“We have blind faith in them,” a track supervisor at the New Delhi Railway Station says, pointing towards a group of eight middle-aged men, wearing orange shirts, sitting by the tracks, smoking, chatting, during what looks like a break.
Groups like this, comprising around 2.2 lakh gangmen on the Railway’s payroll, are virtually the last line of defence against dangerous abnormalities found in tracks on which run close to 20,000 trains in India, day and night. Abnormalities that, if not detected, may cause derailments.
One such derailment on November 20 near Kanpur caused one of the worst rail accidents in the history of Indian Railways, with the toll 152 now. Derailments, data shows, make around 50 per cent of all train accidents in India.
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“There are laid-down procedures for periodic inspections by senior officers… but at the end of the day it is they (the gangmen) who have to spot faults and raise alarms in real time, all the time,” the supervisor says. “So faith is a must.”
On the world’s fourth largest rail network, this faith that a gangman — standing in the middle of nowhere, with no one watching over him — will diligently try to spot even the minutest crack in rails stands between safety and derailment for a train running at 100 km per hour.
“I walk 8 km a day, up and down along the tracks. Depending on the season, I start at around 6 am,” says Ramswaroop, 52, a ‘keyman’ — an elevated post for an experienced gangmen — posted in Delhi. Keymen like him, carrying spare nuts, detonators, wrenches and suchlike in a 20-kg bag, are lone rangers, meant to cover 6-8 km over eight hours, day or night.
He fixes faults such as a loose key that holds the rails to the sleeper, a missing fishplate (which joins two rails), or a missing nut. If he finds a fracture that can be dangerous, he has the authority to stop trains and raise an alert.
Like Ramswaroop’s tools though, the practice itself is 100 years old and more or less extinct in modern railway ecosystems.
Truth is, India’s transition to modern, safer and technology-aided, real-time flaw detection in its tracks running over 1.14 lakh kilometres has remained, at best, a half measure.
“We are switching to automatic fault-detection systems. To cover the entire length and breadth of the Railways will take time. But let me tell you, the existing system of manual detection has been working well,” says Aditya Kumar Mittal, Railway Board Member (Engineering), the top boss of all matters related to railway tracks in the country.
Once in a while, a machine is dusted and brought out from railway stores across India. In appearance, with probes and a graph monitor, it looks more like a medical equipment. Mounted on a trolley, when this machine is manually pushed on tracks by technicians on foot, the probes send ultrasonic frequency through the rails. Any disruption in the frequency sends the graph oscillating, revealing a fault not visible to the naked eye.
But even this slow — although reliable — ‘Ultrasonic Flaw Detection System (USFD)’ is based on a technology that is almost half-a-century old and is going out of vogue. At best, they test tracks at a rate of five kilometers a day.
Modern rail systems across the world instead carry out real-time track diagnostics through a vehicle-borne USFD — a faster and more efficient cousin whose minimum potential speed of testing is claimed to be 40 km per hour.
Besides the USFD, there are several modern track machines for routine maintenance, which goes on around the year. But given these limited options, gangmen remain vital.
In 2012, a High-Level Safety Review Committee under Anil Kakodkar took this and the exponential rise in train operations into account while recommending a complete ban on new trains in the choked network.
“During the last five years, addition of more than five hundred new trains, increasing the frequency of trains and adding more coaches per train has left the Indian Railways in a peculiar situation… Such a massive addition of passenger trains every year without serious thought, mainly on political consideration, has severe implications on safety preparedness of Railways. Further, neither any system or mechanism exists to evaluate safety risk…,” the report said.
While the Narendra Modi government, in a departure from populist measures by previous regimes, has restricted announcement of new passenger trains, the number of goods trains kept going up to increase business and earnings. So the stress on assets such as tracks has remained.
Railway officials admit that blocking traffic for routine maintenance of tracks and other open assets has become a growing challenge. Those tasked with maintenance say they are never given adequate number of blocks to carry out maintenance work faster.
“There are days when precious manhours and money are wasted as machines and hired labour are idle because of non-availability of blocks for adequate track maintenance,” says an officer from the Civil Engineering Department.
As per the Railways’ own internal estimates, around 4,500 km of track renewals should take place each year. However, in a white paper last year, it acknowledged that the pace gets affected due to paucity of funds, leading to a backlog of 5,300 km for renewal in 2014. Last year, only 2,400 km of tracks were renewed. The money allocated this year for the process is around 26 per cent less than last year.
