Wed Apr 24, 2024
April 24, 2024

The Balasore disaster and the slow dying of India’s railway 

On June 2, one of the worst train accidents in the history of India, and the deadliest train disaster since the Sri Lankan Tsunami train crash, occurred in the Balasore district of Orissa. The crash was caused by the speedy Coromandel Express colliding with a goods train, which caused all twenty-one of its coaches to get derailed, three of which then hit the Howrah-Bengaluru SF Express. Nearly three hundred people died in the accident and another thousand were injured, making this the third-worst train crash in India by death toll. 

The accident was followed by an effort by the government to cover up an independent investigation, and efforts by the government and pliant media channels to help save the rail minister, who must bear ultimate responsibility as the leader of the railway board and the person in charge of Indian railways. 

While the immediate causes are many, the accident shows the problems in the Indian railways, and these are symptoms of a larger decline in one of the most important rail services in the world. 

Timeline of events

On June 2, the Coromandel Express was travelling from Shalimar station in Kolkata to MGR Chennai Centra on the up main line. Around the same time, the Bengaluru-Howrah Express was travelling in the opposite direction from Bengaluru to Howrah on the adjacent down main line. Both trains had no stops and received a green signal indicating it was safe to pass while they were at their highest speed (128 km/h). 

At around 7:00 pm Indian Standard Time, the Coromandel Express, which was supposed to continue on a straight line, was wrongly switched to a parallel loop line at full speed where it collided with a stationary goods train. The goods train was carrying iron ore and had more weight. The impact was such that twenty-one coaches of the Coromandel Express were derailed, three of which hit the Howrah-Bengaluru Express, which was travelling on the down main line. The Howrah-Bengaluru train did not suffer any casualties, but the Coromandel Express, which suffered the brunt of the impact, witnessed hundreds of deaths and over a thousand injuries. 

The Howrah-Bengaluru Express eventually reached its destination with most of its coaches intact. 

Preliminary investigations were conducted by the Kharagpur railway division, which found that the Coromandel Express was initially given the signal to proceed on the main line, but for reasons not yet known, the signal was taken off the main line and switched to a loop line. This fatal error caused the crash with the goods train. This error happened despite the implementation of a new anti-collision system in the Indian railways called ‘kavach’, which could minimize and outright eliminate fatal crashes. Only 2% of Indian rails have implemented this system. The line on which the crash occurred did not have the new anti-collision system implemented. 

Despite being warned twice in the six months leading up to this crash, the railway authorities took no steps to implement the anti-collision system. In addition to weaknesses in the safety system in the railways, and staff and funding shortages, we have a combination of factors which was a disaster waiting to happen. 

Lack of safety, overworked staff, a disaster waiting to happen

The railway ministry has repeatedly denied the role of larger safety concerns in the railway system and criticisms of misuse of funds. The Indian Railways still remains one of the largest employers in the world, and by far the single largest employer in India, however, it is witnessing critical staff shortages in areas as vital as safety and maintenance. 

While the Modi government flags off vanity projects like the semi-high-speed Vande Bharat Express, core services of the railways have been neglected. Existing staff repeatedly complain of being overworked, with them often suffering through 14-hour work days. Exhaustion often leads to error and in some cases fatal consequences. 

A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General in December 2022, had warned of the lack of adequate staffing in the safety department by the Indian railways, and that this would have a direct impact on the quality of maintenance. The report also cited that the railways had fallen short of their funding target for safety funds every year for the last four years, with money being used instead to maintain gardens, buy jackets, electronics and furniture. This damming report was ignored by the government, which still denies the role of systemic failures in creating the conditions for this crash. 

Before the Balasore crash, another accident was narrowly avoided when the Karnataka Sampark Kranti Express escaped collision. The near accident was reported by the principal operating officer of the South Western Railways zone. 

