Deccan Chronicle

Wrong track: Defects from defecation

Deccan Chronicle| Krishna Kumar K E

Published on: September 10, 2016 | Updated on: September 11, 2016

How human poop has become a major problem for the Indian Railways.

Tracks in most regions have a service life of close to 25 years.

Tracks in most regions have a service life of close to 25 years.

The Indian Railways, the world’s second largest network running under a single management, is faced with a tricky choice. It needs to decide between a massive expansion or continued investment in safety. The choice should be easy, given the rising number of incidents such as the recent Karukutty derailment.     

The dilemma is compounded by the very strange fact that track life expectancy in India is low, when compared to other countries and this dying is being blamed on corrosion caused by... human poop. Which is why the challenges ahead for Indian Railways are rather unique.

The "direct discharge" toilet systems on our trains is actually resulting in the corrosion of railway tracks and the defects require replacement much before their estimated life. Bear in mind that our tracks are not exactly what you would call brittle.

"The tracks in most regions are the standard 52kg/m which can support a traffic limit of 525 GMT (Gross Million Tonnes) which means they have a life of close to 25 years. But corrosion was found to be a major factor leading to defects," says Mr Dani Thomas, a former chief administrative officer (Constructions) of the Southern Railways.  

Also, track replacement is not determined by time but on the basis of defects detected. Three minor defects along a particular section would warrant immediate repair and caution would be implemented for traffic throughout the section.

"In Europe, all trains boast of facilities similar to that on planes where human waste remains in a tank for the duration of the trip. It is later evacuated by ground crew. Additionally, unlike the scenario here, most trains there run only short routes — a maximum of 10 hours. The Indian Railways has started implementing bio-toilets but the initiative is not full-scale yet," Mr Thomas adds.

Skeptics could say tracks are being impacted by the country’s diverse weather systems but several voices maintain the skies are not responsible for the track defects. For example, the rain-blasted coastal lines darting through Kerala bear on evidence of atmospheric corrosion — they have survived the worst. But despite mounting evidence of defects from defecation and just like the tracks, there are those with parallel opinions. Suresh Joseph, a seasoned traveler and a former railway officer who had also worked with the Container Corporation of India is one such individual. "Temperatures soar during the day and it's the opposite during nights. This variation causes frequent expansion and contraction of the rails and this is what's affecting service life."

But irrespective of the noise from both sides, the Railways are clamping down on open toilets. In fact, the Rameswaram-Manamadurai section has been declared as the first ‘Green Train Corridor of the Indian Railways’ — absolutely free from human waste discharge from the trains. This simply means that all trains terminating and departing from Rameswaram have been fitted with bio-toilets.

And fortunately, these systems — unlike complicated modern technology — are easy to handle and maintain. In bio-toilets, a tank collects human waste which is then treated with bacteria and converted into gases and water before being emptied at host stations.

So far, a total of 3,861 bio-toilets have been provided in 1,255 of our coaches (out of 6,197 total passenger coaches) in the Southern Railway. Major, traffic-heavy divisions such as Thiruvananthapuram too are implementing the green drive in a big way.

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