Officers involved in operations of running trains, however, point out that the money meant for routine maintenance is always spent. This, they say, could not have happened without enough blocks being provided for the actual work to take place.
The Kakodkar committee report also made a note of this. “Today, Railways operates most of the corridors beyond 100% utilisation… and hence little maintenance time is provided. This brings out very clearly that there is no policy guidelines laid down… in terms of maintenance protocol, or if it exists, then Railways (is) clearly violating the prescribed norms, eventually leading to unsafe working,” it said.
Policymakers, though, point out that the question that remains is how much of maintenance time is enough in a railway system that aspires for on-time train operations with higher average speeds.
“By present count, around 6,000 hours of blocks are given across India every day. That’s a very high number considering the density of traffic,” says Mohammad Jamshed, Railway Board Member (Traffic). “In fact the working time tables of sections and divisions are created with blocks factored in every day.”
Routine maintenance of tracks includes greasing, correcting alignment, minor replacements, fixing sleepers etc. Besides, officials monitor and service overhead equipment and signalling systems.
When it comes to tracks developing fractures, the Railways adds, India is unique because of the wide variation in ambient temperatures. For example, in North India, tracks are exposed to temperatures up to 45 degrees Celsius in summers and even 1-2 degrees Celsius in winters. By standard laws of physics, the problem of expansion and contraction due to these temperatures causes tension and that creates cracks. This is the reason why South India, where such extreme variation in temperatures is missing, sees lesser rail fractures than North. Rails are laid keeping varied mean temperatures and variations in mind. But that’s not really foolproof.
The Railways procures all its rails from the state-owned SAIL, which goes by the specifications laid down by the transporter. So the Railways maintains its rails are world-class, if not better, even though they are not of the new-age “head hardened rails” being used globally but are of the conventional type. The hardened variety is sturdier and much more resistant to wear and tear but are not manufactured in India.
The permissible hydrogen content (an impurity) in Indian rail steel is 1.6 parts per million whereas the global level is 2.5. On papers, its fracture toughness is also considered on a par with global standards.
“There is nothing wrong with our rails. They are of global standards, if not better,” Mittal asserts.
However, the technology to assess the continuous wear and tear the rolling stock’s varying loads cause to the rails is still eluding Indian Railways, even though it is available globally.
Technological challenges aside, there are certain other bitter truths about the system the organisation will never officially accept.
For example, there is the age-old practice of informally engaging gangmen in household works of supervisors and officers.
The gangman population is also ageing. According to an internal assessment, most of the gangmen are above 45. Officers say the new generation coming in is mostly overqualified for the job, so they require much more counselling and supervision to attain the dedication to protocol and skillset traditionally associated with gangmen.
The minimum qualification for a gangman’s post is Class X pass or ITI or its equivalent, and the starting salary works out to be around Rs 15,000.
Within the system, there is also concern over hundreds of gangmen dying after being run over by trains. Several parliamentary committees and safety-related expert committees have raised concern over this.
Then there is the problem of financing, as money is required for assets renwal and maintenance. But in Railways, thanks to time-tested financial practices, the funding procedure is tricky.
Over the years, with surplus funds from revenues decreasing, the appropriation to the Depreciation Reserve Fund (DRF), the fund that contains the money for renewal of overaged assets, has been coming down.
In the last financial year, the budgeted amount for DRF was Rs 3,400 crore — a climbdown of around 40 per cent from the previous year. From Rs 7,775 crore in 2014-15, and around Rs 5,500 crore in 2015-16, the fund is on a constant decline.
Money as working expenditure is allocated for maintenance but that cannot be used for renewals. The machines for maintenance and diagnostics, on the other hand, are funded from the Rolling Stock Programme — where coaches, wagons and engines get priority.
The overarching narrative to any discussion on safety in the Railways, therefore, carries the usual refrain — “There is not enough money.”
The last infusion of funds from the government for railway safety works was Rs 17,000 crore during the NDA I government. This year, the Railways sought over Rs 1 lakh crore from the Finance Ministry for a special fund to be called Rashtriya Rail Sanrakshan Kosh or National Rail Protection Fund. The government is yet to warm up to the request, although there have been multiple meetings.
In the meantime, the government cleared certain amendments to the Finance Act in this year’s Budget session in Parliament to allow more money to the Railways from the Safety Fund built from diesel cess. It works out to a tune of Rs 10,000 crore. But as per the Road Safety Act, that money cannot be used for renovation and maintenance.
