The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The miracle of railways
- System on the verge of collapse: Officials

Calcutta, Oct. 25: A Canning-bound local train enters platform No. 1 of its final stop even as another train is stationed there. This happens in September.

The same month, an up Burdwan (main line) local leaves platform No. 5 of Howrah station, but within a minute of departure finds itself on the tracks meant for another train.

A few weeks later, an up train crosses over to the down track at Serampore.

For every Teesta Torsa-Trivandrum- Guwahati Express near-mishap (Bhaluka Road station in Malda) that makes front-page news, there are at least five similar cases that go unreported and unrecorded, say railway officials. They are also surprised that Gaisal and Rafiganj and Bhaluka Road and Serampore don’t occur more frequently, given the condition of the communication systems.

From the signalling system to the size of the ballasts (stone-chips on the tracks), from the tracks to the route relay inter-locking (RRI) system, every aspect of the country’s most frequently used transport system is on the verge of collapse — the victim of “systematic neglect and corruption”, officials say. This raises the spectre of more mishaps or close shaves with death in the future.

Officials say they are most concerned about the state of the RRI mechanism — it prevents relay of conflicting signals to a train — at the busier stations because of the number of trains using it. Howrah, for instance, has more than 1,200 routes (the total number of ways in which trains can leave or reach the station) and over 450 up and down trains; Bandel has over 700 routes and Sealdah over 400.

Recently, Sealdah got a replacement for its RRI system, divisional railway manager D.C. Mitra said. But the one at Howrah — the busiest station of Eastern and South Eastern Railways — has a certified life-span of 20 years and was installed in the 1960s. It has not been fully replaced till date, say officials, resulting in “frequent misbehaviour”.

“The replacement has been assigned to a German-based firm and things are now moving,” a senior Howrah division official said, admitting that “some problems” were expected till the work was over. “The switch-over to the replacement should be over by the end of this year,” he said.

There are other aspects of the signalling system that are equally worrying. Officials admit that the system, employed for about 90 per cent of the railways’ 82,000-km running track —the “absolute block system” — does not give any indication of what is happening to a train once it has left a station and is yet to arrive at the next one.

For stations separated by a 10-km stretch, without continuous track circuiting and the automatic block signalling system, it is impossible to know the status of the train or the track during the journey. “We wouldn’t know even if there is a kilometre-long gap in the track or if the train has fallen off the rails,” a senior Eastern Railway official said.

At present, automatic block system is used for about 10 per cent of the tracks and track circuiting has been done only on the Liluah-Bandel, Sealdah-Barrackpore, Sitarampur-Pradhankhanta and Tikiapara-Panskura stretches, say officials.

Internal railway reports concede that the condition of the tracks is such that more than 10,000 km is in need of “immediate repair or renewal”. Most of the bridges on the tracks don’t even have the 5.5-foot-long pre-stressed reinforced concrete sleepers and it is here that the chances of derailment are highest, say officials. Apathy to the “real problems” has complemented the human-error factor, leading to the recent spurt in mishaps, they added.

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