August Issue 2019

By | Special Report | Published 4 weeks ago

 On July 11, the passenger train, Akbar Bugti, bumped into a stationary cargo train at Walhar Railway Station near Sadiqabad, killing 21 passengers and injuring more than 80. This was the second train crash in a timespan of less than a month. On June 20, three people died and several others were injured when another passenger train, the Jinnah Express, crashed into a freight car near Hyderabad.

Although the railway is considered the safest form of transport all over the world, train crashes are common in Pakistan. A fool-proof safety system does exist, but it has failed to prevent accidents. There is a long list of major train accidents. According to a report submitted to the National Assembly (NA) Standing Committee, 384 train crashes have taken place in the country since 2014 – 74 in 2018-19; 67 in 2017-18; 78 in 2016-17; 76 in 2015-16; and 89 accidents in 2014-15.

Some of these accidents were deadly. Earlier, in July 2005, three trains collided at a railway station in Ghotki district, killing 133 people. In July 1991, 100 people died in a similar train crash. About 18 months prior to that, a train collision in Sukkur district resulted in about 300 deaths. Sadly, Sukkur division has been the site of most train accidents in recent years, too.

Besides major incidents, hundreds of minor train collisions occur every year that do not catch public attention. For instance, one train bumped into a car at an unmanned level-crossing, while another killed two in Rajanpur and seven coaches of a running locomotive got detached from near Khanewal, this year.

Inquiries into train accidents are ordered, but they are never made public. In most cases, the train drivers that die in the accidents are made scapegoats, as they cannot speak in their defence from their graves. Low-ranking officials are given some punishment, but senior officers are protected. At the most, senior officers are transferred from one department to another, in the same way that the chief engineer supervising signals was transferred from his post, after the recent Sadiqabad accident.

Victims of negligence: A rescuer carries an injured passenger after a train crash in Rahim Yar Khan, on July 11, 2019.

In the Sadiqabad incident, an initial official inquiry put the blame on the signal system, which allegedly misguided the train driver and caused him to take the loop line, where a goods train was already parked. A faulty signal system – which train drivers had long been complaining of – finally came into the limelight as the cause of a deadly train crash.

An initial inquiry into the accident revealed that the passenger train had received a green signal to pass through the station. The point (kaanta) was not switched to the main rail track, but to the loop line where a freight train already stood. There was no time to change the track – the driver did not even have that option – and the trains collided with each other.

Deciding which train will take which track is the exclusive responsibility of people operating outside the train – the station-master and his staff, at the railway station. The drivers just follow their signals. The fact that the kaanta, or point, was not switched to the main line despite the green signal given to the moving train, means that the blame lies either with the signal man or the point man. The stationmaster, who was in charge of supervising all these functions, also failed to do his duty. Due to the negligence and inefficiency of the railway staff at the station, many passengers lost their lives.

The safety protocols of the railway are quite elaborate and fool-proof, but they have been rendered ineffective by poor supervision on the part of top railway officials, who keep sitting in their air-conditioned rooms and shirk supervisory field inspections. According to standard operating procedures, when a train is standing at a railway station, its point is bound to be closed and the track’s signal stays red. Unless the station master does not give clearance, an incoming train is stopped one stop short at the preceding station. Only when a stationmaster gives a go-ahead is the train allowed to leave the preceding station.

A typical stationmaster uses a large television screen on his desk to determine the routes of various incoming trains. A blinking red light on it tells him that a train has arrived safely at its designated platform. The stationmaster has the power to decide the routes and platforms the trains will take as they reach his station. He uses a phone to communicate with workers in the signal cabin outside the station. A stationmaster is responsible for keeping all signals in working condition and all communication flowing efficiently between his station and the ones that come before and after it.

Signal workers usually sit in an elevated cabin outside every station. The cabin houses multiple colour-coded and numbered levers that are used to lock a track for a train rolling in or out of the station. The workers coordinate with the stationmaster on phones.

The railways staff has become adept at making excuses for their negligence. The people in one department keep passing the buck on the staff of the other department. Drivers, stationmasters and guards are key players in the operations of trains, but a lack of communication among them is said to be the main reason for the accidents in recent years.

 

While railway officers sitting in their cosy offices have all luxuries at their disposal, the company does not provide communication devices to the operation staff and they communicate with each other through their personal mobile phones.

 

The signal staff makes excuses that the signal system has failed, owing to a shortage of staff and a lack of funds. But it is, in fact, corruption and the staff’s lackadaisical attitude in maintaining the signal system, that are the main problems. Insiders say batteries of the signal system remain out of order in many places and the equipment is poorly repaired using counterfeit parts, while the funds allocated for this are pilfered. Small thefts by low-ranking railway staff cause huge tragedies in the form of accidents. The point-man – who is one of the people responsible for the safety of millions of passengers – is an employee of the lowest grade (grade one).

It is often alleged that accidents are caused by train drivers going to sleep and not reading signals. However, this is not possible, keeping in view the safety mechanisms in trains. In old engines, a driver has a dead-man pedal on which he keeps his foot all the time. If he doses off, his foot looses weight on the pedal and the engine starts coming to a halt. In modern engines, the dead-man pedal has been replaced with sensitive gadgets that start whistling if a driver does not display any sign of movement for a couple of seconds. Thus a train cannot keep moving while a driver is asleep. Besides, a driver is accompanied by an assistant driver who sits in his place if the driver goes to the washroom, or elsewhere.

