Rail safety can no longer be business as usual

Introspection must begin within Indian Railways to address some serious questions concerning safety systems
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

The Balasore rail tragedy of June 2 has shaken the nation. The last time an accident of this magnitude with so many fatalities occurred was in 1999 at Gaisal in the North Frontier Railway zone, in which two trains collided head-on and Nitish Kumar, the then Minister for Railways, resigned owning moral responsibility. While Gaisal was a case of grossly unsafe working for which the management, apart from the lower rail officials, was culpable, it is now reasonably clear that Balasore was a case of unauthorised human intervention in the fail-safe interlocking system by a Signal Maintainer, who has access to its equipment hut or relay room, to expedite his maintenance work so that train running is not affected or as Indian Railways (IR) seems to believe, a nefarious criminal act of sabotage to cause a massive accident.

The interlocking of signals and routes is a system of relays and electronic logic gates which ensures that a train is monitored and controlled by signals and other ground equipment in an assigned route within the criss-cross of railway tracks such that it would have an unhindered path without running into head or rear of another train. In this case, this interlocking was tampered with by an illegal manual interposition to set a path to the mainline without a matching setting of the route, which remained set to an occupied loop line, thereby causing a catastrophic collision.

Two investigations are on, the statutory one by the Commissioner of Rail Safety and another by CBI. The government engaged the latter in an extraordinary move. While the opposition has called the CBI enquiry a red herring to divert attention from IR’s culpability, the government must believe there was some foul play at work. It is expected that the culprits will soon be identified. However, introspection and deliberations must begin within IR to address some serious questions concerning safety systems and culture and work towards devising a safer system pending the enquiry reports.

A natural question is whether the Electronic Interlocking system of IR is so weak that it can fail and cause such havoc. The answer is that it is not weak but fail-safe, and in case of a failure or conflict in its working, it reverts to a safe mode turning the signals red, eliminating any chance of a mishap. The question, however, that follows is whether the Interlocking system is so amenable to mala fide or careless interference that a conflicting route can be set for an advancing train.

The core of the interlocking system is installed in a double-locked relay room located in the station building near the Station Master’s chamber, and the Station Master and the Maintainer control admission to it jointly. The Maintainer can tamper with the circuitry here, in cohorts with the Station Master or otherwise, but it does not appear to be possible for a criminal to gain access to this room unless it is an intrusion by force. At the same time, only the authorised Maintainer controls access to the equipment placed in huts and location boxes located at remote places in a station yard. Therefore, they are more susceptible to unauthorised human intervention. Putting things in perspective, however, this layout of critical signalling equipment is similar to that obtained worldwide, and it is not inherently unsafe. It is understood that in Balasore, a Signal Maintainer accessed the equipment in a hut near a level crossing and bypassed the interlocking employing a shortcut to complete his work quickly to ensure that train running was not delayed or disturbed (or as IR would have it, perhaps by someone with the criminal intent to cause an accident).

So, you have a situation in which the authorised Maintainer, intending to conduct hasty resolution of a fault or speedy execution of regular maintenance work, cuts corners putting the lives of thousands at risk or a saboteur out to give shape to diabolical designs. It is not dissimilar to any other computerised safety system, which a criminal can hack into and interfere with to destabilise the system and cause a major accident.

This has to be a subject of closer scrutiny to re-evaluate the system and build more safeguards. Since the provision of a double lock system, even for the remote huts in stations, is impractical given the requirement of station staff to move to farther locations, a digital double lock operated with mobile phones or similar devices in a safe band may be considered. If this also is not doable, experts will need to go into the nitty gritty and think of foolproof protection.

Many IR officers would tell you that they have encountered some cases in which a Maintainer acted irresponsibly, creating a situation of an accident waiting to happen. The enquiry might uncover if such incautious indulgences were prevalent and, if so, whether they were dealt with an exemplary punishment to deter such actions in future.

Experts rightly opined that IR has indiscriminately increased the number of trains in its already saturated sections and has relegated its safety to the second rung behind the running of trains. True, but is it reversible? IR can reduce passenger trains only at the cost of strong political fallout. In contrast, any reduction in freight trains is counter-productive as it would cut down the earnings of IR, which is already in the financial doldrums. They have also lamented the absence of a culture of safety. No gainsaying against that, but it would take time to teach a spirit in all railwaymen that safety is paramount and takes precedence over running of trains.

Immediate action to improve safety should involve more focus on the upgradation of infrastructure. While vacancies in Safety categories should be filled up, greater stress is needed for the skilling of workmen. There is no scarcity of funds, thanks to the mammoth investments that the Central Government is now making in IR, and this should be leveraged to proliferate Kavach, the comprehensive signalling system IR developed at the rate of 2500 km per year and undertake large-scale works to clear all backlogs of track renewal and rehabilitation by tripling the allotment of funds.

Sudhanshu Mani

Retd General Manager, Indian Railways,
Creator of Train 18/Vande Bharat and Independent Rail Consultant

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