Why railways fall prey to frequent breakdowns

May 03, 2012, 06:37 IST | Shashank Rao

After twin hiccups in the suburban rail network yesterday on Harbour and Western lines that left many commuters stranded, MiD DAY finds out what plagues the railways and renders services vulnerable to frequent failures

Disruption in train services is fast becoming a norm in the Mumbai suburban rail network. Of late, glitch after glitch has tossed the daily travel schedule of many of the nearly 70 lakh suburban commuters askew. Yesterday gave a double testimony to this growing disturbance. There were technical problems on both Central and Western Railways, especially during morning and evening peak hours. The first incident took place near Vashi railway station around 9.10 am, after an overhead wire broke, leading to 20 cancellations, sources say. The second hampered services to and from Churchgate around 4 pm, after the tracks were beset with something called a point failure, which doesn’t allow trains to switch tracks. As a result, five services were cancelled.

Off track: Commuters had to take to the track in Kurla after an overhead wire snapped near Vashi, stalling train services. Pic/Vijay Bate 

Although the problems were rectified, delays followed both the hiccups, distressing commuters the rest of the day, specially in peak hours. Earlier, on April 18, a blaze in the signal cabin on the central line had horribly derailed train schedules, causing much anguish and fury among 37 lakh local commuters, some of whom had to spend as many as six hours in transit for what is usually an hour’s commute. Others had to travel by road, in unusually gnarled traffic, and yield to the whims of fleecing cabbies and auto rickshaws. Eventually, the glitches are fixed and functionality resumed. But the strain caused to commuters, and the loss of time and resources, are incalculable.

Another breakdown: After disruption of train services, commuters had to walk on the tracks at Kurla to reach their destinations. Pic/Vijay Bate

So what is it that makes the rail network of this prime metropolis so susceptible to trifling and tremendous problems? MiD DAY spoke to officials and found out that space and population form the crux of the problems — like fire, signal failures, deaths on tracks and damaged cables — afflicting the 200-km suburban network.

Spatial problem
Every inch counts in this brimming city. Railway authorities have not been spared from the space crunch, as room to house the rail network along with its sundry paraphernalia is insufficient. While the length of tracks may be extensive, the width allotted for them is limited at major sections on the rail network. Officials claim that after laying the tracks – six different lines on Western and Central Railways – hardly any space is left for installing cables and wires next to them deep into the ground. These cables are responsible for transmitting signals, power and for various other functions. “We have to think over and over before digging, while maintaining or laying the cables. There is hardly any place to lay them deep beneath the tracks,” said a senior railway official on the condition of anonymity. So at most places, cables are found exposed or are only covered by ballast.

Too big to survey
The extensive rail network makes on-ground round-the-clock inspection difficult for officials. The CST-Panvel line (harbour) is over 60 km, as is the Churchgate-Virar section (western); while CST-Khopoli and CST-Kasara are both over 100 km each. Officials claim that it is a painstaking task to have preventive inspection for this lengthy route all through the day. “Although we have a system of periodic maintenance, stray incidents of overhead wires snapping or signal failures do occur,” said a CR official on condition of anonymity. Officials claim that they conduct periodic inspections where they check the condition of cables (both overhead and on ground), signalling equipments and condition of tracks. Depending on the circumstances and condition of these equipments, the authorities decide the section where maintenance needs to be done at time of mega blocks.

Every day more than 2,700 train services run on the suburban network to ferry nearly 70 lakh commuters. Due to the pressing demands of such a vast number of citizens, the equipment and wires are in constant use. “Gangmen and workers walk kilometres on tracks to inspect them. Since trains move every 3-4 minutes on a track, there is every possibility of a glitch coming up after they have surveyed the stretch,” said a WR official.
Officials said that there is a constant demand for increasing the number of services, even though in the last few years the number of services on both CR and WR has grown multifold. “Every year, in the union railway budget, new services are announced for the suburban section. This has almost saturated the system,” said a retired railway official. As of now, the CR runs 1,573 services and WR operates 1,240 services daily.

Thefts, trespassing
Ill-protected tracks and poor security aggravate the situation. Boundary walls along the tracks are damaged at many places, sometimes deliberately. Locals, specially slum dwellers, living along the tracks usually tear holes in the walls for a quick exit to their homes. They cross tracks, leading to mishaps and deaths. Deaths caused by trespassing tend to throw the schedule helter-skelter. Every day, around 10 people die either by falling on the tracks, or crossing them. The tracks have also become a favourite haunt of drug addicts, gamblers and anti-social elements. “These people frequently steal important wires and cables and sell them for petty gains, causing technical faults in signals and tracks,” said a rail official. The railway police claim that they are posting RPF officers at important locations to keep such trespassers out.Once an important wire is stolen, services are disrupted as it takes time in identifying the exact location of the glitch and repairing it. The railways are introducing techniques like the train management system (TMS), which would point out the precise location of trouble.

Meagre blocks
Sundays are usually reserved for imposing mega blocks, an arrangement which allows railway authorities to carry out maintenance work after closing off certain rail routes. But officials say that the stipulated time isn’t enough. In routine, train services begin around 4 am while the last train runs at 1.15 am. And that leave the tracks spare for hardly 3 hours. Earlier this Sunday, the mega block on WR had to be prolonged after officials found the stipulated five hours inadequate to finish work on tracks. “We are asked to carry out such blocks during night, but that is not possible. So we have to check sections in a detailed fashion only on Sundays, and at times, on public holidays within a specific time period,” said a CR official.  

The regularity of rail service breakdowns has reached beyond acceptance in last few days. It’s quite annoying that we have to go through this so frequently. Railway authorities must work efficiently to get back on track.
Mahadev Mule, Professional, Private company

I boarded the train at Vashi for my office in Mumbai. But, all of a sudden rail officials announced that services are halted due to a technical snag. As I had a very bad experience when services were crippled for three days last time, I took a bus to reach my office.
Ibrahim Ujjainwala, Advertising Professional

Working as an IT hand in a bank located at CST, I have to ensure that I am present during working hours. I have undergone the same problem thrice in one month, and it is very infuriating.
Alok Kothalekar, IT Professional, Private bank

I am supposed to board a long-distance train to Rajasthan from Mumbai Central rail station in the afternoon. I left in the morning, but due to the problems I will have to take a bus to reach my destination, else I will miss my train to Rajasthan.
Raj Sisoria, Jeweller, who was going to Rajasthan

I was on my way to Kurla to get some materials for our hotel. As the train service is crippled, I have to spend an arduous journey in a bus to reach Kurla.
Ram Singh, Hotel employee

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