Report by Kamgar Ekta Committee (KEC) correspondent of the All India Conference on the above subject via zoom, organised by the All India Forum Against Privatisation (AIFAP) on 9 July 2023
The AIFAP organised a very important and timely meeting on the subject, “Safety of Railway Passengers and Workers is not negotiable!”
Shri Ashok Kumar, Joint Secretary, Kamgar Ekta Committee (KEC), welcomed the participants and at the outset paid homage to the victims of the recent railway accident in Balasore. He then requested the following speakers to express their views:
Shri K C James, Secretary General, All India Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA), Shri D S Arora, General Secretary, All India Station Masters Association (AISMA), Shri Chandan Chaturvedi, Secretary General, All India Train Controllers Association (AITCA), Shri Ram Naresh Paswan, President, All India Railway Track Maintainers Union (AIRTU) and Shri Girish, Joint Secretary, KEC.
The speeches were extremely informative and eye-opening. It shocked many people to learn about the extreme negligence of safety by the authorities from the ministerial level downward, which has made the IR, the “lifeline” of our country, the cause of avoidable deaths of thousands of its workers and passengers.
There were a large number of interventions at the end, and many expressed their support and participation in the “Railway Safety Campaign” that the KEC has proposed to start. If in other countries conditions of work and travel are both much better, it is only because the people have fought for them. That is why we believe that if we raise a united voice for safe and comfortable rail travel, we will be able to achieve our goal!
Salient and shocking points made by various speakers.
Various governments that have come to power do not really care about where ordinary Indians, workers, peasants and other toilers live or die. They are the ones who travel by the railways in our country. Even the records of their deaths are not kept.
According to the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) data, in the past 10 years, 260,000 people have died in train accidents in India. This does not include the 8,700 mowed down by trains during India’s 2020 covid-19 lockdown.
The number of consequential train accidents has increased to 48 in 2022-2023 as compared to 35 in the previous year. Consequential train accidents are those with significant repercussions, such as loss of life, human injury, property damage, and interruption to railway traffic.
Due to neglect of elementary safety precautions on the part of the authorities, on an average 2-3 track maintainers die while at work every day, amounting to hundreds every year. Due to their extremely onerous working conditions, a very large number of IR operating staff is affected by stress induced ailments like high BP, heart ailments and diabetes at a very early age.
Why are the workers and passengers of the IR at risk?
The problem of lack of safety in the IR is not new and has been brought to the notice of the authorities innumerable times by the unions and associations of railways workers. In the first place, enough funds are not allocated to safety. Ten years ago, the Kakodkar Committee had stressed that the IR needs to spend 1 lakh crore in 5 years. The Rail Suraksha Kosh was created but enough was not allocated, and even the allocated amount was not fully spent!
Very large number of vacancies and inadequate training.
There is an appallingly large number (3,12,000) of vacancies in all the IR categories, including lakhs in the safety categories. The actual number of vacancies is much larger, because despite increasing traffic over the years, the authorities have surrendered a very large number of posts.
The last recruitment was in 2018. Thousands of youth have passed the Railway Recruitment Board exam, after investing a large amount of money, time and effort. They are still waiting…
In the 1980’s a fresh loco pilot used to be trained for 10 months on a diesel engine. Now the number of different engines is much more, and the same person is trained to run both diesel and electric locomotives in just 3 months!
Officially loco pilots are supposed to work for 12 hours a day (which itself is inhumanly large and affects the safety of all who travel by train), but the large number of vacancies results in them having to put in even 14-16 hours a day without rest.
Previously, a station had cabins on both sides with workers for assisting the SM (Station Master). Now everything is loaded on the SM, who works all alone in most cases. If there is a failure, a single person can do nothing.
The large number of deaths of track maintainers (TMs) while on duty. Their working conditions affect the safety of all who travel by the IR.
2021 Rajya Sabha, Rail minister said 451 TMs had been run over in 4 years. The actual number of deaths is so much higher, 2-3 a day, which amounts to hundreds a year. No remedial action has been taken. The correct question to ask is why should even one die?
Even today they are made to work like the slaves, as they were during the British Raj. Night patrolling is especially dangerous. Whatever the weather – freezing cold, blazing summer or torrential rain, they have to walk as much as 20 km daily during inspection, carrying outmoded, heavy tools of a century ago. How effectively would they be able notice faults on tracks and fix them?
Often they work alone, and there is no one to warn them of approaching trains and neither do they have a safety device. The result is that the term “run over” has been added to the Hindi lexicon of TMs; several are run over every day!
Malfunctioning of the signalling system has been a critical issue for the railways for many years. Loco Pilots’ unions have drawn the attention of the authorities to the issue of defective signals. The scale of the problem is obvious from the fact that signal failures have been reported 51,238 times in a single year!
