| Look before you roll
New Delhi, July 13: The next time you plan to travel by train think of the odds stacked up against you.
Large sections along the route have not been inspected for years; those meant to check if everything is okay are dozing; too many drivers are alcoholics; most are fatigued because of overwork, and there’s inadequate staff to check the maintenance of engines and carriages.
Welcome to some sordid truths that came pouring out at a two-day workshop here to evaluate railway safety.
Spooked by a spate of accidents and stung by criticism for compromising on safety, railway minister Nitish Kumar decided to convene a meeting of lower-level staff like gangmen, engine drivers and station masters.
What Nitish and members of the railway board have heard over two days could not have inspired much confidence in the corruption-ridden institution.
“Two gangmen in front of the permanent way inspector, two men behind him and the other two busy preparing his son to be sent to school or grazing his cattle,” was how one participant described how track inspections are done.
The gangmen are vital links between two stations and the inspector is the person responsible for ensuring that the tracks are safe.
Nitish and the board members were also informed of drawbacks in maintaining engines and coaches, corruption, poor accountability, shortage of staff at lower levels and the putting of railway machinery to personal use by senior staff.
The speakers were in no mood to be nice to their bosses and presented a scenario that is bound to send a chill down the spine of those planning train travel.
They said there is no patrolling done in many sections where there is a staff shortage and even night patrolling is done only in areas that have been termed risky. Drivers are told to be careful in such areas, . Haridasan, assistant general secretary of the National Railway Mazdoor Union, said.
Many staffers said gangmen found it difficult to pass the stiff recruitment test and said they should be drawn from nearby villages.
Ajay Sehgal, an engine driver in the Jhansi section, said drivers lacked infrastructural support. He said alcoholism among drivers had fallen to less than one per cent and was more prevalent among ground staff.
Other drivers complained at having to work for 10-12 hours at a stretch instead of the prescribed eight hours and the lack of adequate training.
“The railway has brought down the training period for drivers from 13 weeks to 44 days and the refresher course to 14 days from 5 weeks,” Ajaib Singh, a Northern Railway driver said.
Drivers and operational staff complained about the poor maintenance of crew booking rooms where drivers rest and the poor stationery used for the caution order and engine repair book which serve the same function as the black box in a plane.
B.K. Singh, assistant station master in the newly created East Central Railway, said problems of motivation needed to be addressed. “A station master who has an unblemished record of 35 years without an accident can be dismissed if one accident takes place in his area of inspection even before the inquiry report is submitted. There should be a system that takes into account his previous record,” he said.
K.K. Verma of Eastern Railway spoke of the lack of co-ordination in purchase of equipment between railway zones and the coach factory.
P.V. Subbarao, deputy chief engineer South-East Central Railway, said safety has to be maintained all the while. “Mere lip service through the introduction of safety weeks cannot help improve safety,” he said.
Speaking about the workshop, Nitish said: “It has given us a perspective on how railway staff at the lower level feel about accidents and how they want us to help them reduce mishaps.”