Accident prevention assumed importance after the Dumrao and other serious accidents impelled the Government to appoint a high-level Railway Accident Enquiry Committee, headed by parliamentarian HN Kunzru. The committee visited Asansol Division and inspected important sites and held discussions with DS and Branch officers. Among other things the committee noted that in newly electrified sections, visibility of signals needed to be improved on a priority basis by replacing semaphore signals with colour light signals.
The Kunzru committee submitted its report in 1963. We had to study the report and implement the orders issued by Railway Board for implementation of its recommendations. It was a seminal report on accidents and safety containing a detailed analysis of accidents zone wise, location wise and cause wise that became a template for subsequent studies of accidents. Much of the credit for the report goes to its Secretary PC Shukla, who was a Joint Director in the Traffic Directorate in Railway Board. He had worked earlier as DOS in Allahabad Division when KK Mukherjee was DS. Shukla had briefed the Committee about the work done by KK when he was on Eastern Railway and subsequently as DS Allahabad. The Committee invited KK Mukherjee to submit his views on the subject and attached his paper as an Annexure to the report. He was the only railway officer to earn that honour.
With a view to strengthen the safety organization on Indian Railways, the Committee recommended creation of posts of Divisional Safety Officers on all divisions, replacing DOS(G)s where they existed, and Transportation Superintendent (Safety) under COPS in the rank of a Divisional Superintendent, to coordinate with other departments and monitor the work in the divisions. R Jagannadhan was the first TS (Safety) on Eastern Railway. When he called me and introduced himself, his politeness and courtesy felt like a breath of fresh air on the Eastern Railway.
The Railway Board also laid down that only handpicked officers should be posted as Divisional Safety Officers. In the early 1960s, Indian Railways had, in an attempt to regain traffic lost to road transport, appointed marketing officers who, according to Railway Board had to be only handpicked officers. Board's orders on DSOs meant that after picking up the best TT & CD officers for marketing and safety only the remainder would be available for managing train operations, the main responsibility of the operating department!
Eastern Railway modified the orders of Railway Board and named the new posts in the divisions as DOS (Safety), apparently to enable them to continue to assist DOS (T)s in discharging general functions. However, when the Railway Board refused to approve this decision, Eastern Railway was forced to fall in line and re-designate the posts as DSOs. The Railway Board issued the duty list for DSOs mentioning specifically that they should not be burdened with other duties so that they can focus on safety. To ensure mobility for inspections and for attending accidents without loss of time, DSOs were provided with jeeps. At that time only one staff car was sanctioned for the division. It was under the control of the DS and branch officers could use it only with his permission, which was rare. Construction engineers usually included a road vehicle, a jeep or a station wagon, in the estimates for works but even open line engineers did not have vehicles.
KK Mukherjee wanted the instructions on safety issued by him previously, as Dy COPS (Coaching), to be followed strictly. One of these was on the quantum of punishment in train accidents. Staff held responsible in every accident classified as a train accident were to be either reduced in rank, removed or dismissed from service, irrespective of circumstances, ignoring all mitigating factors, even if the accident itself was trivial. Soon after joining, I dealt with an accident in which only one wagon of a goods train had derailed during shunting and used my judgment to punish the train guard with a minor penalty, eliciting an angry missive from KK to DS. To prevent derailments caused by an axle running hot, instructions were issued to station staff to exchange signals with the drivers and guards of all trains running through the station. In one such derailment, station staff of seven successive stations failed to follow this rule and all of them were removed from service.
More trouble was to follow on another front. The Division was required to submit a monthly return of important accidents including action taken thereon. A separate statement had to be submitted showing the number of shunting accidents in stations, yards and sidings. When the first return became due for submission the Office Superintendent of the Accident Section showed me a statement of shunting accidents and asked me how many I would like to show in the return. I was shocked to hear the question. He explained that it was the practice for DOS (G) to mark the number to be shown in the return. I told him to show the actuals, little realising that I was landing myself in hot waters for the rest of my stay in Asansol. The return drew flak from COPS who wrote to the DS to take action to reduce shunting accidents, mainly by fixing of responsibility and exemplary punishment to defaulters. DS in turn told me to increase the quantum of punishment which I did but that had only a marginal effect on the accidents.
