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Railway Brass Had Flagged Unfilled Vacancies as Key Reason for Rise in Mishaps in 2022-23

Amid flagging ‘modern’ Vande Bharats and Amrit Stations, how much has the Modi government spent on passenger safety?
Railway Brass Had Flagged Unfilled Vacancies as Key Reason for Rise in Accidents in 2022-23:

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

New Delhi: Amid the spree of flagging Vande Bharat trains and Amrit Bharat Stations comes the horrific news of the worst ever triple train accident in Odisha in recent times, claiming over 230 lives. The toll is expected to rise.

While probes, blame games and committees will be set up to look into what caused the accident, the fact is that what is making news in India every other day is Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagging one Vande Bharat train after another.

Vande Bharat trains will cover all states in June itself, announced Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw recently, adding that 200 cities will be connected ahead of 2024, when general elections are due to be held.

In Amrit Kaal, yet another priority of the Modi government is to showcase its ‘modernisation’ or privatisation drive, which includes the much-hyped Amrit Bharat Station Scheme announced in this year’s Budget, for the makeover of 1,275 stations.

All this while, the government’ focus has been on “enhancing passenger experience” rather than “passenger safety”.  How much is the government investing in travel safety, for which filling up lakhs of vacancies, and investing in signal modernisation is a must? Have the pleas of the Railway Board, the rail unions, and railway experts been even heard or considered?

While there will be calls for accountability and resignations of top brass, including of the technocrat-turned-politician Rail Minister, the grim reality is that amid all the glitzy events, there has been a rise in rail accidents in 2022-23, according to report in The Hindu, just two days before the huge train accident took place in Odisha.

There were 48 consequential train accidents in 2022-23 compared to 35 in the previous year, said the report citing Railway Ministry sources.

“The number of non-consequential train accidents was 162 in 2022-23, which included 35 cases of Signal Passed at Danger (SPAD). The prolonged working hours of loco pilots due to an acute shortage of manpower was suspected to be the main reason for the increasing number of accidents, particularly SPAD cases, though there were other causes as well,” the report added, citing Railway sources.

Incidentally, possible signal failure is said to be a key cause for Friday night’s accident, for which a probe has been ordered.

In fact, in a recent high-level rail safety review meeting, comprising members of the top railway management, including the general managers of zonal railways, the chairman and CEO of the Railway Board is reported to have said that the increase in consequential train accidents was a matter of “grave concern” and urged the safety organisation to be proactive, as per The Hindu.

In addition, “the Railway Board also recently took up the issue of loco pilots being deployed over and above their prescribed working hours resulting in a threat to the safety of train operations. Going by the rules, duty hours of the crew could not exceed 12 hours under any circumstances,” an official, who did not want to be quoted, told The Hindu.

Read Also: CITU Holds Two-day National Protest Against Railways Privatisation

In fact, the loco drivers are overworked and the Railway Board, taking note of their crazy work hours and the rise in the number of train accidents, also called for urgent steps to fill up vacancies, says the report.

..the shortage of manpower had resulted in many zonal railways asking loco pilots to be on duty beyond the stipulated duty hours. For instance, in the South East Central Railway, the duty hours of loco pilots who were deployed on duty for more than 12 hours in March, April and the first half of May this year stood at 35.99%, 34.53% and 33.26%, respectively.

In fact, the All India Loco Running Staff Association, which has been protesting for a long time, demanding better working conditions and eight-hour work, even gave a representation to the general managers, Southern Railway, recently, pointing out that 392 loco pilot posts were lying vacant in the zone.

The loco pilots, some of whom are also women, have protested against being denied leave and rest, in order to tide over the crisis post-pandemic. Some of them also complained that they do not even have time to go to the toilet.

“Due to this, the stress level of loco pilots had increased, which could be detrimental to the safety of train operations”, the association told The Hindu.

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