Seven in 10 railway accidents over a four-year period were derailments, owing to multiple factors including track defects, maintenance issues and operating errors, according to an analysis of 1,129 inquiry reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General. A decline in fund availability and non-utilisation of available funds for track renewals led to 26% of these derailments. Decrease in passenger and freight earnings have constrained Indian Railways’s capacity to spend on safety, data show.

Railways have been the “lifeline” of the country with more than 22 million passengers travelling in trains every day, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General report. The network also transports 3.3 million tonnes of freight daily (as of 2022) and earns more than Rs 1 lakh crore annually. However the modal share of railways, that is the preference for railways, is still only 14% for passenger traffic and 26% for freight movement, as per a 2015 study and the Economic Survey 2021-’22.

The Comptroller and Auditor General audit report shows that derailments are the major cause of accidents, resulting in loss of property and life. The economic cost of derailments (measured as a sum of loss of rolling stock and tracks) between 2000 and 2016 is estimated to be Rs 86,486 crore, which translates to a loss of Rs 5,087 crore per year, as per a 2018 study by the Indira Gandhi Open University.

Accidents have declined

In four years to 2020-’21, the Railways recorded 2,017 accidents, and derailments accounted for 69% (1,392). Overall, accidents fell from 719 in 2018-19 to 348 in 2020-’21.

Train accidents are categorised as “consequential” accidents (which lead to injuries, death, loss of railway property and/or interruption to rail traffic), other accidents, and yard accidents. Yard accidents account for three in five derailments. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India report emphasises the need for continued efforts to improve train safety and reduce the number of accidents, particularly those caused by derailments.

In four years to 2020-’21, there were 217 “consequential” accidents, and derailments accounted for three in four of these. Overall, consequential train accidents fell 73% over four years.

Between 2017 and 2021, derailments caused 293 deaths and 56 injuries, according to data from National Crime Records Bureau reports.

“Between 2014 and 2017, there were many severe railway derailments that had occurred,” said Alok Kumar Verma, a former officer of the Indian Railway Service of Engineers, who retired as Chief Engineer, Indian Railways, terming 2017 a “turning point” in terms of concern about accidents. “The severity of instances matter more than just yearly numbers. Has there been any solid effort after that towards enhancing the capacity of tracks?”

“Safety performance is only a symptom; the disease is a lack of adequate infrastructure,” he added.

Causes for derailments

Accident inquiries help identify the cause and formulate steps to prevent their recurrence. The inquiry process involves ascertaining whether any inherent defects exist in the system of working or in physical appliances, such as tracks, rolling stock and other working apparatus.

“One particular incident cannot cause a derailment. It has to be a combination of three, four or five different mistakes before a derailment happens,” said Swapnil Garg, professor of Strategy Management at the Indian Institute of Management, Indore. Garg had worked with the Railways earlier, as an officer of the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers. “When there is a signalling failure, mechanical failures and civil engineering failures, we find that these collectively result in a derailment,” he added.

Multiple factors were collectively responsible for each accident, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India report said, highlighting the need for all-out efforts at every level of staff and proper coordination among all departments to prevent derailments. The factors were categorised into those of the various departments – civil engineering, mechanical, operating, signal and telecommunication, electrical departments and loco pilots.

Civil engineering issues were highest of any department. Issues included deviation of track parameters, improper loading, water-logging, etc. This was followed by the operating department issues – incorrect setting of points and other mistakes in shunting, and poor working or failure of station master. Mechanical issues include wheel diameter variation and defects in coaches/wagons, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General of India report.

Further, “overall density of population along the tracks is increasing and this can result in an increase in railway accidents if the crossings remain unmanned. There has been a concerted activity from the Railways to man as many of the unmanned level crossings and this will help in bringing down chances of accidents,” said Dominic.

Human error

“Human error” was the major factor responsible for derailments attributable to the Loco Pilots, identified in 13% of cases. Speaking about loco pilots’ errors, Biju Dominic, chairman, FinalMile Consulting, said, “Our observations show that accidents happen in places where the visibility of the train is very good, not where the visibility of the train is poor. That’s something we can tell you comprehensively.” Dominic was extensively involved in assessing multiple railway accidents as a consultant and assisted the Railways in creating solutions for preventing accidents on unmanned level crossings.