In the monthly review meeting KK used to hold with DOS (G) s and AOS (G)s, Asansol division was singled out for castigation on this account. No allowance was given for the fact that Asansol division had the highest track mileage in station yards, highest track mileage in sidings and the highest originating loading of all divisions on the Eastern Railway. Shahid Ali Khan Dy COPS (Coaching), in charge of accidents and safety, did not let go of any chance to please KK by finding faults in the area the boss was targeting.
Asit Bhaduri was a typical operating officer who gathered information every morning to damn everybody but himself for the failures of the previous day. I would soon become a focus of his attentions. He was a glib talker and his statements were often loaded with hidden meanings. He reminded me of an Urdu couplet recited by Mohan Lal Kandhari, owner of Raj Restaurant in Jabalpur. I quote it here with apologies to my numerous Bengali friends.
Shauke pech-o-tool agarche tere dil men hai,
To baat Bangali ki sun aur baal Bangalan ke dekh.
(If tangle and length is what fascinates you,
Hear a Bengali speak and gaze at a Bengali woman’s hair)
My troubles with Bhaduri started when I resisted his attempt to pass on to me work that was not part of my assigned duties. He persuaded BLC Sastri to issue an order amending the division of duties between us, transferring all establishment work to me. At the same time strong action against staff in yard accidents boomeranged. AYMs who were held responsible for accidents in their shifts were also good performers in operations and they resented being punished for accidents that they thought occurred for reasons beyond their control, although pressure from operating officers to increase output was, very often, responsible for their neglecting safety rules. Their resentment came in handy for Bhaduri who began to justify poor performance of the yards on accidents and loss of morale of AYMs due to repeated punishments.
In 1964, Bhaduri was replaced by Hrishikesh Bandyopadhyay and the latter immediately wanted to take back the establishment work. He felt that a DOS (T) can't be effective unless he controls their transfers and postings. I objected because it seemed to me that decisions were being taken at the whims of the DOS (T), instead of being based on sound principals. But a new development changed the equation. Madan Lal Gupta had replaced Shahid Ali Khan as Dy COPS (Coaching). When he heard about my dispute with Bandyopadhyay on distribution of work, he issued orders to implement Railway Board's orders on duties of DSOs and I gave up establishment as well as other functions much to Bandyopadhyay’s chagrin.
BLC Sastri left for a four-month training course on electrification with SNCF in France and his place was taken by AK Gupta, my DS when I was in Sealdah. Gupta had an easy, pleasant style of working that endeared him to us. He never lost a chance to share a joke, smutty or otherwise, at work or while relaxing in the club. He spoke to me harshly when he received a particularly vicious letter from KK Mukherjee, critical of my work, but calmed down when I told him the background of KK’s ire. Seeing my distress, he advised me to undertake a detailed analysis of shunting accidents to determine the causes and find remedies.
Following the line of analysis used in the Kunzru Committee report, I prepared a detailed report showing that shunting accidents both in yards and sidings were caused by a neglect of basics like cleanliness, track drainage, maintenance of subgrade by siding owners, poor shunting practices and incorrect location of switching frames. AK Gupta commended my effort and forwarded the study to KK with a laudatory letter, but KK did not reciprocate the good words. Thankfully, he did not find fault with the report.
Unmindful of KK's lukewarm response and with the support of Gupta, I began to implement the measures I had lined up in the analysis to arrest the incidence of shunting accidents. I visited the worst affected sidings along with officers of the engineering department, occasionally accompanied by DS, to bring home to the siding owners the importance of maintaining the sidings in proper condition. We threatened closure of sidings even carrying out the threat in a few cases. Earlier, DOS (T) would block such attempts but now with DS backing me I was free to be strict. Things began to improve immediately and sidings we tackled became accident free.