A two train collision was averted in the nick of time in February this year by the loco pilot who noticed a false green signal and was able to halt the train. The authorities were promptly alerted and warned about the need for action. If they had done so, the Balasore catastrophe could have been prevented.
Sustained pressure to maintain punctuality.
Though there are several protective systems for locomotives, for each of them there is a bypass. “If the wheel can be rolled, go ahead!” is the aim of the IR, and the loco pilots, station masters, etc. are all effectively forced to bypass the safety systems.
“Progress” without the necessary infrastructure.
In every other country which introduces superfast trains, different tracks are laid for them. Not in our country. Speeds, train frequencies, number of carriages, weight carried by them, have all increased, but safety measures have not increased appropriately. This leads to greater wear and tear of rails.
Why are the tracks not maintained adequately?
70% of accidents can be attributed to derailments, many of which occur due to track failure. According to a report tabled in parliament in December 2022, there were 1129 derailment cases in the Indian Railways in 4 years! Most of these derailments do not get reported in the media as they involve goods trains. However, in these cases too, the concerned railway workers get killed or injured and untold amounts of public property gets damaged.
Over 15000 km of track are defective and need to be urgently repaired or renewed. Every year an additional 4500 km of track become due for renewal. However for the last many decades, barely 2000 km is attended to annually. This means that year by year the defective track increases!
Due to paucity of workers as well as high density of trains, there is 30% to 100% shortfall in track inspection.
How rail workers are made scapegoats: The authorities want to find out who went wrong, instead of what went wrong.
Even before a proper enquiry, the Railway Minister had declared that the Balasore accident was due to sabotage and the investigation was handed over to the CBI (which has no expertise in the matter). The clear aim was to divert people’s attention from the real root of the problem – the neglect of safety by the IR authorities. Now 3 junior employees have been caught.
In ADRA division (West Bengal) on June 25, the loco pilot concerned was removed from service without enquiry or charge sheet because he had passed signal on danger sign. When the union investigated, they found that he had been working for 19 hours 10 min continuously!
Recently in Mumbai Division, a 28 year old technician of the Signalling Department was run over while working because nobody warned him about an incoming train. “It is negligence on the part of the staff. They did not see the train coming,” was the statement of the Central Railway. Again the employee was blamed despite the failure of authorities to provide a responsible person to warn of an incoming train sufficiently in advance when the work was being carried out on and around tracks. The IR has been adding cameras in locomotives and data loggers. These do not prevent the accident, but only help in taking punitive and unjustified action against the employees.
Privatisation by way of outsourcing, contractualization
Over the years, the IR has shut down various workshops and started procuring parts, sub-assemblies etc. from private parties. Important components required by the IR are outsourced and they are substandard.
There is outsourcing even in safety cadres, which is inviting trouble. No one is held responsible if anything goes wrong. Contract workers are used even for skilled technical work. They are not trained for that and their salaries are abysmally low.
Despite the load being doubled or even tripled due to increased speed and frequency of trains, the number of regular TMs has been slashed to one fourth or even one fifth. One TM is accompanied by 8-10 contract workers. Even kids as young as 10-12 years are employed on contract! They do not have the strength to lift the required length of track. If there is any mistake, the regular TM is made the scapegoat.
Contract workers who are untrained and have no idea about the relevant parameters are employed for maintenance. The quality of their work can be well imagined!
Overcrowding, lack of amenities for passengers, unmanned railway crossings.
The number of deaths of people caused by falling out of inhumanely overcrowded trains, as well as by crossing railway tracks because of the appalling lack of foot overbridges is anyone’s guess. In Mumbai it is estimated that about ten people die every day on the tracks. It has become so normal that it does not even make news. In addition, there are a large number of deaths due to hundreds of unmanned railway crossings all over the country.
After looking at the outrageous way that the IR is run, it clear that it is wrong to blame railway workers in cases of accidents. Actually employees of the IR would dearly want modern technology and safety. They are trained to handle emergencies. When accidents occur they strive to follow the Golden Hour Rule, making assistance available within an hour so as to save the maximum number of victims, just as they did in Balasore.
The root cause of the problem is that the entire economy, including state owned enterprises, is geared towards maximizing capitalist profits and not towards fulfilling workers’ and people’s needs. Indian Railways suffers from gross under-staffing as well as neglect of maintenance and safety measures, as a result of the push towards privatisation, outsourcing and profit maximization. Safe travel by IR can be ensured only if the working conditions of IR employees are made fully safe. Hence the railway passengers and railway workers must insist that safety of IR passengers and workers is non-negotiable!