It is also alleged that many train drivers are colour-blind and therefore unable to distinguish between signals. This accusation, however, has never been verified. The fact remains that the railways suffer from a shortage of drivers. Against an approved strength of nearly 4,000 drivers, only 3,100 are available. Many drivers opt to work in offices as the duties on trains are quite demanding and they have to remain out of their homes for several days. A train driver works on a shift of eight hours and gets replaced with a new one at a major station/junction. Now, the Minister for Railways, Sheikh Rasheed, has announced that retired drivers will be hired on a contract, to meet the shortage, while the new staff undergoes training.

In the good old days, when a trainee driver joined the railways, he was first assigned to drive slow-moving passenger trains and then cargo trains. It was only after he had gained sufficient experience of at least 10 to 12 years, that he was allowed to drive fast-moving express trains. Owing to a shortage of drivers and the introduction of new trains, less-experienced drivers have been assigned to run express trains.

On a collision course: The site of an accident in Hyderabad, in which a passenger train rammed into a goods train.

Pakistan Railways is using four or five different kinds of signal systems, ranging from semi-automatic, to the outdated manual systems, at different places, thus causing confusion among the operators. For instance, the railway system between Sukkur and Quetta still uses the British-era signal system – one that employs kerosene lanterns on signal posts. An old German-built signal system, installed in the 1970s, is also in place along some routes, along with semi-automatic signals on the main line. The staff complains that new signal systems have been introduced in phases, without proper training and dry runs.

For instance, in 2016, it was the signal system that caused the Awam or Awami Express to crash into a goods train parked at Buch Railway Station near Multan. It had received a go-ahead from a guard. At that time, a new signal system had been functioning on a trial basis and was not working properly. No driver had received training for the system. It was only after the accident that the railway administration discontinued the signal system.

Unmanned level crossings (where road transport passes across train tracks) are another cause of the rise in train crashes. On December 18, 2018, 12 children were injured as a passenger train rammed into a school van near Narowal, Punjab. The accident took place because the crossing gate was left open. On May 27 this year, a woman died while four people were critically injured, as a speeding train crushed a rickshaw and a motorcycle near the Kot Lakhpat crossing, in Lahore.

An official survey identified 550 level crossings prone to accidents. This despite the fact that the signal process at the gates is quite methodical, with multiple steps taken to prevent any safety hazard. If the gate-keeper does not shut the gate to stop road traffic from crossing the tracks, the man responsible for signalling with a flag should not issue his signal. If the signal man also makes a mistake, the levers that change the signal should not move so long as the gate is open. If, somehow, the wrong signal is issued, a special key used for locking and unlocking the gate can be used as a switch to issue a warning. In spite of this elaborate system, accidents keep happening on level-crossings due to the sheer negligence of the staff involved.

In recent months, several incidents involving the derailment of trains have also occurred, indicating that signal systems and drivers are not the only causes behind the increasing number of accidents, and that various other mechanical issues have also played an important role. On September 16, 2018, nine bogies of the Peshawar-bound Khushal Khan Khattak Express, from Karachi, derailed near Attock, injuring 20 passengers. On September 27, 2018, another Peshawar-bound train derailed, in which 11 bogies overturned in Sehwan, Sindh. On June 9, 2019, 23 wagons of a Karachi-bound freight train derailed at Sukkur. Insiders say that these accidents happen owing to poor maintenance of the track and wheels of locomotives. Maintenance work needs to be carried out on the wheels of trains after each journey, but the staff at the workshops does not always do the needful.

Poor maintenance of railway tracks is one of the reasons behind the frequent derailment of wagons in recent months. Insiders say that another reason is the inadequate packing of rail tracks; the maintenance workers do not insert all the bolts to tighten the wooden packing. When trains run on these loosely-packed tracks, the joints open easily and the wheels of the train get derailed. Another issue is that points are not properly aligned where a train has to switch from on track to another.

The railway authorities are aware of the reasons behind train accidents, as well as the measures required to prevent these. But there is the lack of will to fix the problems on a long-term basis. The physical assets of Pakistan Railways have deteriorated due to their age. Railway infrastructure, including rail lines, signal systems, workshops, as well as its rolling stocks – including engines and wagons – are in bad shape. This has constrained its operational efficiency; trains run with extensive speed restrictions and lack proper facilities, as do the railway stations and engine workshops.

Above all, Pakistan Railways’ employees are mostly hired on the basis of political allegiance (sifarish), or if they have offered bribes. They are poorly trained and lack the capacity to run an efficient system. Corruption is widespread in procurement and maintenance and the system of reward and punishment is absent.

On the other hand, railway workers continue to grumble about their cramped, crumbling offices, their meagre salary and grades that have remained unchanged over the years. A common complaint is they are overworked and underpaid. Stationmasters complain that if they have to go out in the field to fix something, they have to pay travel costs from their own pockets and sleep on platforms. They are supposed to be on duty 24 hours a day, even though they do not get paid additionally for working extra hours.

Given the prevailing situation, one can safely say that the safety of trains cannot be ensured in the near future. Pakistan Railways should, on principle, not run passenger trains at all, until the entire system is restructured and upgraded to meet the safety standards. There is need for a complete overhaul, not partial reforms.

However, no government comes clean on this as it will cause inconvenience to the millions of people who travel on trains. Instead, the PTI government has taken the populist approach and started operating 38 new trains. Khawaja Saad Rafique, the former railways minister, is right when he says that the railways cannot take the burden of additional trains started by the PTI government. In response, Sheikh Rasheed said that it was a public service to run more trains and that the safety would improve after two to three years, when new investments in the system would be made.

Prime Minister Imran Khan too blames “ageing, poorly maintained rail infrastructure, that has fallen into disrepair due to chronic underinvestment and poor maintenance”. He has asked the railways minister to take emergency steps to offset decades of neglect and to ensure safety standards, but such words have been spoken quite often by the rulers. It’s time actions spoke louder than words.