In the station yards too, I was able to implement some of my ideas. In all the yards, the space between the tracks was cluttered with coal and other material spilling from wagons during shunting. This seriously interfered with the work of skid porters deputed to control the speed of wagons rolling down the hump and led to wagons colliding and derailing. It also made it difficult for train examining staff to locate defects and rectify them. Cleaning operations undertaken, closing sections of the yards by turn, revealed the extent of years of neglect. Apart from coal, permanent way materials, carriage and wagon parts and heavy consignments that had dropped from wagons were found buried under debris. In Asansol West Yard many accidents used to occur on the king point, the first point of divergence in the marshalling yard. I had found that the king point was operated from the hump yard cabin from where the switchman could not get a clear view of the point when vehicles passed over it. This often led to accidents. I got the point locally operated and such accidents disappeared totally. Many years later, PB Murty (IRTS 1974) visited Asansol as a trainee and, when he met me in Calcutta later, told me that West Yard staff still recalled my action with gratitude. When BLC Sastri returned from France, AK Gupta was posted as TS (Safety). Sastri continued to support my effort and Gupta put up my study to KK and told him how we were implementing the measures needed to curb accidents.
KK was very demanding when it came to Accident Enquiry reports. He would ask for so much information, some of it apparently irrelevant, that MD Mathur once quipped that KK could even ask for the horoscope of staff involved in an accident! When the accident enquiry reports were put up to him, he would cross the 't's and dot the 'i's, find hidden errors in punctuation and syntax and check calculations. He would then return the file with scathing remarks. After submitting our reports, we would wait anxiously for the final verdict and feel elated when the findings were accepted. BLJ Love, Time-Table Officer (Eastern Railway’s version of STO (Coaching)), was courteous and helpful in keeping track of these files in COPS office.
KK was also strict about finalising accident cases within the schedules laid down. Enquiry reports for train accidents, complete in all respects, had to be submitted within ten days of the accident. After the report was accepted by COPS, disciplinary action would be initiated against the staff held responsible for the accident. The entire process, following the due rules and procedures in the DA Rules had to be completed within 90 days of the accident. Developing their own devices for keeping track of each stage of the proceedings. DSOs managed to meet the target in most cases.
ML Gupta was transferred to Eastern Railway from NE and replaced as Dy COPS (Coaching). Soon after he joined, I sent an Accident Enquiry Report on a level crossing accident near Durgapur. ML Gupta called me to commend the report and said he was sending it to COPS for acceptance. The last few reports I had submitted were accepted by KK without much ado, so I was surprised when a couple of days later ML Gupta called me again. He said COPS had recorded some queries and wanted him to visit the site of the accident and put up his replies. When I received him at Durgapur the next day, I found a pleasant mannered Punjabi with a captivating smile that never seemed to leave him. He put me at ease and showed me the file with KK’s remarks on my report. I realised immediately that KK’s remarks had less to do with the report and more to do with his bias against ML Gupta, who was persona non grata because he came from an ‘inferior’ railway. Most of the queries had no direct bearing on the cause of the accident but KK wanted to show ML Gupta his inadequacies for working on a major railway like the Eastern. The noting went like this,
If you had gone through the report carefully, as I have done, you would have noticed the following shortcomings… “(Italics mine).
The emphasis was obviously on finding fault with ML Gupta for not reading the report carefully and to display his own superiority by saying he had done so. He also told ML Gupta that he can’t work on the Eastern unless he first saw the coalfields. I could see that ML Gupta did not belong to KK’s category and, thankfully, didn’t aspire to do so. Immediately, we developed a rapport and ML gave me his shoulder to cry on when KK Mukherjee became unreasonably critical of my work on Asansol Division.
