August 2, 2019 marked the 20th anniversary of the Gaisal train accident which claimed the lives of 285 people involving Brahmaputra Mail and Awadh Assam Express and their respective loco pilots. It was termed as one of the most tragic train accidents in the history of the Indian railway; this preceded the Firozabad and Khanna Trains which made their way into the list of tragic train accidents, leaving a scar on the reputation of Indian Railways raising a question on the very safety of train operations.
The responsibility that the government entrusts the railways with begets the question of essential safety mechanisms well beyond the reach of the Indian railways in contemporary railway operations when India strives to attain its position among the developed high-speed rail networks while also revamping the core and non-core segments of its operations. The focal point of this argument pertains to understanding safety as perceived by the railways over the two decades since the Gaisal train accident took place, while one of the most important institutions of the railway operations: the Commissioner for Railway Safety functioning under the Ministry of Civil Aviation, defeats the very purpose of its establishment.
Further, the reformations in the signalling domain were prompt yet slow to evolve. At the time when the Gaisal train accident occurred, the railways were in their transformation phase, with multi-faceted projects taking place, with the quest for the uni-gauge system being at the forefront. The period from 1980 to 2000 saw a reduction in collision cases by 71%. The number of collisions reported decreased from 69 in the year 1980–81 to 20 in 2000–01.
The decades, however, saw three major train accidents involving six trains which occurred mostly in the highly saturated sections of the Indian Railways network. Train accidents include:
1. 1992: Gaisal train accident which involved Brahmaputra Mail and Awadh Assam Express
2. 1995: Firozabad train accident which involved Purushottam Express and Kalindi Express
3. 1999: Khanna train disaster which involved Golden Temple Mail and Sealdah-Jammu Tawi Express
The Indian Railways are a 165-year-old institution which has been slow to catch up with the needs of the global railway network—owing to excessive political and bureaucratic interference. Safety is one of the most underrated issues in the Indian railways’ operation which has been plagued by enormous under-investment and lack of strategic planning further complemented by lack of independent safety institution which would help improve the infrastructure and operation environment.
Over the years we have had committees, prominent among which are the Khakodkar Committee, Pitroda Committee and Khanna Committee recommendations. As we scan through the reports, the gravity of the situation we can find over the years when it comes to the safety of train operations has often been overlooked by the officials at the Ministry and the Board level. But safety is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
There is an equal need for autonomy and transparency, which has just been an ongoing dilemma in the last 20 years post the Gaisal tragedy. The absence of an apex safety authority at the national level very much inhibits the overall influence of the committees important for improvement in the infrastructural and operational health of the railways, which is due to overlapping reasons—either a paucity of rich experience or the orthodox approach to the railway management techniques. The function of the Commissioner for Railway Safety under Aviation Ministry is highly evident, since 1941. We, therefore, need to trace our steps back to the 1905 organizational structure for efficiency and safety, which is within our reach.
What we can infer from the Gaisal train accident is that the accident had, in fact, opened doors for infinite opportunities which have been missed by the railways. It is, therefore, time that the railways re-think safety as a necessity within which the constitution of an independent safety board for improved audit and pragmatic solutions for improved infrastructure and safety of train operations, can function.