Tuesday, December 6, 2011

railways: safety   Railroaded!
A report finds drivers shockingly neglected

Major Mishaps, 2011
  • July 7: The Mathura-Chhapra Express hit a bus at an unmanned level crossing at Thanagaon, UP, leaving 38 dead, 30 injured
  • July 10: The Howrah-Kalka Mail derailed at Fatehpur, UP. It left 70 dead, 300 injured
  • September 13: A memu hit a stationary train at Chitheri, TN, leaving 10 dead and 100 injured
  • November 22: Two AC coaches of the Howrah-Dehradun Express caught fire, leaving 7 dead
Why does the Indian Railways have a poor safety record? It’s quite a worrisome question, underlined only too tragically by a spate of recent accidents. An internal assessment report presented last month before a high-level committee headed by former Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar marks out the problem areas. The committee will submit a final report in January.
The five-member committee, of which Delhi Metro MD E. Sreedharan is the advisor, is looking at signalling systems, rolling stock (essentially coaches), fixed structures such as tracks, bridges and overhead equipment, the selection, training and education of personnel, and research and development. It is also looking at the possibility of third-party audits and organisational and structural changes in railway research establishments.
The report, exclusively accessed by Outlook, is shocking, for drivers—who are vital to safety—seem to be neglected the most. Here are some of the reasons cited for frequent railway accidents:
  • Poorly trained engine drivers operate sophisticated microprocessor-controlled engines. A key finding: of the drivers covered by the report, 86 per cent were not educated beyond matriculation.
  • The fastest trains, often on the busiest sections, are run by the older drivers. Sixty-four per cent of drivers are above 45 years of age, 31 per cent above 50.
  • Training of drivers is not of high quality and there’s hardly any value addition after these theoretical sessions.
The internal report says too many variables—such as locomotives of many different designs—have to be handled by people with incomplete knowledge of how the machines and equipment work. For example, drivers are posted on locomotives of different models without special training to operate them. What is worse, the consoles present too many confusing signals.
As if the long duty hours and unhygienic loco-cabins aren’t bad enough, the “running rooms”, in which drivers rest between shifts, are dismal affairs. The list of drivers’ woes goes on and on: they aren’t provided uniforms, shoes, torches, batteries; there’s no provision on board engines for drinking water; housing allotment for families is irregular; with no incentives for efficiency, and the fear of being charge sheeted for minor lapses hanging over them, stress levels are high and morale is low.
“When a train runs between Delhi and Calcutta, at least 25,000 people work to make the journey happen. In this exercise, drivers and station staff are the most significant contributors and there’s no doubt they need to be looked after well,” says S.B. Ghosh Dastidar, a former member (traffic) of the railway board. “It’s a chain, and if one person fails, the entire team fails.”
The sine qua non, according to B.M.S. Bisht, a former senior railway officer, is intensive training and monitoring of drivers and ancillary staff. “It’s the only option,” he says. “Besides, drivers should not be punished for trains running late, for weather conditions and other unavoidables do count. Safety norms and regular reviews are required because we want to avoid collisions.”
The report recommends improvements in the recruitment system and a review of minimum qualifications, salaries and incentives. “We have to take a holistic view,” says K.D. Mainrai, retired CAO (diesel modernisation). “Proper recruitment is just one factor in safety. There are other factors that must be looked at too.” Surely, passengers worrying about safety cannot experience the romance of train journeys.



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