Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 25 July 2023

Edge of a Precipice

Source: By Devendra Saksena: The Statesman

It is truly said that railways are the lifeline of India. After democratisation of air travel, trains have receded from public consciousness, though most Indians still travel by train ~ around 13,169 trains carry, in aggregate, more than 2.20 crore passengers every day. Great metropolises like Kolkata and Mumbai come to a halt if suburban trains are disrupted. Running around 8,500 freight trains, the railways transport more than 1400 million tonnes of freight, every year. Indian Railways have a long history; established by the British to manage their Indian Empire, the Railways soon became a uniquely Indian enterprise.

At the time of Independence, different sections of the rail network were run profitably by different private companies; for example, the GIP Railway preceded the Central Railway, and Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway was the precursor of Western Railway. Post-Independence, from a profitable commercial enterprise, Indian Railways changed into a Government department, mutating, in no time, to a meal train for politicians.

Armies of youth were given jobs in the railways on political considerations, trains were started from the Rail Minister’s constituency, ticketless travel was ignored, hardly any investment was made for proper maintenance of tracks and rolling stock or for improvement of railway infrastructure. Hardly any new routes were commissioned. The result was a creaky and outdated railway system, with a poor record of safety and punctuality.

A comparison with China is instructive. In 1949China had only about one-third of our track length, but today China’s track length is double of ours. China has 25,000 km of High-Speed tracks where trains run at 350 km per hour. China is now running freight trains up to Madrid, while we don’t run trains even up to Nepal. Poor upkeep of the Rail Museum at Delhi reflects the callous attitude and lack of vision of the Indian Railways. Iconic train engines, which are an invaluable national heritage, are stabled in the open at the mercy of the elements. Marketed better, the Rail Museum could be a big draw for train enthusiasts.

With the elite not travelling by trains any longer, railways have lost much of their glamour. The Railway Budget has now been subsumed in the General Budget and railways are hardly in the news, except for some momentous event like the launch of a new train or some railway accident. It would appear that railways have been relegated to a minor department of the Government ~ which is ill-advised, given the complexity and vastness of the operations of Indian Railways.

Bureaucratic control over railway means continuing with policies like prioritising passenger traffic, particularly of premium classes ~ which is a losing proposition ~ over goods traffic. Presently, on most days, Rajdhani AC 2 Tier or AC First Class fares between metro cities are higher than airfares, making trains the last option for premium passengers. It could be much better for both passengers and railway finances if trains are run with only AC- 3 Tier and Sleeper Class coaches.

The unfortunate three-train accident at Bahanaga Bazar station, in Odisha, which resulted in around 300 casualities has highlighted the neglect of safety considerations in the railways. Though the exact cause of the mishap will only be revealed by a statutory inquiry, by the Commissioner of Railway Safety, contributory causes are, however, manifest. Reports indicate that there is a huge shortage of 3.15 lakh frontline employees in the railways, which is around 30 per cent of the working strength ~ a large percentage of the vacant posts being in safety staff.

KAVACH, an Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system, earlier known as the Train Collision Avoidance System, indigenously developed by the Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) in 2011-12, has been deployed on only 2 per cent of the railway network, though the cost of KAVACH is only Rs. 50 lakh per kilometre. Incidentally, KAVACH is a Safety Integrity Level 4 (SIL-4) certified technology with the probability of error being one in 10,000 years.

According to the CAG Report “Performance Audit on Derailment in Indian Railways” (tabled in Parliament in December 2022) “maintenance of tracks” is the major factor in most derailments. The Report goes on to state how track maintenance has been neglected, with allotment of funds for track renewal works declining over the years, and such funds remaining largely unspent. The Report goes on to mention that derailments accounted for 75 per cent of the total “consequential accidents.” Incidentally, the recent train accident also involved the derailment of Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express.

Thankfully, massive relief and rescue efforts have prevented further agony for the survivors. After the Bahanaga Bazar train accident, PM Modi has vowed the strictest possible action against those responsible for the mishaps. Mr. Modi’s views have been echoed by Mr. Pradhan, the Union Minister from Odisha. Probably, ignoring the rot in the railway system, the enquiry into the recent accident will find some lower-level functionary, driver, guard, signal maintainer or linesman responsible for the mishap and public conscience will have to be satisfied by his removal, or even imprisonment.

A point, missed by most, is the antiquated and dilapidated infrastructure of the railways. Replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha on 13 December 2019, the Railway Minister informed that there were 38,850 railway bridges, which were more than 100 years old. Recently, there were a series of railway overbridge collapses; a horrific bridge collapse in Mumbai in 2019 left 22 passengers dead, consequent to which the Railways promised a complete audit of all foot overbridges.

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