Balasore train tragedy, which claimed over 260 lives and left 900 injured, has sparked a nationwide debate on the importance of the Neutral Control Organization (NCO) and the potential consequences of its closure.

NCO, an autonomous organization responsible for maintaining and overseeing quality control checks on railways' sick lines and workshops, has played a vital role in ensuring the safety and efficiency of the Indian Railways system. Established in the early 20th century, NCO's unbiased and objective reports have been praised by various committees and have contributed significantly to the rail network's safety.

However, recent changes in NCO staff deployment and strength have raised concerns. In 1992, the Railway Board decided to withdraw NCO staff from yards and redeploy them in workshops and sick-lines, focusing on rolling stock examination. This decision led to a reduction in staff strength, with a target of 528 set for August 1, 2007.

Currently, NCO staff are posted in 33 workshops and 38 ROH (Repair, Overhaul, and Heavy Maintenance) depots across Indian Railways. Flying squad batches and sample check batches operate at various points to conduct regular checks on freight rakes and wagons interchanged with steel plants. However, due to a shortage of supervisors, these checks are managed with limited resources.

The Ministry of Railways has announced the closure of NCO and the Indian Railway Conference Association (IRCA). Functions previously carried out by NCO, such as quality checks on POH/ROH depots under PCMEs, will be assigned to the Railways. The preparation of hiring and penalty charges for wagon interchange will be generated through suitable provisions in the FOIS (Freight Operations Information System) software. Activities related to publication of tariff books and allotment of station codes will be entrusted to the Commercial Directorate of the Railway Board.

Potential closure of NCO and IRCA raises significant concerns about passenger safety. It remains unclear how the Indian Railways will adjust its organizational structure to maintain the same level of maintenance standards and quality control checks previously overseen by NCO. In light of the Balasore train tragedy, it is crucial to prioritize safety and efficiency to prevent similar incidents in the future.

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Anurag Tiwari

Anurag Tiwari

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