Balasore Train Tragedy Exposes Ignored Warnings and Lakhs of Vacant Positions in Indian Railways
Photo by PTI
On a scorching evening of June 2, the Coromandel Express encountered an unprecedented mishap as it deviated from its original track and collided with the engine of a goods train on a different track. Subsequently, several compartments derailed, and another train travelling between Bengaluru and Howrah crashed into the collapsing compartments of the Koromandel Express, resulting in the tragic loss of 288 lives and leaving over 1,000 injured.
Soon, the news spread rapidly, prompting officials to take swift action for damage control. Rescue teams were mobilised, and the central and state governments collaborated to help the affected citizens. Meanwhile, distressing videos circulated on social media revealing a close-up of the tragedy. They showed piles of bodies on trucks and in open halls as if they were disposable objects. Heartbreaking scenes depicted sons searching for their fathers and fathers searching for their young sons, exposing the dire situation.
Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw promptly announced on Twitter that he had left for the accident site. He assured compensation of Rs 10 lakh for the families of the deceased, Rs 2 lakh for the severely injured, and Rs 50,000 for those with minor injuries. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the location as well and met with the injured in the hospital. A high-level probe was also launched.
Amidst all this, the government's main priority seemed to have been damage control. However, the lapses that led to this decade's most tragic train accident were largely ignored. There was a lack of acceptance and failure to address the ongoing railway problems, which, if acknowledged and resolved, could have prevented this major disaster.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) published a report in 2022 for the year ending March 2021. A section of the report stated, "Investigation of factors responsible for derailments conducted by the Inquiry Committees is an important exercise, which highlights the main factors responsible for the accidents." According to the report, the Zonal Railways (ZR) did not adhere to the timeline prescribed by the Railway Board for completing inquiries in 49% of the derailment cases. It also revealed that the Indian Railways neglected workforce vacancies and managed them through nominal outsourcing. This lack of proper staffing in the safety category compromised the railways' vision of achieving accident-free, collision-free, and fire-free train operations.
The report revealed that track inspections were conducted in only 181 cases out of the required total of 350, indicating that over 50% of the mandatory track safety inspections were neglected. Furthermore, the data shows that out of the total 217 accidents between the years 2017 and 2021, 75% were caused by derailments. Additionally, there were 211 accidents attributed to signal failure. The report also acknowledged that essential safety measures were being disregarded, while funds were being allocated to non-priority projects instead of investing in rail safety.
In a recent incident on February 8, 2023, the principal chief operating manager of the South Western Railway Zone highlighted the alarming state of affairs regarding signals. He referred to an incident at the Hosadurga Road Station where a collision between the Sampark Kranti Express and a goods train was narrowly avoided due to a problem with the BPAC system. The loco pilot's awareness prevented a potential loss of lives.
As per a report by The Print, similar concerns were expressed by officials from other zones following this incident. In a letter seen by The Print, railway board officials warned of "serious flaws in the system" and raised concerns about interlocking failures in February, calling for immediate action.
The official that the incident indicates that there are "serious flaws in the system where the route of dispatch gets altered after a train starts on signals with the correct appearance of the route in the SMS panel”. This contravenes the essence and basic principles of interlocking, he said.
He also warned that if the signal maintenance system was not monitored and corrected immediately, it could lead to "re-occurrence and serious accidents."
"Anything of this nature happening in one zone raises eyebrows everywhere," a senior railway official told The Print, requesting anonymity.
Not just these notices, but the vacant posts in Indian Railways also indicate the possibility of accidents. From loco pilots to vacancies in the safety department, the lack of manpower is evident. Just two days before the accident, The Hindu published a report highlighting how the shortage of staff in Indian Railways was leading to major accidents. For instance, in the South East Central Railway, 35.99% of loco pilots had duty shifts exceeding 12 hours in March, 34.53% in April, and 33.26% during the first half of May.
In the year 2017, it was reported that approximately 1.42 lakh safety staff posts in the railways were pending vacant. As for the year 2023, the Ministry's data in January indicated that over 3.12 lakh posts in the Indian Railways remained vacant. For the Central Railway, nearly half of the 28,650 vacant positions (14,203) belong to the safety category, encompassing operational and maintenance personnel like inspectors, drivers, train examiners, shunters, and others.
The failure to fill these positions has resulted in employees working overtime. A 29-year-old employee, working at the Central Railway ticket booking office in Mumbai, told The Hindu, "I have been working double shifts for up to 16 hours continuously as we don't have enough staff to relieve us. Due to the shortage of staff, I haven't been able to take leave to study." The employee is currently preparing for law exams and aspires for an inter-departmental transfer to the legal section once he successfully passes the exams.
As the country witnesses yet another tragic train accident, with the number of fatalities continuing to rise even as this report is being filed, unemployed youth anxiously await the fulfilment of vacancies in the Indian Railways. These vacancies hold the potential to contribute towards preventing such mishaps.
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