Shri Ashwini Vaishnaw
Dear Shri Vaishnaw,
Please refer to my earlier letter dated 5-6-2023 addressed to you on the recent multiple train accident near Balasore in Odisha (https://countercurrents.org/2023/06/railway-accident-in-odisha-are-the-railways-ready-for-high-speed-trains-who-is-to-be-blamed/) in which, according to your own statements, there was a technical snag in the working of the signalling system at Bahanaga Bazar railway station. According to reports (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/balasore-accident-no-train-to-halt-at-bahanaga-bazar-as-cbi-seals-station-seizes-log-book/articleshow/100897578.cms), apparently, on a suspicion of sabotage, the CBI has sealed the station premises and took control of the station records.
In my letter dated 5-6-2023, apart from a possible failure of the signalling system at Bahanaga station, I referred to yet another similar instance, the one at Hosadurga Road station of Birur-Chikjajur section of Mysore division on 8-2-2023, involving Sampark Kranti Express, leading to an “averted head-on collision” with a goods train, on which the Railway Board received an alert but it was not clear whether any follow-up action had been taken by the Board to order a wholesale review of the advance signalling systems installed, a review of the preparedness of the local railway staff to operate the same, measures to preempt the recurrence of a similar catastrophic situation. Had such preemptive steps been taken, perhaps, the Bahanaga accident could have been avoided, saving more than 280 lives and preventing hundreds of passengers from being injured.
It is distressing that more and more information is coming out in the public domain of several instances of failure of signalling systems largely caused by inadequate training of the local railway staff, an aspect that one would have expected the Railway Board to have taken up with the seriousness it deserved, especially at a time when the Board is blissfully launching scores of Vande Bharats and other superfast trains.
I have come across a copy of a letter (No. 2015/Sig/SF/1 dated 3-4-2023) addressed by Shri N Sunkar, Member (Infrastructure) addressed to the General Managers of different Zones (https://www.freepressjournal.in/india/fpj-exclusive-neglected-letter-by-railway-board-member-could-have-averted-balasore-tragedy) in which he referred to five such instances of manual interference with the signalling systems, two in the Northern Zone (near Lucknow & Ludhiana stations), one in South Western Zone (Hosadurga station), one in Central Zone (near Kharkopar station) and one in WC Zone (near Bagratawa station), all instances reported between 27-1-2023 and 22-3-2023. I have extracted below the observations made by the concerned Member which ought to have caused a great deal of serious anxiety within the Railway Board and across all the zones.
“Recently, five incidences on unsafe side involving points have taken place on various Zonal Railways (Copy Enclosed). This is alarming and an issue of serious concern.
The signalling gears were reconnected by S&T staff without proper testing of points after blocks for switch/turnout replacement, wrong wiring during preparatory works, attending signal failures etc., such practices reflects dilution of manual and codal provisions. Same are potential hazard to safety in train operations and need to be stopped.
Above incidences indicate that despite of repeated instructions from Railway Board, ground situation is not improving and signaling staff are continuing to adopt short cut methods for clearing signals without checking correspondence from site and without proper exchange of disconnection/re-connection memo, with operating staff.
Joint works with engineering staff, signal maintenance and other repair works requiring disconnection contained in IRSEM should indicate time duration catering provisions for testing signaling gears after completion of engineering works in case of joint activities. The gears should be reconnected only after proper testing to ascertain safe certification of signaling system.
Needless to mention that a large number of infrastructure works are under progress with stringent targets requiring involvement of open line officials and staff at every stage for timely commissioning of works, however, officers and staff in field need to be sensitized to ensure integrity of signaling system being of utmost importance from safety point of view. These aspects need to be reviewed in weekly safety meetings at divisional and headquarter level”
One such instance of manual interference with the signalling system leading to a potential accident is in itself a matter that should have caused everyone in the Railway Board a great deal of anxiety, as one cannot afford to allow such lapses when the Ministry and the Board are going full throttle on introducing super-fast trains, especially Vande Bharats. When five such instances came to the notice of the Board, one would expect the Board and the Ministry to sit up and worry about the safety of passengers travelling in all trains, both slow and fast trains.
It is all the more significant that in all these Zones, there are Vande Bharats and super-fast trains running and new ones being introduced.
Such a high frequency of occurrence of failure of the signalling systems clearly speaks volumes about the overall lack of preparedness on the part of the Railways to handle fast train traffic. Apparently, the Railways have not explained to the local personnel the technical intricacies of the electronic signalling system and the potential danger of adopting shortcuts. At least after the alerts received by the Board in five independent instances, distributed over a wide range of Zones where Vande Bharats are running and are about to run, the Board ought to have given the highest priority to safety.
It is likely that one isolated instance of manual lapses in handling the signalling system may be treated as “sabotage” unless the CBI is informed of all the five instances referred by the Member, in which providentially no major accident has taken place. If there were five cases of manual interference, they cannot be brushed aside as local lapses. Such frequent failures reflect a lapse at the higher echelons of the Ministry, especially in the context of its grandiose plans on Vande Bharats.
The fact that five alerts of manual lapses in handling the signalling system have come to the notice of the Board should point towards the occurrence of more such instances, some of which may not have been reported and some likely to occur in the future.
It is high time that the Board, in consultation with the RDSO, installs electronic signalling systems which are 100% insulated from manual handling, as human errors can always create problems.
I hope that at least from now on, the Ministry of Railways will give higher importance to safety, over and above the indiscriminate introduction of fast trains and review the future launching of Vande Bharats and other fast trains.
E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to the Government of India