After any gruesome accident, such as the derailment of the Indore-Patna express which claimed about 140 lives, railway officials and politicians bleat out an old script: express dismay and grief over the event and attribute it either to ‘human error’ or ‘sabotage’.

But what, after all, is ‘human error’? It is often the lapse of a loco driver who is not a hundred per cent alert at 2 or 3 am, which is generally when catastrophic accidents such as collisions occur.

The DP Tripathi report, released in August 2013, details the stress and long hours of work to which loco drivers are subjected. It is remarkable that the Bibek Debroy committee scarcely looks into this factor, and has instead focused on rationalisation of the workers, unmindful of the fact that over 20 per cent of drivers’ posts remain vacant.

While starting new trains, little thought seems to have gone into who will run them. As a result, over 7800 drivers’ posts (of a total of over 36,000) were vacant about four years ago, according to the report of the Kakodkar committee on rail safety — a number that is unlikely to have reduced over time.

It is often not realised that while train speeds are increased, the drivers have to concentrate that much harder on signals and rail crossings, and even a momentary lapse can prove costly. Yet, they are often made to run double shifts on account of staff shortage. Their cubicles are cramped, as a result of which they often end up standing for hours. There are no toilets in the engines. The Tripathi report points out that they are under considerable stress.

So, let’s set aside some of the fanciful talk on bullet trains and wi-fi compartments and focus on the working conditions of those who make rail travel possible in the first place.

Senior Deputy Editor