Indian Railways: Modernisation, safety may take a hit, as bankruptcy looms

With the Indian Railways (IR) in dire need of urgent upgradation, a retired Railway Board official underlined the need for relaying the tracks of the country’s gigantic transportation system. Being literally the lifeline, IR needs to accord highest priority to safety in the wake of major accidents taking place resulting in the death of a large number of 25,000 people annually.  This is no laughing matter and raises the basic question – “do we Indians value human life at all?” The safety record of the Indian Railways is scary despite the well-meaning union minister Suresh Prabhu overseeing the IR. In presenting his first Railway budget earlier this year he assured top priority to safety and security.

The safety and security of the people travelling by the IR leaves much to be desired as evidenced by the large death toll in accidents, seventy per cent of which is due to human error. The summary dole of Rs 2-3 lakhs compensation to the families of   the dead and Rs 25,000 to Rs 100,000 to the injured is the State’s intervention. Thereafter, the bereaved are expected to return to normality.

“If our lives mattered, the politicians might not be so callous in their approach,” observed a senior citizen who had retired as a senior Railway Board member. And what is worse is that superannuated Railway Board officials concede that these “aged and unsafe passenger bogies should not have been used to carry passengers posing an inherent threat to safety.”

In a majority of instances accidents occur due to the crumbling railway infrastructure requiring quickfire upgradation. The faster and prestigious trains like the Rajdhanis and the Shatabdis use the safer LHB coaches manufactured in Kapurthala in Punjab and Rae Bareli, the parliamentary constituency of Congress president Sonia Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh.

For the teeming lower middle class and the poor, travelling from one place to another is a necessity rather than any pleasure. The old coaches manufactured at the Integral Coach Factory at Perambur in Tamil Nadu considered unsafe are being used in the country’s interior rather than phasing them out. Considering the acute shortage of the safe LHB coaches, the unsafe passenger bogies continue to be used. The implication of this chalta hai attitude is that the authorities are laying themselves bare to accidents. Why shouldn’t all those responsible for pursuing such a policy attract a very serious charge like pre-meditated murder?

The Indore-Patna express train accident in the wee hours of November 20 has been the biggest on the IR since 2010. How many more such heart-rending and painful accidents will the nation have to endure before matters are put on an even keel? Is it going to serve any purpose in baying for Prabhu’s head, holding him responsible for this tragedy? A purposeful person and a doer — he had also underlined improving the hygiene and sanitation on the IR. The IR must get its act together pronto. Along with that it should put on the backburner the introduction of bullet trains rather than making it a priority when the safety record is taking a severe beating.

Millions of people travelling by trains daily need to be assured of their safety. All the elements of safety — integrity of the tracks, signalling, engines and coaches need to be checked rigorously. There is imperative need for intensive training and strict operational discipline. In the present instance, it needs to be determined if there were flaws like fracture of the track, whether the driver exceeded the specified speed limit along with problems in the coach design leading to 146 fatalities and nearly twice that number being injured.

Various specialist committees have made recommendations about safety as well as restructuring the system along with undertaking major reforms encompassing the creation of a statutory safety authority, replacing old coaches with the modern LHB design along with revamping the management which must remain focussed on key train operations.

In keeping with Prabhu’s promise all the zonal railways are to be equipped with ultrasound flaw detection machines by March next year to test the quality of the tracks. Then, after an accident medical facilities are usually highly inadequate which in turn determines a victim’s chance of survival.

The IR should ensure that victims get the best medical aid and treatment. It is important that the rescue teams are well-trained and equipped for the task. Already there have been three major derailments this year, two in UP and one in Madhya Pradesh. With 31 days to go before ushering in the new year, the country has already suffered 80 major railway accidents in 2016 as against 69 last year.  Over half of them have been due to derailments which is a pointer to tracks not being well looked after. What makes matters worst is throwing passenger safety out of the window by deploying coaches that are unsafe and old.

TMC’s former Railways minister Dinesh Trivedi paints a grim picture of the situation in the IR. In an article he says the IR is on the verge of bankruptcy and likely to report a net loss of Rs 25,000 crores. Under the circumstances it might have to borrow money to pay the salaries. This puts a huge question mark on the imperatives of modernisation of the IR which cannot be brushed under the carpet any more.

The author is a senior journalist and commentator

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