September 5, 2020

“Most people probably don’t know that in recent years, the track record of Indian Railways on safety has been remarkably good” writes by Shri Bibek Debroy

There were trains in India before 1853, even commercial. But officially, the birthday of the railways is 16 April 1853, with that passenger train from Bori Bunder to Thane, carrying 400 invited VIP passengers. Years ago, economic historians of the Marxist variety used to debate the relevance of the Asiatic mode of production for India. In that context, there is a familiar Karl Marx quote from “The Future Results of British Rule in India”.

“The railway-system will therefore become, in India, truly the forerunner of modern industry.” People will probably not readily recall when this essay was first published. Marx wrote it on 22 July 1853 and published it on 8 August 1853. Karl Marx must have known of the Bori Bunder to Thane train and reacted to the news. It is 166 years from 1853 to 2019. Most people probably don’t know that in recent years, the track record of Indian Railways (IR) on safety has been remarkably good.

This becomes evident if one normalises and divides absolute numbers by something like total passengers, or total kilometres travelled by trains. Irrespective of the indicator used, IR’s performance is superior to that of many so-called advanced countries. That record may be good, but 2019-20 was exceptional. For the first time in 166 years, there have been no deaths to passengers from consequential railway accidents. As a reaction, there has been skepticism and criticism.

What about those who die on Mumbai local trains? What about 20-year-old Dilshat Khan? In December 2019, near Kalyan station, he decided to perform a stunt on the footboard of a local train. He crashed into a pole and died. What about 19-year-old Abzad and 22-year-old Mohammed Matti? In September 2019, weren’t they killed near Bengaluru, trying to make a TikTok video on a railway track? Weren’t they run over by a train and killed? In Delhi, in July 2019, an Indian Army captain committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train.

Incidentally, as Bollywood evolved, trains featured in Hindi films. If you think of old black-and-white Hindi films, and not recent ones, you will recall trains figured in films because they were convenient ways of committing suicide. They provided that setting and no more. The NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) brings out a publication, “Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India”. We have this for 2018. The 2019 version will probably be available in December 2020. In 2018, according to NCRB, there were 24,545 deaths because of railway accidents—1,507 at railway crossings and the remainder primarily due to people falling off trains or being run over by them.

There were also a few instances (with relatively fewer deaths) of derailments/collisions in UP. There may not have been derailments/collisions in 2019-20. Unmanned level crossings may have become manned. But what about people falling off trains or being run over by them? One can understand skepticism about the 2019-20 numbers. But this is because one has failed to understand what the numbers signify. Since every statement issued by IR uses the expression “consequential railway accident”, there must be some meaning attached to the word “consequential”.

Other than the NCRB, the Commission of Rail Safety (CRS), under the Civil Aviation Ministry because of historical reasons, also provides numbers on such deaths. That too is for “consequential” and the latest numbers are for 2017-18. “Consequential” is defined in the following way. “For the purpose of Railway working, accident is an occurrence in the course of working of Railway which does or may affect the safety of the Railway, its engine, rolling stock, permanent way and works, fixed installations, passengers or servants or which affect the safety of others or which does or may cause delay to train or loss to the Railway.” These are railway-related and are included if they are above a certain threshold.

We think IR’s figures are about all accidents. No, they are only about consequential or serious accidents and it is those that have been eliminated in 2019-20. These are also incidents where IR has implied culpability and is responsible. To make it clearer still, CRS states, “Cases of trespassers run over and injured or killed through their own carelessness or of passengers injured or killed through their own carelessness” are excluded. IR then statistically classifies these accidents from A to R.

Take for example L2, “no tension in OHE (overhead equipment) for more than three minutes”. This may not fit with our usual perception of accidents, but the effect on IR can be disastrous. Alternatively, there are also F (averted collisions), G (breach of block rules), H (a train passing a signal at danger), J (equipment failures), K (failure of permanent way), L (failure of electrical equipment), M (failure of signaling and telecommunication), Q6 (blockade to train services due to agitation).

IR accident data are for a specific purpose and do not, and need not, reflect our passenger-based and citizen-based perceptions of death on the tracks. It isn’t the case that other types of deaths (Dilshat Khan, Abzad, Mohammed Matti, the Army captain) aren’t captured by the system. They are classified as trespassing and untoward incidents and fed into the system through the NCRB. As I said, we will know the 2019 numbers in December 2020. The railway crossing ones will certainly be fewer. Going by 2018, I think numbers for falling from a train and getting run over on a track will not be more than 20,000, perhaps lower. 

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