Reports indicate that teams from the National Investigation Agency and Andhra Pradesh's Criminal Investigation Department on Monday visited the site in Odisha where the Jagdalpur-Bhubaneswar Hirakhand Express had derailed. The death toll in the mishap has risen to 41. Investigations are on to ascertain whether there was any sabotage involved in the train's derailment. Some officials have indicated a possible Maoist hand in the incident as the region is considered a Naxalite stronghold. Nonetheless, such claims should not underplay the fact that this is the third derailment in the last two months. On November 10, the derailment of 14 coaches of Indore-Patna Express at Pukhrayan near Kanpur in the early hours of November 21 claimed over 150 lives. On December 26, the Sealdah-Ajmer Express went off the tracks. Although there was no loss of life, more than 40 people were seriously injured. These incidents have exposed glaring safety lapses and highlighted the urgent need for a separate safety fund to strengthen and upgrade rail infrastructure. There have been over 600 deaths between 2009-'10 to 2015-'16, eliciting little outrage in the traditional media and across digital platforms. Rather than pushing for fantastically expensive bullet trains, the Ministry should focus on strengthening its existing infrastructure. Shaken by the increasing train mishaps during his tenure, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu has finally decided to take up the task of ramping up railway safety infrastructure and addressing actual loopholes on a war footing. When Prabhu took charge, one would have imagined that improving safety was his number one priority. In response to a slate of accidents, the minister decided to set up a committee, which would be headed by former Comptroller Auditor General Vinod Rai, to help in revamping the safety mechanism and systemic improvements needed to make rail travel less hazardous. In addition to the existing schedule and inspection at various levels, rail personnel from junior to senior subordinate ranks have been told to travel in trains and keep their eye on all aspects of operational safety. Nonetheless, this seems like a case of too little, too late. The Minister sprung to action only after the number of train accidents in 2016 peaked late last year, including the worst accident in the last six months which took place in November near Kanpur. According to Ministry data, Railways has witnessed 39 train mishaps from 2014 to 2016.
Reports indicate that the government may allocate funds over and above the budgeted allocation for safety upgrades in this year's budget. The Centre may infuse Rs 1 lakh crore, spread over a five-year period, to a special fund called the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK), for the same. Why weren't these measures undertaken earlier? In fact, some media outlets reported that the Depreciation Reserve Fund (DRF) of the Indian Railways, which is used to replace crucial assets, including railway tracks, was trimmed in last year's Budget. There are also real structural issues, especially regarding the lack of safety personnel that the government needs to address urgently. Crucial safety posts remain unoccupied. For example, according to East Coast Railway zone records, there is a 24 per cent vacancy in the department that looks after safety. Across India, nearly 1.42 lakh posts for safety remain unoccupied, raising serious concerns of outright neglect. This is a problem that had encumbered the Indian Railways for quite some time, long before the current ruling dispensation took charge. Despite various internal reports highlighting the excessive pressure on crucial safety staff, huge vacancies and sub-standard working conditions, nothing much has changed under this government. Travelling in Indian trains has indeed never been more unsafe as in the recent past. Even though the rail network is considered a critical part of this nation's infrastructure, little attention is afforded to improving it. This neglect must end, and the government needs to work towards qualitative improvements.