, the true picture of the state of safety across the Indian Railways (IR) network has slowly been emerging.

The report from the inquiry conducted by the commissioner of rail safety (CRS) in the aftermath of the accident included a shocking revelation: that erroneous signalling circuit alterations and incorrect labelling of signalling circuitry had existed at the site of the accident since 2018, escaping detection during functional tests carried out since then.

The accident - India’s deadliest in 28 years - was the result of irregular tampering with the interlocking system during manual intervention. Nine days after Balasore, a local passenger train derailed at Kharakpur yard in the same Railway Zone because of a similar fault, the report revealed.

“Changes from panel interlocking to electronic interlocking mandatorily require the approval of the chief commissioner of railway safety (CCRS),” says former IR board member, Mr Subodh Jain. “But if the flaws existed for six years and remained undetected, the situation is worrying.”

IR has improved its safety performance in recent years; accidents per million train-km have declined from 0.10 in 2013-14 to 0.03 in 2021-22. However, these figures do not tell the whole story.

For the five years from 2017-18 to 2021-22, 240 consequential train accidents accounting for the deaths of 53 passengers and injuries to 390 were reported. In the same period, there were 1800 “other accidents” along with 2017 derailments.

Safety performance

IR’s safety performance has been impacted by multiple factors. With huge numbers of passenger trains operating alongside freight traffic, the capacity to conduct routine maintenance work has progressively been shrinking, ministry officials say. The 2022 report of the comptroller and auditor general (C&AG) - India’s top auditor - makes several startling revelations, including that from 2017-18 to 2020-21, track machines were found to be largely lying idle.

There were various factors for this. In 32% of cases, the operating department did not make available possessions for track work, the report states. In 30% of cases, IR divisions did not plan the possessions, while in 19% of cases there were “operational problems.” In 5% staff were unavailable. Over the same period, wheel diameter variations and defects in coaches and wagons were seen as the major contributor to derailments. Incorrect setting of signalling and other mistakes in shunting operations accounted for 84% of accidents.

“Changes from panel interlocking to electronic interlocking mandatorily require the approval of the chief commissioner of railway safety (CCRS), but if the flaws existed for six years and remained undetected, the situation is worrying.”

Mr Subodh Jain, former IR board member

As late as April 3 this year - two months before Balasore - IR board member, Mr R N Sunkar, in a letter to the general managers of all Zonal Railways, expressed his “alarming and serious concern,” identifying five incidents where “short cuts” were taken by signalling and telecommunications staff. In one such case, the signalling equipment was reconnected without proper testing of points after turnout replacement work took place. In another instance, incorrect wiring during preparatory work caused a signal failure.

“Such practices reflect dilution of manual and codal provisions and contain a potential hazard to the safety of train operations,” Sunkar told the general managers. “Such practices need to be immediately stopped.”

Rail safety issues are the concern of the office of the CCRS, which is overseen by the Ministry of Civil Aviation. The CCRS has powers to inspect, investigate and advise IR on safety matters, granted under the Railways Act of 1989. It also provides office accommodation for the nine commissioners of rail safety (CRS). They mostly consist of IR officials on secondment, and to a large extent, their reports and recommendations have been influenced by the views of IR officials. The Railways Act of 1989 also empowers the Railway Board - as IR’s general managers - to disregard their recommendations and reports.

In a 2022 report, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways led by Mr T G Venkatesh stated that the “involvement of two ministries in the functioning of the CCRS is leading to avoidable confusion in the command structure.”

“There is an immediate need to free the CRSs from undue influence of both the ministries,” the report said. “The Safety Directorate, which monitors safety issues at the apex level of the Railway Board, also needs more powers,” says former IR officer, Mr Mahesh Mangal.

The idea of setting up an independent rail regulator has been discussed in India for more than 15 years, but has not moved forward.

“Under the current circumstances, IR has continued to be its own operator cum regulator,” says Mr Sanjay Pandhi of the Indian Railways Loco Running Organisation (IRLRO). “This is quite unlike the situation with other modes of transport including highways, airlines, shipping and inland waterways. The IRLRO has made several representations to the Railway Board on this matter in recent years.”

In its 2012 report, a high-level safety review committee led by Mr Anil Kakodkar recommended setting up a statutory Railway Safety Authority and creating a safety structure comprising a Railway Research and Development Council (RRDC) alongside an Advanced Railway Research Institute (ARRI) and five railway research centres. The committee also advocated the adoption of an advanced signalling system based on continuous track circuits and cab signalling on the entire IR trunk network of 19000 route-km at an estimated cost of Rs 200bn ($US 2.44bn) within a period of five years. These recommendations remain to be implemented.

Infrastructure funding

In the last nine years there has been a major influx of funding for rail infrastructure development, including substantial allocations for safety-related upgrades. The trouble, however, is that these schemes remain either stuck at the initial stage or are being poorly implemented.

For example, of IR’s total 68,043 route-km, only about 3000km is covered by the Kavach train collision avoidance system, a domestically developed equivalent to ETCS Level 2.

Another case in point relates to the inadequate delivery of the five-year safety fund, the Rashtriya Rail Samraksha Kosh (RRSK). Announced in the 2017-18 budget with funding of Rs 1 trillion, the fund was meant to have been topped up with an additional Rs 200bn each year to support projects to enhance safety. The Indian government was expected to contribute Rs 150bn to the fund with a further Rs 50bn coming from IR. However, while the government funding was provided in time, IR could only raise Rs 42bn during the four-year period from 2017-18 to 2020-21, resulting in a funding shortfall of Rs 157bn.

“This defeats the primary objective of the creation of the RRSK,” the C&AG observed in a report. Official documents show that allocations for critical safety-related tasks such as track renewals actually declined during the same four-year period, from Rs 96bn in 2018-19 to Rs 74bn in 2019-20. Worryingly, the C&AG also found that RRSK funds had been diverted to non-safety work, including upgrades to passenger amenities and the purchase of utensils, crockery and furniture.

The safety challenges facing IR are large in scale. However, the Balasore accident has seemingly refocused attention on rail safety and several initiatives are likely to advance in the weeks and months ahead to ensure that such an incident does not happen again. IR has been considering a Rs 1 trillion plan to replace its signalling systems over a period of six years. Hopefully, measures such as these and more basic improvements to everyday safety practices are implemented quickly to avoid further tragic loss of life.