With 1 Out of 4 Railway Bridges a Century-old, Safety is a Bridge too Far: Parliamentary Panel

The News 18, january 05, 2019

In India’s vast railway network, railway bridges serve as extremely crucial yet vulnerable links. According to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways, with nearly a quarter of these bridges now over a century old, they are crumbling under the weight of increased traffic from heavier, faster trains.

India has a total of 1, 47, 523 bridges across the country’s massive network. Of this, a total of 37,689, which is roughly 1 in 4 bridges, are a century old or older.

A committee chaired by TMC MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay, in its report, ‘Standing Committee on Railways on Maintenance of Bridges in Indian Railways: A Review,’ recently found that serious problems plague this network: ranging from how the ministry of Railways classifies the bridges, to highly subjective inspection methods, to a crippling staff shortage and funds lying unspent.

However, the committee found that these bridges are not classified separately. “Rather they are kept at par with the existing newer/modern bridges when it comes to inspections and maintenance,” the report tabled in Lok Sabha on Thursday said.

Noting that the traffic density has increased manifolds, along with the weight and speed of modern trains, the Committee raised doubts about “the (now) obsolete technology and materials” and whether it will be able to “withstand the rigors of modern rail transport equipment.”

The report added, “It should also be taken into account that these bridges have withstood the stress and rigours of over a century suffering corrosion, distress, wear and tear.”

The Committee also disagreed with the stand taken by the Ministry of Railways that the “age of a bridge doesn’t have any direct bearing on safety” and argued that such a “generalization” was detrimental to public safety.

“The Committee also take cognizance of the fact that several of these structures have formidable heritage value and are intrinsically linked to the history of the country and overuse or misuse of these structures may erode their historical value,” it said, adding that the Ministry should devise a protocol of inspection and maintenance to include greater degree of safety or safeguards for these bridges.

But that isn’t where the problems with classification end.

The Committee noted that the Indian Railways classifies bridges in three broad categories based on the breadth of the waterway. According to this distinction, bridges with a waterway of 300 metres are classified as important bridges and those with a waterway of 18 meters are classified as major bridges. All other bridges are classified as minor bridges and92% of the country’s bridges fall in this category.

This, the Committee, said resulted in “unequal weightage/importance being given to only a few bridges as compared to vast majority”. The Committee expressed their reservations on such a method of classification and recommend that the Ministry should re-evaluate it in order to bring about some parity.

The Committee also raised an alarm about the Ministry’s ‘heavy reliance’ on the “visual perception and evaluation of the inspecting official” during a safety check that puts an “undue heavy strain” on the official.

In this regard, it warned about the “distinct possibility of subjectivity creeping in as perceptions are often open to interpretations.” It recommended the creation of definitive guidelines for bridge inspections, including speed restrictions in order to “eliminate the need for speculation on the part of the assessing officer.”

The Committee also recommended that inspections of bridges that are either partially or completely under water be carried out more frequently , as opposed to the current practice of doing it once every 5 years. “The Committee also find that that under water inspections are carried out by outsourced agencies. The Committee do not concur with the Ministry’s justification that since underwater inspections are highly specialized they are required to be carried out by specialized agencies,” it added.

While terming it a “grave lapse” on the part of the Ministry, the panel noted that there remained a 60 percent vacancy in the staff meant for inspection and maintenance of railway bridges.

“The Committee found high rates of vacancy in the staff dedicated for inspection and maintenance of bridges. As against a sanctioned strength of 7,669, the actual strength is only 4,517 (around 40 per cent). It is of the opinion that since bridges are the most vulnerable link on the railways, lack of manpower in this segment is bound to create gaps in inspection and maintenance which may compromise railway safety,” it said.

While recommending that the vacancies be filled up urgently and temporary measures be put in place to fill the posts, the report chastised the ministry and said, “The panel feels this is a grave lapse on the part of the ministry in ensuring safety of rail traffic…the committee therefore, directs the ministry to shake off its inertia and fill up these vacancies in the shortest possible time.”

Although, the Ministry had achieved its targets for the physical performance of bridge works, the Committee noted that in the past few years the “targets being set by the Ministry are too modest and unrealistic” and recommended a more realistic evaluation of its bridge infrastructure in order to set targets appropriately.

It added that the Ministry was falling short in terms of allocation and the actual spending of funds suggestlack of “proper planning by the Ministry”. “In the light of the fact that the Railways have been experiencing severe funds limitations in the last two decades, unspent funds point to lack of proper planning by the Ministry in executing works of such paramount importance,”

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