It was mandatory for branch officers to attend all accidents involving passenger trains and those that affect train running on main lines. When I would be away at the site SP Mondal, AOS (G) would be available in the control office to liaise with the officers at the site of accident and share information with the officers monitoring the progress of restoration from Fairlie Place. On return from the site I had to face the barrage of questions from headquarters. Replying to the queries from Shahid Ali Khan could be tiring, particularly if I had spent the night at the accident site.
The first information of an accident would come from the deputy controller on duty as well as the siren sounded from the loco shed to call attention to staff manning the accident relief train. The coded siren indicates the type and seriousness of the accident. We had to be alert, to hear the siren and react to it promptly. When I began my term in Asansol, the deputy controllers used to rattle off the information in a monotone, often missing important points. I devised a form to collect all the information in a compact manner and disperse it to the concerned people.
At the site, the first job was to arrange for rescue of passengers and others involved followed by examining the site and collecting clues to determine the cause of the accident. Departmentalism reared its ugly head at every site, with each department trying to cover its tracks and expose others. The duration of stay at the site depended on the nature of the accident and the time taken for restoration. In October 1963, my parents visited us along with my younger siblings and planned a celebration on my birthday, with my mother making my favourite dishes, but I had to attend an accident on the previous night and was stuck up there for over 24 hours.
I had taken up the task of increasing awareness amongst staff on safety very seriously. I travelled extensively on motor trolley to complete my quota of inspections. I visited every station at least five to six times each year to interact with the staff, check their knowledge and observance of rules, explaining them personally and finding out their personal problems. My fluency in Hindi came in handy in safety seminars, meetings etc. At the goading of KK Mukherjee, officers and staff designed posters, wrote and staged plays and composed poems and slogans to propagate the principles of safety. Everyone claimed to be a poet, trotting out pedestrian compositions. My personal interaction with staff bore fruit and the number of train accidents reduced drastically. It was good to have the support of BLC Sastri in Asansol and AK Gupta and ML Gupta in headquarters.,
An accident report that gave me immense satisfaction was for a mid-section derailment that occurred on a curvature between Madhupur and Jasidih. The accident could have been caused by a defect in the locomotive or rolling stock, a defect in the track or a combination of both. No obvious defects could be found in the loco or wagons, but doubts remained about the condition of the track. MK Sinha was keen to pinpoint the responsibility on permanent way staff. Ghosh the Divisional Engineer in charge of the section was a promoted officer who could not to stand up to Sinha’s aggression. DN Singh (IRSE 1954), DEN (Track), though not directly connected with the case, nevertheless, entered our deliberations and put forward a theory putting the blame on an empty wagon that happened to be attached between two loaded wagons. He left us feeling that he had convinced us.
I deliberated over the problem overnight. DN Singh’s postulate would take the mechanical department off the hook and save the engineering department. There was no rule against such marshalling, so no one could be held responsible, but it would leave a question mark against the traffic department. I wondered why the wagon had not derailed elsewhere, particularly while negotiating complicated sections of station yards with multiple sets of points and crossings. Eventually, I concluded that the wagon derailed at the specified spot because the empty wagon floated due to a track defect. I finalised the report, pinning the responsibility on the Engineering department. DN Singh was furious that I had turned the tables on him by using his hypothesis against his own department and drafted a dissent note for Ghosh to sign. DS accepted the majority finding and I submitted it to headquarters.
AK Gupta TS (Safety) accepted the majority report and forwarded it to Chief Engineer for acceptance. The Dy CE in charge backed his DEN with calculations to show that mathematically the accident could not have been caused by the track defect. He attached a mathematical diagram of forces to bolster his argument. He must have thought that traffic officers, most of whom are arts graduates, would be foxed by the mathematics. AK Gupta returned the file to me for my remarks. Using the same diagram, I pointed out the fallacies in Dy CE’s calculations and proved that the accident would not have happened if the track had been perfect. AK Gupta, who was a qualified civil engineer by education, steered the case through COPS and KK Mukherjee accepted the majority finding. The PWI of the section was penalized for the accident.