The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Fatigue and cracks keep disaster on track

Calcutta, Sept. 11: Cracked tracks, old bridges, faulty signal systems — those in the know about the world’s second-largest rail network are hardly surprised at Monday’s crash of the Rajdhani Express, the country’s No. 1 train.

Or, for that matter, at today’s incident near Burdwan in which the Sealdah-bound Rajdhani hit a track-inspection trolley, sending it flying. There was no casualty, but the train was delayed for three hours.

“This illustrates their (railways’) callousness, their unconcern at passenger safety,” said former railway minister Mamata Banerjee, while experts said crashes were “simply” waiting to happen across the 64,000-km network.

At this point, it is difficult to sift through the conflicting views. Railway minister Nitish Kumar has said “it’s an act of sabotage”. But according to deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani, who is in charge of internal security, “it looks like an accident, not sabotage”.

Experts say the unscrewed or detached fishplates should not be seen as irrefutable evidence of sabotage as they could also come off under the impact of the crash. “The latter possibility is also very strong, given the quality of maintenance of the track,” said an expert, who added that removal of fishplates could have been detected immediately had there been a continuous circuit device fitted on to the tracks.

A senior bureaucrat said the tragedy needed to be seen as one more pointer to the ills plaguing the network. Track renewal, bridge repairs and overhaul of signal systems were increasingly being pushed to the background as funds were being used up in relatively unimportant areas, he said.

“These are real priorities and, unfortunately, there is no focus on them,” he added. “Today, our policy planners are increasingly going for measures that have no immediate bearing on the safety of passengers.”

By an official estimate, of the nearly 122,000 bridges, 500 major ones — each spanning a waterway at least 18 metres wide — are in dangerous condition.

Many of these bridges were built in early 1900. In a railway engineer’s book, bridges with steel structures commissioned before 1930 are “already extremely fatigued” because of the high presence of sulphur in them. These bridges cannot cope with the high-frequency vibrations of a high-speed train.

In the last two years, the railways did initiate a rehabilitation programme covering certain bridges and girders after identifying the “severe points of distress”. Apart from strengthening the bridges, long-welded rails were put on them so that they could cope with the movement of high-speed trains.

Such piecemeal rehabilitation was clearly inadequate. Important ones like Sone — which takes its name after the river it bridges in Bihar — and Jubilee, on the Hooghly in Bengal, are in precarious condition. Long-distance trains ply on both.

For want of funds, the work on Sone — the longest in the network — and Jubilee cannot be taken up fully. However, railway authorities have imposed speed restrictions.

Nearly 18,000 km of tracks needs immediate repair or overhaul. But the track renewal programme, covering small portions at a time, is limping for want of funds. There is also the growing problem of cracking of rails, especially during winter, when the rate of accidents traditionally shoots up.

According to experts, the problem of cracking rails is linked to the track indigenisation programme that the railways have undertaken, accessing supplies from public sector steel plants.

“This is a serious problem calling for immediate attention because it shows the present tracks purchase programme is not attaching the requisite importance to quality,” an official associated with the programme said.

One of the recent reminders to the government on the issue of passenger safety came from Mamata. In a note to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, she said the railway ministry was making a “serious compromise on safety preparedness only to be able to channel funds, energies and time on fulfilling parochial political ambitions (read bifurcation of railway zones)”.

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