Irrespective of whether or not the recent fire tragedy in the Tamil Nadu Express that claimed 34 lives is linked by the inquiry commission to poor maintenance, Southern Railway will urgently need to scale up its manpower and upgrade infrastructure as a measure of improving passenger safety.
The zonal railway’s already stressed maintenance infrastructure is likely to be tested further with 12 more express expected to be launched in the months ahead. The new time-table has allotted slots for the new express trains, including the Chennai Central-Bangalore AC Double Decker Express, apart from additional services of existing trains, with effect from July 1 though the actual date of introduction is to be notified later.
Southern Railway sources say that with the launch of new services, Southern Railway’s operational capacity will be challenged on two fronts – the adequacy of manpower and modernisation of its maintenance infrastructure. Already staff unions across categories – from loco pilots to technical supervisors – are on the agitation path to protest against unfilled vacancies.
The daily grind of Indian Railways involves operating about 19,000 trains comprising around 50,000 coaches, 2 lakh wagons and 10,000 locomotives. The rolling stock is manufactured by six production units and periodical maintenance carried out by about 43 workshops. The in-service primary maintenance, secondary maintenance, intermediate overhauling and other repairs are carried out by 252 Carriage & Wagon (C&W) depots and 91 Locomotive Sheds.
As one of the zonal railways, Southern Railway currently has a stock of 5,535 broad guage coaches – a marked increase over the coach position of 4,896 BG and 88 MG coaches in 2010-11. Train care centres in its six divisions carry out primary/secondary maintenance while the Periodical Over Haul (POH) works are done on shopfloors of the carriage and wagon works and loco works in Perambur and Golden Rock workshop in Tiruchi.
“We will look to strengthen manpower and modernise maintenance infrastructure and raise technical capabilities to cater to new generation coaches coming into our stock in the near future,” said G. Narayanan, Additional General Manager, Southern Railway.
“We currently have 331 coaches undergoing an overhaul at mechanical shops while 61 coaches are on the wait-list for a POH,” said S. K. Sood, Southern Railway Chief Mechanical Engineer.
On the manpower front, officials admit that there is a 15-20 per cent deficit across categories though their case is that a shortage of hands in no way comes in the way of ensuring safety.
However, the Indian Railways Technical Supervisors’ Association (IRTSA) contends that “the violation of safety happens mainly owing to inadequacies on three fronts – infrastructure, manpower and timely availability of maintenance spares and spare coaches.”
The IRTSA points to the Basin Bridge Coaching depot (BBQ) as a grimy example of the ills debilitating the Indian Railways. Though the BBQ holds about 1,000 coaches and carries out primary maintenance to 18 trains comprising about 300 coaches apart from secondary attention, the availability of manpower for maintenance activities at BBQ is less than half of the Railway Board prescription.
While the benchmark stipulates about 30 staff for primary maintenance of a 24-coach train, the availability at BBQ is only about 12 – 15. Also, only two of 16 pit lines would pass muster as per norms of CAMTECH, a wing of RDSO, and while new generation coaches with sophisticated technology like LHB (Shatabdi) and hybrid (Duronto) are allotted to BBQ no matching addition or improvement has been made to infrastructure in the last eight years, sources said.
The IRTSA has complained to the authorities that since the exit of the outsourced agency nominated for cleaning 200 primary maintenance coaches, the lack of alternative arrangements has deteriorated the maintenance and cleanliness standards of coaches. Often, maintenance staff battling tight deadlines – sometimes teams have to go through a checklist of 7,500 items in five hours – also have to put up with poor lighting, pit lines flooded with slush and accumulated garbage in the yard. Non-availability of critical maintenance spares for coaches is also affecting the quality of train maintenance.