Is the Indian Railways stretched beyond its capacity?

June 16, 2023 12:15 am | Updated 10:53 am IST

Passengers travel in the unreserved compartment of the Coromandel Express.

Passengers travel in the unreserved compartment of the Coromandel Express. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

On June 2, an accident involving three trains took place in Balasore district of Odisha. It claimed 288 lives and left more 1,200 people injured. The tragedy has left several questions in its wake about safety, signalling, and overcrowding. In a conversation moderated by Maitri Porecha, Mahesh Mangal and Sudhanshu Mani discuss whether the Indian Railways is stretched beyond its capacity. Edited excerpts:

When maintenance works of the Railways are undertaken, automatic signalling is stopped and there is manual takeover of the system. In 2015, inspecting officials found that station masters and signal maintainers could cite safety literature, but were unable to answer questions on it. They found that mock drills had not been conducted at all points, safety clamps had not been greased, and locks and keys had not been numbered properly. Some relay rooms were found to be open. The automatic signalling system may be designed to fail on the side of safety, but how do we strengthen manual systems?

Mahesh Mangal: First, regarding inspections and shortcomings, the Railways system is vast. Inspections are regularly carried out by supervisors and officers, training is regularly done, and feedback is also regularly obtained. Some of these things that you cited happen because of lack of sincerity of the staff. But such incidents are not regular occurrences. Otherwise, we cannot operate 20,000 trains daily on 7,000 or 8,000 stations. Most trains are punctual and run properly. There is some slack, yes, but not to a large extent.

Also read | Railway Board was aware of short-cut methods by signalling staff 

Sudhanshu Mani: There have been such incidents, but these do not mean there is laxity and lack of safety overall. These are instances which point to how systems need to be improved in those particular areas as and when they are noticed. Of course, you can’t ever do enough as far as safety is concerned. Although the safety record of the Railways has been improving drastically over the years, this accident has cast a big shadow on our record. There is a need to look at the safety systems afresh. And the culture safety rules supreme. Punctuality and other aspects of the Railways have to be built into it.

There has been a lot of chatter about Kavach, the anti-collision device. Could it have helped or not? And if not, what are some methods to correct issues of signalling?

Mahesh Mangal: We did provide anti-collision features and these systems do provide some kind of protection. Kavach would have been of little use in this particular case. In case the train enters the wrong line — suppose it was given the signal for the main line but entered the loop line due to some kind of interference with the signalling system — it would immediately apply an emergency brake. But in this case, the loop line was occupied. And the distance between the stationary goods train and the point from which the Coromandel Express entered the loop line was hardly 100-150 metres. The braking distance of such a train at 130 kilometres per hour would be more than 600 metres. So, Kavach would have made a little bit of a difference in the sense that the impact might have reduced, but it would not have prevented the accident.

Also read | Advanced version of ‘Kavach’ on the horizon

Sudhanshu Mani: One can do an impact analysis and know how much Kavach would have helped. Since the front coaches of the Coromandel Express were, I think, overcrowded, I doubt if the fatalities would have reduced substantially.

There has been a lot of talk about Kavach not being there. It’s been under development since 2012. The speed of the Kavach roll-out should be increased. It is going to make the system safer, on a par with the European rail system. And it will also increase the capacity of the system because it gives an advanced warning to the driver. It has multiple advantages. The roll-out is just 4%, so we need faster implementation.

You spoke about the general bogeys being overcrowded. Migrant workers often travel in these general compartments which cost only ₹370 a ticket. Sometimes their employers give them sleeper class tickets. How does overcrowding impact the way coaches are designed?

Sudhanshu Mani: Overcrowding is a fact. Sometimes the compartments are filled three-four times their capacity. You will hear people saying that these passengers don’t pay enough and so they travel like that, but that’s not what you see in a developed country. We have to work assuming that we become a developed country. And that would mean every Indian has to travel with dignity, if not great comfort. Dignity means a seat or a berth for everyone. Now, it may appear to be impossible looking at the way trains are run today, but I don’t believe that it is impossible. More stress is required on elite trains, which are remunerative. That money can be used to run longer trains or design coaches which can accommodate more passengers.

Comment | Getting railway safety back on track after Odisha

Mahesh Mangal: I don’t think that [accidents] can happen with overcrowding. You see how trains operate in the Mumbai Suburban Railway. During peak hour, the trains are filled more than two-three times the capacity. Yet, people travel in these trains as other means of transportation are not available, or are costly, or difficult to adopt.

In India, there are some high-density routes such as the Howrah-Chennai route or the Delhi-Mumbai route. In these cases, you need to balance punctuality with safety. Does this leave little time for any block maintenance works on tracks, for instance?

Mahesh Mangal: Most of these sections operate at more than the design capacity of the double-line sections. So, definitely there is a pressure on giving blocks (blocking tracks against movement of traffic over a particular section to allow for maintenance works) and giving disconnection (which is disconnecting automatic signalling so that manual controls can take over for setting of routes) and ensuring punctuality. We have a working timetable which helps us block a period between some mail/express trains. This has to followed by the controllers who operate the trains. Often this is not followed because trains run late. And so they are unable to give the two-hour periods which are available for the block. Punctuality is monitored 24X7. There is awareness among all the staff regarding safety. The lack of safety results in such an accident only once in a while whereas [lack of] punctuality results in delays of trains. So, that is why more emphasis is given to punctuality, and safety, to an extent, takes a backseat.

Also read | After Odisha tragedy, Railways to secure signalling equipment with double locks

Sudhanshu Mani: Safety cannot be traded with anything. I’ve been reading ridiculous suggestions such as ‘the speed of trains should be reduced’. This is retrograde. We have to increase speed, but also bring in systems that will ensure safety. You can have even higher speed without any compromise on safety. Safety has to take primacy over punctuality. Punctuality can be improved and it can be made safer with inputs. And with heavy induction of funds for track renewals. We have eliminated unmanned level crossings, but the time has come to eliminate manned level crossings, which can cause delays. So, grade separation is the solution. There is a need for more focus on coverage, track renewal and elimination of level crossings.

The Commission of Railway Safety (CRS), which is under the aegis of the Ministry of Aviation, has taken over the investigation into the Balasore accident. Simultaneously, there is a CBI inquiry going on. Why is the CRS under the Ministry of Aviation?

Sudhanshu Mani: The Commissioner of Railway Safety is a former member of the Railways who cannot go back to the Railways after joining this organisation, and works under the Ministry of Civil Aviation. So, the CRS has independence from the Railways hierarchy. And the system has worked well. They have made strong recommendations over the years. Why the CBI probe was ordered is something I cannot answer. Since this was such a massive accident, I would have preferred it if the government had ordered a judicial probe. By and large, a judicial probe is considered the ultimate impartial probe in our country.

Mahesh Mangal: For most accidents, an enquiry by the CRS has given good results, it has been quite quick. And as the investigators are formerly from the Railways, they know the system and can explore technical aspects. And they can give good recommendations. But yes, for all major accidents, it is better to have a judicial probe. Possibly, the judiciary will look at it from a different angle, not from a tactical angle but from the (shortage) of manpower angle too.

Mahesh Mangal is former additional member of the Railway Board. He led the team which developed Kavach; Sudhanshu Mani is a retired General Manager of the Integrated Coach Factory of the Indian Railways in Chennai, creator of the Vande Bharat Express

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