“When it comes to loco pilots’ fatigue, one might argue there are not enough facilities for them to rest, but my question is whether the ones in place, are they being utilised properly by them to rest,” he added.

Track overuse

Experts also point to inadequate capacity and maintenance of tracks as a factor. “The most critical thing to understand is that there is over utilisation of the tracks; the tracks are being abused,” said Verma, the former chief engineer. “The trunk lines between the four major stations in the country – Delhi, Howrah, Mumbai and Chennai – have not seen any addition or doubling of track for years”.

Doubling of track means there are tracks running in both directions between two places and trains would no longer have to depend on a single line. One in four derailments (289 of 1,129) were linked to track renewal, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India report said, pointing to a declining trend in funding for renewal along with under-utilisation of available funds.

The progress in track renewals has been slowing down, leading to an accumulation of arrears. The target set for track renewals is not commensurate with the actual requirement on the ground, which is resulting in reduced reliability of assets and disproportionately high maintenance effort, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India report said, citing various other reports.

“The capacity of the existing tracks is more than 160% indicating over-utilisation of lines on trunk routes, but there’s not much time devoted to maintenance of the same.”

Data from the Indian Railways’ National Rail Plan 2020 show that 80% of tracks on high density networks were overburdened – that is, they are running at over 100% capacity. The high density networks routes connect five major centres – Chennai, Kolkata (Howrah), Mumbai, Delhi and Guwahati. They comprise 16% of the total railway network and transport 41% of the total traffic.

Experts suggested that the Railways would need to prioritise building more lines and increasing speed, thus enhancing the capacity of the network. This would greatly reduce the congestion of trains.

“Going forward, Indian Railways will have to define its break-even points and bring down utilisation of capacity to 60%-70%, to ensure the system works more optimally, to bring down derailments even more,” added Garg.

Fund crunch

The Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh was created in 2017-’18 with a corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore to finance critical safety-related works of renewal, replacement, and augmentation of assets in the Indian Railways. However, the generation of internal resources of Railways for the remaining funding of Rs 5,000 crore per year to Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh had been falling short of target, leading to a shortage of Rs 15,775 crore in the actual deployment of funds by Railways to Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh.

Earlier, safety-related works on Indian Railways were mainly funded through the Railway Safety Fund. This was financed out of the Depreciation Reserve Fund including track renewals, rebuilding of bridges, etc.

Analysis of the utilisation of Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh funds revealed that the expenditure on Priority-I works, which include major civil engineering works and level crossing infrastructure, from Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh declined from 82% in 2017-’18 to 74% in 2019-’20.

Decline in passenger traffic and rate of freight (per Net Tonne Kilometres) has impacted Railways’ earnings with the organisation incurring a loss of Rs 15,024 crore in 2021-’22. Data from Indian Railways’ Yearbook 2021 showed that passenger traffic, measured in passenger kilometres fell from 1,177,669 in 2017 to 590,617 in 2021. While freight traffic increased between 2017 and 2021, the rate of freight (per Net Tonne Kilometres) has come down from 163.80 paise to 160 paise, for the same period.

“Railways are losing. Money is being spent on launching new trains but not enough is being spent on safety and upgrading infrastructure. As a result, maintenance of tracks to prevent derailments and other priorities like capacity and doubling gets little attention,” said Verma.

“It is pertinent to note that there has been a reduction in passenger traffic due to faster options by road and air. This affects earnings and as a consequence, Railways’ ability to spend on upgrading safety infrastructure has come down,” Verma added, speaking on the insignificant contribution of Railways to Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh.

“The Government of India must make serious efforts to spend more on railways as the cost of railway infrastructure is too high for the Indian Railways alone to bear,” he added.

IndiaSpend has reached out to Anil Kumar Lahoti, Chairman and chief executive officer of the Railway Board, for comment on the utilisation of Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh and additional concerns about rail safety and lack of adequate maintenance of tracks. We will update the story when we receive a response.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.