With the rising incidence of accidents on the Indian Railways (IR), a question should be asked: Why is it not able to safely carry trains at 100 to 130 km/hr when railways elsewhere are carrying trains at a much higher speeds of 160 to 200 km/hr with the infrastructure and rolling stock based on the same technologies as IR’s?
In rail transport worldwide, raising the speed of trains while also reducing the speed differential between freight and passenger trains have been the key to increasing capacity and improving safety. Notable examples are the railway systems in Western Europe, North America and China.
The recent accident near Khatauli station on August 19, which resulted in the death of 23 passengers, is a reminder of the dangers of the excessive over-utilisation of the lines. The section where the accident occurred carries 35 trains a day against a capacity of 25 trains. Reportedly, block (temporary suspension of traffic) for carrying out repairs to a broken rail was refused. The maintenance staff started the repairs just when the train approached the site at full speed and derailed.
According to the latest data, utilisation exceeds the capacity on 65 per cent of busy routes. It is 120 per cent to 150 per cent on 32 per cent of the routes, and utilisation exceeds 150 per cent on 9 per cent of the routes. For optimal performance, utilisation should be 80 to 90 per cent of the capacity.
Over-utilisation is leaving little time for safety inspections and essential maintenance of track and other infrastructure as well as the rolling stock. The focus of IR has shifted to daily fire-fighting, to somehow keep trains running, leading to all sorts of maladies like inter-departmental tussles and low morale. Arguably, IR has one of the highest incidences of accidents due to material, equipment and human failures.
From 1985-2000, IR acquired locomotives, coaches and wagons and carried out modernisation and upgradation of track and other infrastructure, with massive infusion of funds. But it kept deferring the last mile works (which include the easing of sharp curves, strengthening some bridges, improving track geometry to tighter tolerances, cab signalling etc.) that are needed to unlock the full potential of an upgraded network.
The last mile works are tough to execute, requiring immaculate planning and precise execution. Blocks will be regularly needed for which some services may have to be diverted or curtailed temporarily. Services that can be catered to by road transport, like short distance passenger trains, shall have to be closed altogether.
A comparison with the Chinese Railway (CR) is illustrative of the magnitude of IR’s failure. Till the 1990s, the speed of trains on CR was limited to 100 to 120 km/hr. But in the 10 years (1997-2007), it undertook a “speed-up” campaign in six rounds and raised speeds to 160 km/hr on 14,000 km and to 200 km/hr on 5,370 km route-lengths. Simultaneously, the speed of freight trains was raised to 100 to 120 km/hr. With the streamlining traffic flow, line capacity was increased by 60 to 70 per cent.
As its capacity stagnated right through 2000-10, IR started overloading wagons. In another knee-jerk response, IR latched on to the idea of building two Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFCs) with three more to come in future. DFCs have been built by some railways outside India for the limited purpose of carrying heavy minerals from mines. IR also began pushing for building High-Speed Rail (HSR) lines. HSR lines are too costly and suited for countries with very high per capita income. When the plan to build DFCs was announced, E. Sreedharan, India’s best-known railway engineer, had questioned the wisdom of building them. He has also said that India can wait for HSR.
Indian Railways has remained stuck at 130 km/hr since 1969, while congestion on the trunk routes sky-rocketed. It’s time to shift focus to the core network that carries more than 80 per cent of the total traffic. The last mile works for upgrading the trunk routes which were repeatedly deferred should be undertaken on a priority basis so that the entire nation can realise the benefits of faster and safer travel. Else, safety on Indian Railway will only worsen.