A dubious investigation  

Soon after the accident, the government rushed to try and cover up the systematic failures. A media campaign was launched to defend the Railway minister and absolve the government of responsibility. That the warnings were ignored, the safety measures missing, and safety funds falling short, did not figure in the mainstream media narrative. The railway minister even suggested sabotage, while right-wingers on social media used this issue to deflect blame to Muslims through some convoluted logic. 

Pro-government individuals rushed to defend the railway minister on social media, even the billionaire Harsh Goenka came in to defend him. The chairman of the RPG group, which also owns KEC International, a company that supplies the anti-collision system in the trains. Just four days after the train accident, the company secured a contract worth Rs 600 crores ($73 million). 

The Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) conducted an investigation into the accident and found out that there was a track interlocking failure. However, unsatisfied with the CRS investigation, the railway board, which is directly under the Railway Ministry, recommended an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The CBI has been alleged to be a tool of the Central government in its selective targeting of oppositional figures, and now it is leading the investigation into the crash, lending credence to the government’s and the rail minister’s narrative of a possible ‘sabotage’. This deflects attention from the larger systemic failures in rail safety and management which actually caused the crash to happen as it did. 

The decline of the great Indian Railways

The railways remain a vital means of transport for the vast majority of the country’s poor, providing an affordable means of long-distance travel. It is also a vital means of goods transport, accounting for a chunk of freight transport. India’s rail system is one of the largest in the world, with the fourth-largest railway network in the world. Despite its importance, the government has been prioritizing road transport over rail transport, with the result that most freight transport in India has gone over to road transport than rail. Even the number of passengers has been on the decline, ever since the Covid pandemic, where the numbers dropped from 7.6 billion in 2019-20 to 5.8 billion in 2022-23.  

At the same time, India’s focus on expanding road transportation, and highway system have resulted in the fourth-largest automobile market in the world and the second-largest road network. In addition to this, the rise of low-cost airways has resulted in more passengers and freight shifting to airways. 

At the same time, the railways are slowly being privatized. The decline in railway finances has been made a justification to bring in private investments, including introducing privately operated trains on 109 routes. The role of private investors is being sought for the redevelopment of over four hundred train stations across the country. This has gone hand in hand with worsening working conditions in the Indian railways, benefits to senior citizens are being reduced, working hours are increasing, all the while hundreds of thousands of posts are being left unfilled.

The way forward 

We must constantly strive for what is in the best interests of the working class. In the case of the railways, that means focussing on the improvement of basic services, increasing funding, and increasing efficiency and coverage of rail services. Today, road transport has surpassed rail when it comes to freight, with seventy per cent of freight being cornered by road transport. 

It is important to note that one of the rails which collided at Balasore was nicknamed the “hospital express,” as this rail transports largely poor passengers from West Bengal to the Southern states for medical treatment. The apathy of the government in providing safety measures on this track follows their class bias, where they focus instead on expensive projects like the Vande Bharat Express rather than improving core services. 

Over the two weeks since the crash, there have been calls for the railway minister to resign. Though he bears the ultimate responsibility for letting the conditions that created the crash fester, simply removing one minister isn’t going to solve the larger problem. There needs to be a shift in focus from road to rail and a focus on improving the state of railways, including connectivity and safety. This requires a larger budget as well as a vision, which this BJP government simply does not have. 

Misuse of funds, mismanagement of lines, worsening work conditions, and worsening finances, are problems of the Indian railways that won’t be solved through privatization. Nor will it be solved by a mere change of parties in power. The need of the hour is the direct intervention of the railway workers themselves. 

The government, at the behest of its billionaire benefactors and bosses, want to kill the railways and parcel it out to their cronies. It is only the railway workers, in solidarity with all the working class, that can stop this.

We must stop the privatization of the railways! Fight against corruption in the management of the railways! Take back assets which have been leased over or sold out to private companies! Nationalize all services and increase funding to match safety needs and expand services to all corners! Make rail travel affordable and accessible for all! 

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