The Railways has argued that it will use part of that money to clear some of its backlog of track renewals because renewal is neither renovation/modification nor maintenance. The matter is expected to be sorted out during this Winter session in Parliament by giving the Railways the permission to spend it the way it has requested.
“The fact is, entire track renewal can never be done with the DRF money alone. Hence the attempt to augment sources of funds,” says Sanjoy Mookerjee, former financial commissioner, Railway Board.
Former railway minister and the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Railways, Dinesh Trivedi, has pulled up the Railways multiple times for appropriating less and less money in the DRF. “Look at their performance. They are not earning enough. At this rate, they will not be able to set aside money for even basic routine maintenance and renewal works, which ultimately affects safety,” Trivedi says.
However, there are some who believe that the demand for more money for maintenance and renewal is a hype created by those with the propensity to spend. “There are people who like the idea of spending because obviously they stand to gain. So they look for ways to spend with no thought of how to earn,” says Ajay Shukla, former member (Traffic), Railways.
Shukla argues that modern tracks are sturdy enough to not require renewal and maintenance as often as projected. “They are 60-kg rails built much better than they used to be years ago. Ninety per cent of accidents, including derailments, have happened on tracks which were not due for renewal,” he says.
The Railways also has unique inter-departmental issues like the fact that the Safety Directorate, whose job is to analyse data and maintain adherence to safety parameters, does not have access to the Track Management System, an online real-time platform that has all data on maintenance and renewal of engineering assets. This matter is under discussion at the highest level.
Around four years ago, the then member (Engineering) in Railway Board, Subodh Jain, had firmed up a unique proposal.
He wanted to create a three-member team of joint secretary-level officers and send them abroad to scout for the best track-management technologies in the West and bring back the knowhow. After moving around for months, the file was junked. The Railway Board decided that this was nothing but an excuse to go abroad.
Cut to 2016, the Railways is trying out a technology from South Africa called the Ultrasonic Broken Rail Detection System, in the Moradabad and Allahabad divisions. Incidentally, this was one of the technologies Jain had wanted to bring years ago.
This system, permanently fixed on tracks, keeps transmitting ultrasonic frequencies. If the frequency is broken, the system generates real-time alerts for officials. Officials say the trial results are encouraging.
Way back in 2007, the Railways’ own Research Design and Standards Organisation had tried to develop Wheel Impact Load Detection System with help from IIT Kanpur under Technology Mission for Rail Safety formed by the then minister Nitish Kumar. But the project had to be given up for want of proper progress and foolproof results. The research arm claims it is still in the process of developing it.
The vehicle-born UFSDs that modern Railway systems use cost approximately
Rs 10 crore each. There was a suggestion last year to hire the machines through service contracts, which could be paid from money meant for maintenance, without having to procure anything or touch either the DRF or the Rolling Stock Programme. There are also talks that ‘Make in India’ could bring down the costs.
Last heard, Northern Railway is in the process of getting itself one for trials.
The actual cause of the accident in Kanpur is yet to be determined. Internal assessments say it could be because the brake system of the train malfunctioned or because the track had a failure that went undetected. Or both. The official probe is on. In any case, the accident has again got the Railways talking about safety.
In the days after the accident, for instance, a feedback session of gangmen, where they spoke directly to the top bosses about ways to improve track safety, was organised.
Speed restrictions have now been imposed in the entire railway network so that lack of track safety, if any, cannot cause accidents. The age-old saying in Railways being “the safest train is the one that does not move”, the idea presumably is to run trains with maximum caution possible.
A move towards finding better rails for a better price is already on. Earlier this year, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu gave his approval to procure, through a global tender, around 20,000 million tonnes of ‘head hardened’ rails for the ghat sections and heavy-haul areas.
On rolling stock, the department has been asked to step up its production of the Link Hoffman Busch (LHB) coaches to phase out the conventional ICF coaches. The old coaches, according to Prabhu himself, lack “crash-worthy characteristics”.
But all these policy interventions together will take money and, more importantly, time — possibly decades, given the Railways’ past record. Member (Rolling Stock) Hemant Kumar, for instance, is candid about the fact that the ICF phaseout cannot happen overnight. “It will be a gradual process. Very difficult to specify a timeline. But we are obviously working on it,” he told The Sunday Express.
In the meantime, for the 23 million passengers on trains in India everyday, it again comes down to faith. Faith that the gangman is looking, so that they won’t end up as a statistic like the 152 people on board the Indore-Patna Express last Sunday.