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Drivers say 'don't blame us' as 25,000 a year die on India's railways

Decades of under-investment, ancient rolling stock, and a lack of basic safety equipment make India's railway system one of the deadliest on the planet.
A rescue worker searches through the wreckage of a passenger train which derailed near Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh. The death toll climbed to 80 yesterday, with more than 350 injured in one of the worst rail disasters to hit the country's troubled rail network in years. Jitendra Prakash / Reuters
A rescue worker searches through the wreckage of a passenger train which derailed near Fatehpur, Uttar Pradesh. The death toll climbed to 80 yesterday, with more than 350 injured in one of the worst rail disasters to hit the country's troubled rail network in years. Jitendra Prakash / Reuters

NEW DELHI // Indian train drivers complain of exhausting working hours and a lack of basic safety equipment - some of the numerous hazards facing one of the busiest and deadliest rail networks in the world.

At the weekend, two separate crashes left 69 dead and about 200 injured after a derailment in northern Uttar Pradesh state and a bomb explosion on tracks in the north-eastern state of Assam.

While shiny airport infrastructure is springing up across the country, the Indian railways, a much romanticised legacy of British colonial rule, often appear stuck in a time warp.

After decades of underinvestment, the rolling stock is old, speeds are low, signalling is done manually in some areas, and a lack of fencing makes the network a soft target for militants. Drivers say they are unfairly blamed for the frequent accidents, while the politicians in charge dodge their responsibility to the 18 million people that use the network daily.

K Parthasarthy, a train driver and trade unionist in the All India Loco Running Staff Association, said he regularly drives for 13 to 14 hours non-stop. "It's exhausting, especially on a fast train with frequent signal stops," he said. "If I feel sleepy even for a few seconds, it can cause a terrible accident."

One of the features lacking on the majority of long-distance trains is the so-called "dead man's handle", a switch that the driver must press at all times, he says.

If the driver falls asleep or suffers a heart attack, for example, his or her finger slips from the switch and the brakes are automatically applied.

Most of the creaking system, the world's second-largest under a single management, also lacks anti-collision devices and a powerful independent regulator to monitor operations, observers say.

"When accidents happen, everyone immediately blames the driver," Mr Parthasarthy said. "Instead of going after the individual, they should take a look at the whole system."

G Raghuram, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in the western city of Ahmedabad, said the government needed to buy modern safety equipment and upgrade the signalling system.

"The government has been dithering about anti-collision devices, wondering when they should get it, from which supplier, and so on, when they really just need to get on with it," he said.

The last railways minister, the arch-populist Mamata Banerjee, announced in February a 40 per cent increase in the annual railway budget to 576 billion rupees (Dh47.3bn).

But critics say successive budget rises have failed to improve safety records, as only a minuscule amount is spent on upgrading key areas such as signalling and track maintenance.

Indian Railways has an engorged payroll and is financially inefficient with operating costs, including salaries, accounting for more than 90 per cent of revenue. The National Crime Records Bureau, which tracks the causes of fatalities across India, says that 25,705 people died on the railways in 2009. The data is not broken down, but the vast majority of these deaths are people falling from the open doors of carriages or being hit on the tracks, which are mostly unsecured.

The lack of fencing and transport police make some lines vulnerable to attacks from the numerous rebel groups fighting the government from hide-outs in remote areas.

The incident in Assam on Sunday was the resut of a bomb planted on the tracks by a suspected separatist group. The Delhi-Kolkata route, on which the accident occurred, was targeted in May last year by Maoist rebels, who derailed a high-speed passenger train killing 151 people.

IMS Rana, a former chairman of the Indian Railway Board which runs the network, said the number of trains plying the 64,015 kilometres of national track should be reduced. "We need a policy that should put a restriction on the number of trains and also be strict about overloading. There is not much time for maintenance."

Updated: July 13, 2011 04:00 AM

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