September 26, 2023

Railway safety

General Studies Paper 3


  • Nothing focuses the nation’s collective attention on the Indian Railways as a major accident. The triple train collision at Bahanaga Bazar railway station, near Balasore in Odisha on June 2, which led to the tragic loss of over 280 lives, has evoked all the expected responses from various quarters, offering explanations as to how the accident occurred and remedial measures to prevent accidents in the future, and comparisons with Railway systems abroad. In short, there is an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.

Safety and the information flow

  • This concerns the flow of information regarding unsafe practices or situations on a real-time basis.
  • Unlike many other organisations or industries, where the activities or operations are concentrated more or less in a limited area physically the activities of the Railways are spread geographically over a wide area, involving a multiplicity of disciplines (departments) that need to work in close coordination on a real-time basis to ensure the smooth and safe running of trains.
  • In order to ensure uniformity in the compliance of rules and regulations and safety in operations, a large number of codes and manuals have been evolved for different departments over the decades to standardise the procedures as far as possible.

Top-down approach

  • Ever since the inception of the railways in this country, periodic field inspections by authorities at various levels have been one of the main tools for the management to ensure compliance with laid-down procedures and standards of workmanship.
  • While this system has, by and large, stood the test of time over the decades, it suffers from a few drawbacks, particularly in the context of railway safety.
  • By its very nature, the “top-down” approach places the onus of detecting deviations from the norm on the higher authorities.
  • It becomes a veritable “cops and robbers” scenario, in which the higher authority looks down on the staff at the cutting-edge level with suspicion and distrust; and, conversely, the staff at the lower levels adopt an attitude of “catch me if you can”.
  • It encourages window dressing and sweeping of problems under the carpet. Transparency and frankness are usually the casualties in such a situation.
  • Detection and rectification of such deviations at the earliest opportunity can prevent many unsafe situations from developing into serious accidents.
  • While in every case a remedy may not be available, even becoming aware of the shortcomings on a real-time basis can often help the management in avoiding a major disaster.
  • Confidential Incident Reporting and Analysis System (CIRAS)
  • The system was developed by one of the British universities nearly three decades ago for application on the British Railways in the mid-1990s.
  • The underlying philosophy is to encourage the lower staff to point out deviations on a real-time basis, maintaining the confidentiality of the reporter, and encouraging the expression of frank views.
  • The system, in effect, turns the conventional top down inspection on its head. This is in fact an example of real empowerment of staff.
  • With the rapid advances in communications and information technology since CIRAS was developed nearly three decades ago, the introduction of a similar reporting system on the Indian Railways should not be difficult.
  • However, there is a need to sound a note of caution. The success and effectiveness of a CIRAS-like reporting system depends not only on putting in place the physical infrastructure but also a total change in the mindset of the management, from the highest to the lower levels, vis-à-vis the staff at the field level.
  • There has to be an attitudinal change from the conventional approach of fault-finding and punishment to a more enlightened ethos of a shared commitment to ensure safety at all levels.
  • The aim should be to correct, not punish. Listen to the voices from below and act. Effecting this change is not easy.

Way forward

  • Perhaps it is time to have a serious rethink on the recently introduced Indian Railways Management Service (IRMS) scheme, which is bound to destroy whatever loyalty and sense of “ownership” that exists towards a particular discipline (department) amongst the management cadre.
  • It is perhaps also time to revert to the earlier system of having a full-time Cabinet Minister for the Railways.
  • Unprecedented levels of investments at a time when the organisation is going through a challenging phase of transformation amidst many external challenges requires undivided attention at the highest policy-making level.


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