Early in the morning at 3:10 AM on 22nd May 2012, train number 16591, Hampi Express, going from Hubli to Bengaluru collided with a goods train which was standing at Penukonda railway station.
The Railway Authority handed over the investigation of the accident to the Safety Commissioner, South Circle, who is himself answerable for the loss of human life and property. The Loco Pilot, Assistant Loco Pilot and the Station Master were suspended. The basic facts which lead to such accidents have been kept hidden.
It is important to consider the basic facts which the All India Loco Running Staff Association and many other worker's organisations have been trying to bring to the attention of the Railway Ministry for the past several years.
The safety hazards of operating the WDP-4 long hood engine
WDP-4 (Wide Diesel Passenger-400 BSP) Long Hood Leading Engine, which was involved in the Penukonda accident (Photo 1) is operated with the loco driver positioned at the back of the engine. Contrary to this, the WDP-4 Short Hood Leading Engine (Photo 2) is operated by the loco driver in the front. The WDP-4 Long Hood Leading Engine is 21 metres long. With the driver in the back, his left to right and right to left vision is impaired for 200 metres. Where the rails are curved, there is a qualitative problem for the loco pilot in being able to see the signals and sign boards. In submitting its report, the Sikri Committee has admitted that 87 out of 100 accidents could be attributed to the use of long hood leading engine. The Research, Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) Lucknow has also raised a question mark on this engine.
Loco pilots agree that if the general speed of WDP-4 long hood leading engine is reduced from 100 km/hr to 40 km/hr, then accidents can be avoided in the future.
The loco pilots have to work in 6 routes in the Guntkal base - Bengaluru, Sholapur, Guntkal, Hubli, Renigunta and Sikandarabad. The Bengaluru base loco pilots have to operate the Guntkal, Arasikare, Mysore, Erode and Chennai route once in 30 to 40 days. Because of this the drivers do not get very familiar with these routes.
Inhuman conditions of work of the loco pilots
The driver of Hampi Express was continuously on duty for 6 nights from 14th May to 19th May. He rested on 20th night but was back on duty on Hampi Express on 21st May.
To save on 2 to 3 sets of crew, the railway administration compel the loco pilots to drive the trains for longer periods of time. Long ago, the RDSO had made the recommendation that there should be no more than two nights of duty in continuity. However, this was not accepted by the railway administration. In 2004, the Parliamentary Standing Committee recommended that from the point of view of safety, the duty hours be limited to 8 hours. This was also not accepted by the railway administration. The railway rules demand 6 nights of duty in continuity, but this is beyond the limit of human endurance.
Loco pilots are given either 4 rest periods of 30 hours each or 5 rest periods of 22 hours each in a month. Indian Railways has chosen the harder option of 5 rest periods of 22 hours each. There are 17,000 vacancies in the total number of 60,000 locopilots. Under these circumstances, there are additional duty hours being imposed on the loco pilots.
The role of the Station Master
The Railway Safety Commissioner has held the Station Master of Penukonda railway station responsible for the accident. Penukonda is a station that is full of problems. In this station there are no foot over bridges, which are essential for passenger safety and passengers have to cross the tracks to come out of the station. There is also no proper lighting arrangement at the station.
Keeping passenger convenience in mind, the Station Master did not bring Hampi Express on track 3, which would require that passengers would have to cross the tracks to come out of the station from Platform 1. He decided to welcome the Hampi Express on Platform 1 and wanted to hold Hampi Express at the home signal till the platform was vacated, but did not succeed.
Over the last several years, railway accidents have been on the rise. After every accident, the loco pilots and the station masters are being held responsible. However, the root of the problem is being covered up.
The government and the Railway Ministry are sucking the Indian Railways dry. The convenience and safety of the passengers is not on their agenda. Along with loco pilots thousands upon thousands other positions are also vacant. There are no steps to improve safety. There are suggestions after each accident that modern safety systems should be installed but no action is taken on these. Therefore, it is the Railway Ministry and the Railway administration that are squarely responsible for these accidents.