Balasore tragedy | Data reveals decline in train accidents, but Indian Railways’ safety expenses remain low

The Balasore accident was an exception in recent years, but it also reflects the declining focus on safety measures by the Indian Railways

June 06, 2023 07:06 pm | Updated June 07, 2023 12:43 pm IST

Derailed coaches of the Coromandel Express are seen on its accident spot at Bahanaga railway station in the Balasore district of Odisha

Derailed coaches of the Coromandel Express are seen on its accident spot at Bahanaga railway station in the Balasore district of Odisha | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

A cursory look at historical data on railway accidents gives the impression that such incidents are a thing of the past. The Indian Railways saw an average of about 1,390 accidents per year in the 1960s. The number has dramatically dropped to 80 per year in the past decade. But the triple-train collision in Odisha’s Balasore, one of the deadliest in India, raises questions about safety in rail travel.

Here, train accidents refer to consequential train accidents: those that resulted in loss of human life, loss of railway property, caused injuries, and interrupted rail traffic. Derailments formed close to 70% of all accidents since 1990-91, followed by level crossing accidents, collisions and fires in trains (Chart 1).

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Also Read : In Frames | A glimpse of the triple train tragedy in Odisha’s Balasore district

The tragedy in Odisha that claimed at least 275 lives stands out. The number of deaths in this single incident is higher than the annual fatalities of the last 16 years (Chart 2). The Railways recorded zero fatalities in 2019-20 and 2020-21 due to consequential accidents. In 2020, when questioned by the NITI Aayog chief about the fact that 30,000 people had died over three years due to trespassing and other untoward incidents around railway premises, the Railways said it had no control over casualties due to trespassing or negligence or carelessness on the part of passengers and that efforts were being made to sensitise the public.

Notably, among the consequential train accidents, 55% had occurred due to negligence or failure of the Railways staff (Chart 3). About 28% of accidents were attributed to the failure of persons other than the Railways staff, and 6% had occurred due to equipment failure. A preliminary investigation has suggested a possible failure of the signalling system in the Balasore tragedy. 

 

Also read: Odisha accident | Senior official flagged serious flaws in Indian Railways’ signalling system in February

In the 2023-24 Union Budget, the Railways received a record allocation of ₹2.40 lakh crore. However, when capital expenditure on crucial activities related to safety such as track renewal and signalling and telecom are considered, their shares dwindled or stagnated over the last few years. Allocation for track renewal dipped to 7.2% and expenditure proposed for signalling remained at 1.7% in FY24 when considered as a share of budgetary support for capital expenditure (Chart 4).

The Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) fund was created in 2017-18 with a corpus of ₹1 lakh crore to provide financial support for critical safety-related works and to curb accidents, including those at unmanned level crossings. However, a Parliamentary Standing Committee report in March 2023 observed that “appropriations to the RRSK has been falling short ever since it was introduced.” The Committee also noted that the Railways did not meet the target of earmarked allocations for the previous five years.

Also read: CAG’s 2022 report on ‘Derailments in Indian Railways’ flagged multiple shortcomings

The major causes of derailments are rail fractures, weld failures, track defects and rolling stock defects among others. As per a Ministry of Railways document on safety performance, the track forms the backbone of the Railways transportation system and needs to be safe. According to a white paper by the Ministry, 4,500 km of track should be renewed annually. However, data show that the target set by the Railways is much lower than the level suggested by the white paper. In the past seven years, the Railways could not achieve this level barring one year (Chart 5). 

Chart 5 shows the target of track renewal set by the Ministry and the target achieved in that year.

 

Source: Indian Railways’ year books and annual reports, Parliamentary Standing Committee reports, Comptroller and Auditor General of India and Lok Sabha Secretariat

nihalani.j@thehindu.co.in

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