India’s Railways serves the vital function of providing travel access to millions, and, as Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his article ‘Third Class in Indian Railways’, have the responsibility of making it equitable and comfortable. It must also be safe. In the 64-year period from 1950 to 2016, passenger and freight traffic grew by 1,344% and 1,642% respectively, while the network increased by a mere 23% — causing huge network congestion. Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that derailments seem to have become commonplace.
There were over 60 such incidents in 2016, up almost 40 per cent from the previous year. Worse, there has been massive underinvestment in track renewal and signalling systems for long, as the safety review committee headed by Dr Anil Kakodkar noted in 2012. It is welcome that Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu had announced earlier this year that the Railways would allocate about Rs 10,000 crore for renewal of tracks and adopt the latest technology to detect rail fracture. It will take the Railways some 40 years to complete the task nationally over 1.2 lakh km.
The Railways is also reportedly setting up a Rs 1,00,000 crore safety fund, as recommended by the Kakodkar committee. But the investment backlog, when it comes to rail safety, is massive. Since 2016-17, the rail minister has, therefore, stepped up the annual track renewal target to 2,950 km, up from just about 1,028 earlier. The latest two back to back accidents in Uttar Pradesh – involving the Utkal Express in Muzaffarnagar district and within the span of less than a week involving the Kaifiat Express in Auraiya district – bring to the fore the fact that all is not well with the issue of rail safety. The situation has, rather, worsened on account of the low spending on safety works. In 2009-10, for instance, Rs 1,102 crore was allocated for safety works (revised to Rs 923 crore), while the actual spending was Rs 906 crore.
The following year, Rs 1,302 crore was allocated (revised to Rs 998 crore), while the actual spending was Rs 911 crore. Manpower shortage is another issue. Against the total sanctioned strength of 7,46,676 employees, 1,22,736 safety category posts (or 16% posts) are vacant; official records show. Thirteen coaches of the Kalinga Utkal Express derailed in Khatauli in Uttar Pradesh on August 19 killing 22 people and injuring 156 while 10 coaches of Kaifiyat Express train derailed in UP’s Auraiya district after crashing into a dumper which strayed onto the tracks. Police said about 100 passengers were wounded in the mishap. The Haridwar-bound Kalinga Utkal Express sped along track that was undergoing repair, without being warned beforehand or at the site of the repair. It suggests sheer callousness and shocking disregard for rail safety.
This is not acceptable and tweets about better food and hygiene cannot compensate for safety lapses. The Railways has initiated swift disciplinary proceedings against several officials. But the latest mishap suggests systemic failure. The Railway Ministry is pursuing a major safety initiative, the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, with a non-lapsable corpus of Rs.1,19,183 crore. Not only should such a fund be constituted, given the past contribution of dedicated safety funds to rail track renewal, it should be governed by a transparent framework with public reporting requirements.
The Finance Ministry says the fund should rely mainly on internal resources, but there is a strong case for higher gross budgetary support to raise safety in a government-run transport network that has a universal service obligation. Replacing ageing and unsafe carriages with modern Linke Hofmann Busch coaches is a fiveyear-old Kakodkar panel recommendation, but supply has not kept pace with requirement. Travel demand has, meanwhile, continued to leap as economic growth both needs and encourages greater mobility. With the time available to carry out routine repairs (overhead signaling systems or tracks) having shrunk, short-cut methods – of the kind that caused the Muzaffarnagar accident – are being routinely resorted to.
Raising the performance of the Indian Railways needs a clear vision for both service and financing, with zero tolerance for accidents. Along with technologies such as ultrasonic flaw detection to keep tracks safe, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu and his team must look at ways to carry more passengers safely. By cracking the whip after the dreadful train accident in Muzaffarnagar, railways minister Suresh Prabhu has addressed what had remained a crying need – of holding the top rail bureaucracy accountable for its acts of omission and commission. Only on two occasions in the 70 years of the country’s Independence has administrative action been initiated against the Grade-A officers of the Indian Railways after an accident.
The last time such a development happened was in 2010, when a divisional railway manager was suspended following a train tragedy. The Indian Railways is a state-owned national transporter in India which has the fourth largest railway network in the world comprising 1,19,630 km, carrying 8.107 billion passengers annually or more than 22 million passengers a day and 1.101 billion tons of freight annually. Still, the need for setting up an independent safety regulator has remained unaddressed. The Anil Kakodkar committee set up by the ministry of railways in 2011 to review rail safety had come up with a slew of suggestions.
The committee asked for Rs 1 lakh crore over a period of five years to improve safety and overhaul railway infrastructure, ranging from aged tracks to erratic signalling systems. It recommended that the Railways switch over from coaches designed by the Integral Coach Factory, Perambur, to Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB)-design coaches, deemed to be safer. The switchover was to cost Rs 10,000 crore over five years. Four years after Kakodkar submitted the suggestions, however, the LHB coaches constitute just about 10 per cent of the bogies in circulation.
The problem may also lie in skewed priorities, which lead to a privileging of ambitious and moneyguzzling projects like bullet and high-speed trains. No doubt, India needs faster trains. But in the pursuit of speed and spectacle, the government can ill afford to lose track of the basics. The safety statistics are baffling – 251 deaths from 145 derailments in the last two-and-a-half years alone.