Railways stalwarts concerned about rising train accidents
By Abdul Qadir Qureshi (Pakistan News and Features Services)
Former Railways bigwigs and stalwarts have taken exception to successive railway accidents claiming many precious human lives and described the same as utter professional mismanagement and overloading of railway system caused by launching of new trains with old rolling stock just for political reasons.
“The recent spate of accidents on PR’s network reflects the breakdown of an intricate system put in place to ensure safety of train operations. These horrific accidents are reflective of utter mismanaged and a quickly deteriorating and overheated system, adversely affecting the safety of train operations,” the former senior railway professionals observed while offering their comments on railway accidents one after the other.
The tragic accident occurred at Walhar station, near Sadiqabad, on July 11 in which about 24 precious lives were lost and more than 70 passengers injured, some of them critically. Akbar Bugti Express, on way to Quetta, had rammed into a stationery freight train, a nightmare for any operating system.
An equally horrific had accident occurred a few days ago near Hyderabad when another passenger train rammed into a freight train.
“These accident reflected the breakdown of the administrative, technical and operational framework put in place to ensure the safety of train operations,” one of the former Pakistan Railways high-ranking officials remarked, fearing that the nightmare may continue unabated unless adequate safety measures were put in place immediately.
Another former Railways official, while commenting on safety aspects of train operations, pointed out that it’s a crucially important aspect of any railway system as the maintenance of the already weakened infrastructure had been completely neglected for the past year or two. The condition of the already dilapidated track has further deteriorated with the load of more passenger trains introduced by the current political leadership.
Moreover, mandatory inspections of stations, track and rolling stock, maintenance facilities, essentially required to ensure safety of train operations, has lost its priority with the PR management. Their focus, unfortunately, has been diverted to arranging frequent inaugural functions for the political leadership.
Complete track renewals, which were considered routine on the main line, are a thing of the past and short term track rehabilitation projects take ages to complete due financial suffocation and lack of proper supervision.
Another senior railway official of the past was of the view that routine maintenance of rolling stock has also been criminally ignored as the attention of the mechanical staff, especially at MGPR workshops, washing lines and sick lines has been diverted towards rolling out refurbished passenger coaches for facilitating introduction of new trains being announced on a monthly basis, in compliance with policy directives of the Minister for Railways.
Most of the newly introduced trains are financial disasters and do not even meet the fuel costs, he claimed Though fully convinced of the adverse financial, operational and safety effects of the newly inducted trains, the railway management has somehow failed to convince the Federal Minister for Railways.
Yet another very senior ex-railway man opened that regular training of human resource, particularly operating staff like drivers, firemen, station staff, guards, signal staff and track maintenance staff is vital for the safety of train operations. This aspect of capacity building of operating employees has been ignored and is not a priority with the railway management.
The rail experts unanimously reckoned that train operation is an intricate business where each department has to contribute to the system with commitment. This dedication, coordination and commitment is completely lacking, somehow.
According to them the employees and supervisory staff have lost faith in the officers at the operational levels; and the junior officers have lost faith in the senior officers; worst of all the senior officers have no love lost for the political leadership of PR.
The staff is disgruntled at the lack of strategic leadership. In the process, the organization is suffering as mandatory operating rules are ignored, resulting in derailments, train parting, fire in trains and head-on collisions. They noted that preliminary inquiries into the recent accidents at Walhar and Hyderabad point to not only technical failures but also to human failure in the form extremely indifferent attitude of the operating staff like, drivers, assistant drivers, station staff, signal staff, etc.
The PR’s system is almost fool proof and all failures, whether human, electrical and mechanical or track related have to be in place in order to avoid accident. These accidents indicate some kind of tempering with the system.
For an accident to happen, a combination of human and technical failure in track, rolling stock or signalling is required. The current overload of the already compromised track and rolling stock, by introducing nonproductive and financially nonviable trains has added to the chaos.
They asserted that focused attention, through inspections and field visits, on day to day basis, of infrastructure and rolling stock facilities, punctuality of trains, safety of train operations, and crash refresher courses for operating staff will definitely reduce the current trend of accidents.
As accidents are a reflection of a failed system. The farce of introduction of new passenger trains on rickety tracks need to be stopped immediately. Running of more passenger trains, and that too loss making is a disservice to PR and causing over heating of an already compromised and weak system.
They alleged that PR has been an unfortunate story of neglect in the form of deferred maintenance of its three main assets, namely, infrastructure, rolling stock and its human resource. Way forward is to concentrate on immediate implementation of upgradation of ML-1 project’ under CPEC; a once in a life time opportunity but slowly fading away due to mishandling at the political leadership level?
One word of caution though, PR and the government needs to concentrate on proper maintenance of the existing track till the time the ML-1 project is completed in five to six years.
They advised that infrastructure engineers need to remain on line rather than in the comfort of their offices, especially during the upcoming monsoon season, so as to cater to minor track defects and to protect the track from flash floods.
Going back to the elaborate framework of operating and safety code, rules and procedure would definitely reduce the frequency of accidents. The frequency of meetings on issues not related to train operations , especially at the highest levels, needs to be drastically curtailed enabling the officers to focus on basic things like punctuality, safety of operations, track and rolling stock maintenance and revenue generation. This is not a tall order.
Referring to an important aspect of the up gradation project, under CPEC, is human resource development, senior former professional said adding that the Chinese can be of help in immediate upgrade of the training facilities at Walton so as to facilitate immediate training of operating and signalling staff, to avoid critical over load of the system and to reduce expenditures, stop running of new loss making passenger trains.