Likely cause of Indian rail disaster: neglect not “sabotage”

The Indian rail system has experienced another major rail disaster. On September 9, the Howrah-New Delhi Rajdhani Express—a luxury, high-speed train—derailed while crossing a bridge in the Aurangabad district of the northern state of Bihar and plunged into the Dhawa River. At the latest count, 129 of the 600 passengers and rail staff on board were killed and another 200 were injured.

Both the media and relatives of the victims have been critical of the rescue operations. “Most of those who survived owed their lives either to their own dexterity, or to people from the neighbouring villages. It would be interesting to find out how many had actually been saved by the railways. Even the bodies that were pulled out in the early stages were mostly due to the exertions of local people,” the Times News Network commented.

Rescue and clearing operations were hampered by the state of the wreckage—most of the carriages were overturned and five were left hanging in mid-air—and delays in bringing heavy lifting and cutting machinery to the scene. Bodies were retrieved from the carriages and the river. Another 12 people died on the way to hospital. The last body was only found six days after the accident when the debris was finally cleared.

Angry relatives insisted that rail authorities appeared to be more interested in clearing the track than in locating their family members. Some claimed that the delays in the rescue operation had resulted in more deaths. Others pointed out that the bodies that had been retrieved had not been preserved with ice but left in the open. Rail officials brought in police armed with lathis (batons) to intimidate an angry crowd of relatives gathered near the crash site.

The cause of the accident remains unclear. Anxious to deflect criticism from the Indian government, Railway Minister Nitish Kumar immediately suggested that “sabotage” was responsible for the derailment. He offered the convoluted argument that, as the train had been running at its maximum speed, no official speed restrictions could have been in place and therefore the condition of the track could not have been to blame.

Junior railway minister Bandaru Dattratreya further embellished the story, saying that the fishplates holding the track together had been removed. “It is totally sabotage,” he said. “That area is Maoist-infested”. Railway Board Chairman I.I.M.S Rana also insisted that it was “a clear case of sabotage,” adding that it could be the work of Maoist guerrillas or Pakistani military intelligence.

No evidence was offered for these claims. Nor had any official investigation even begun. Right from the outset, the police cast doubt on the sabotage theory. “This does not appear to be a case of sabotage... the railway authorities have jumped to a conclusion without even caring to verify the ground realities,” police inspector Neelmani said. Moreover, as others pointed out, Maoist groups had, in the past, not bothered to remove fishplates but had blown up tracks and in such a way as to avoid derailments.

Both the media and the Bihar state government further undermined the sabotage story, pointing to the state of the bridge over the Dhawa River. The Deccan Herald commented on September 12: “A close view of the bridge showed that the wooden sleepers as well as the iron suspensions of the bridge were in a pitiable condition. Further a major portion of the bridge had caved-in too. So far as the MCC [a Maoist group] was concerned, never in the past have they resorted to such actions. They have blown up railway tracks but at the same time ensured that incoming trains were stopped before reaching the spot.”

The Times News Network reported on September 13 that Nitish Kumar and the railway ministry knew in advance about the bridge’s poor condition. Citing railway sources, it stated that a senior divisional engineer had prepared an estimate in April for the repair of 11 bridges, including the Dhawa bridge, which had developed an internal fracture and needed strengthening. He also proposed to replace the existing wooden sleepers on the bridge, which had weakened due to natural decay and traffic fatigue. The engineer had, in the meantime, recommended the use of a caution signal and speed restrictions to prevent an accident.

Two local officials—the Aurangabad district magistrate and the police superintendent—carried out a preliminary investigation of the accident. Their two-page report pointed out that, even though a number of nuts and bolts were missing, the fishplates were intact. There had been no “miscreant activity” in the area, it added. The Bihar Chief Minister Rabri Devi and his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) seized on the report to score political points off the Kumar and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi.

With the sabotage theory looking increasingly weak, the rail ministers and officials were forced to backtrack. After a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani on September 11, Kumar and Rana declared that it would not be appropriate to comment further on the cause of the accident until the Commissioner of Railway Safety had submitted a preliminary report. Kumar said he was not interested in a public debate and had “advised the Bihar government to practice restraint”.

A deteriorating rail system

It cannot be ruled out in advance that sabotage caused the September 9 crash. But in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it appears far more likely that the poor state of the track and the bridge were responsible. The fact that rail ministers and senior officials immediately seized upon the least probable explanation is an indication of how politically sensitive the issue is in India.

The Indian rail network is the second largest in the world. It is the country’s biggest public sector undertaking and is used by nearly 13 million people each day, the vast majority being working people. But the failure of governments to adequately maintain the infrastructure and upgrade safety systems has led to a succession of accidents, as well as more minor collisions, derailments and breakdowns, and produced growing public anger and outrage.

The Rediff.com website reported: “Since 1986, there have been between 200 to 250 accidents, major and minor, across the railways network every year. In that time, 6,000-plus people have died, and many times that number have been injured in rail accidents.” The last major derailment occurred on May 12 when the New Delhi-Patna Shramajeevi Express derailed near the Khatsari station in Uttar Pradhesh. Twelve people died and another 70 were injured.

On June 21 2001, the Mangalore-Chennai Mail train plunged into the Kadulundi River in the southern state of Kerala, killing 59 people and injuring 200 more. The accident was caused by the collapse of the rail bridge, which was 120 years old and had not been maintained. The government, the rail minister and rail authorities faced a barrage of criticisms over the systematic neglect of maintenance and safety standards.

The Kerala crash is one reason why Kumar and others wanted to deflect attention from the condition of the bridge in the latest accident. If that were found to be the cause, it would only highlight the failure of the minister and the government to take any action to upgrade rail bridges. Rail ministers and senior rail officials have been at pains to emphasise that the Dhawa bridge was not one of the country’s “distressed” bridges.

According to official statistics, India has 51,340 rail bridges that are more than 100 years old and another 89,076 that are more than 60 years old. Of those, 526 are classified as badly in need of repair or “distressed”. The Dhawa bridge is 86 years old.

A review committee formed in 1998 and led by retired Supreme Court judge H.L. Khanna pointed out that the two factors responsible for most rail accidents over the past decade were the poor state of bridges and the lack of track maintenance. Noting the large number of rail bridges that date back to the 19th century, the report commented: “Going by the rule of thumb of structural engineers that the life of a bridge is around 100 years, the Indian Railways is faced with a grave problem.”

The Khanna report strongly recommended that the old bridges either be abandoned or repaired within a year. But like the reports of previous review committees and accident investigations, the Khanna findings have largely been ignored. In last year’s railway budget speech, Kumar formally raised the Khanna committee recommendations and then admitted that the government did not have the money to implement them. “I was very much hopeful that a way would be found to meet this recommendation of the committee. This has, however, not materialised.”

It may yet turn out that the Dhawa rail bridge was not the cause of the latest rail tragedy. But the willingness of the rail ministers to immediately leap to the conclusion that Maoist rebels or Pakistani spies were responsible is an indication of the lengths to which they will go to deflect attention not only from themselves and the government but from a social system that puts profit ahead of the lives of ordinary working people.