On a day when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was scheduled to address the first-ever Rail Vikas Shivir, the Railway Ministry suffered a major jolt when 14 coaches of the Indore-Patna Express derailed at Pukhraya, 65 km from Kanpur, early on Sunday. In one of the most devastating rail accidents in recent years, more than 140 people were killed and over 200 injured. In response to the tragedy, Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu ordered a probe into the tragedy and also announced Rs 3.5 lakh compensation for the families of those killed, and Rs 50,000 for those grievously injured. While the cause of the incident is yet to be determined by investigators, prima facie it indicates a fracture in the rail tracks. Reports suggest that derailment is the cause of 50 percent of all accidents. The number of casualties may have also spiked due to the absence of modern Linke Holfmann Bush (LHB) coaches in the train, according to a report in this newspaper. Had there been stainless steel LHB coaches, then the damage could have been mitigated. It’s a sad irony that this accident occurred at a time when the Ministry of Railways (MoR) was in the midst of a year-long drive to achieve its “zero-accident mission”. Pointed questions should be raised on the money spent by the Centre on asset maintenance, including track renewal, during this year-long drive that began in February. At the site of the accident, meanwhile, the Commissioner of railway safety pulled up officials for gross negligence.
The Centre may have to take some portion of the blame. However, as the world’s fourth largest railways system, running 12,600 trains a day and carrying more than 23 million people, the task before the MoR is massive and it may not be fair to blame the Centre entirely. Major train accidents due to negligence or inadequate infrastructure have occurred in the past too. The rail system in India is known for its notoriously poor safety record, with train derailments and collisions, causing numerous accidents and deaths. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, accidents on Indian trains claim more than 25,000 lives a year. But in its report, the MoR has indicated that derailments are up by 67 percent compared with the same period last year. As per a document sent to a leading British publication by the MoR, derailments are often caused by “poor maintenance of infrastructure especially at stations and failure to take appropriate precautionary measures against flashfloods, landslides, boulder(s) falling, etc.” Recent figures indicate that 87 per cent of the accidents are caused by human error. A majority of the accidents are due to the 6,000 unmanned level crossings, claim railway officials. There is a definite shortage of personnel in our rail system, in particular among those segments responsible for safety. “Of the 0.12 million vacant positions in the railways, 75 per cent pertain to jobs ensuring safety. The government should fill up these vacancies as soon as possible," said senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel, soon after the accident. The lack of technological know-how also continues to dog the Indian Railways. One such technology that can avoid such accidents in the future has been installed in one of Scotland’s most landslide prone train lines. This pioneering scheme, called ‘distributed acoustic sensing’, has installed electronic ‘ears’ to warn trains of fallen boulders and trees, besides landslides on rail tracks. Unfortunately, such technology has not been forthcoming. The measures by the Centre to achieve its “zero-accident mission” primarily focus on infrastructure development—upgradation of track structure, bridge rehabilitation, safety works at level crossings and the introduction of long welded trains and track patrols, among other measures.
During his election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to modernise India’s rail system and build high-speed lines by replacing old tracks and improving safety infrastructure. Half-way into his tenure, not enough progress has been made to achieve these goals. Reports indicate that more than 90 per cent of the revenue generated by the Indian Railways is spent on operational costs, leaving a small sum for modernisation purposes. Some experts have indicated that India’s rail system will need investments worth Rs 20 trillion by 2020 to achieve a standard befitting of Asia’s third-largest economy. In a bid to address these mounting financial concerns, the Modi government seeks to push ahead with privatisation and 100 per cent foreign direct investment in the rail sector. But there are basic problems closer to home. “Since Suresh Prabhu took charge as Minister of Railways, he had given additional emphasis on safety and stressed on a Rs 1,19,183 crore-safety fund called the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh,” according to a recent Business Standard report. “However, the move has not got the Finance Ministry’s approval, and this, among others, has become a roadblock in removing the carrier’s safety bottlenecks.” The Ministry of Finance should stop dawdling and release the requisite amount. The Business Standard report goes on to state that of the Rs 1,19,183 crore sought by the Rail Ministry for the safety fund, the Finance Ministry said it would fund Rs 1,11,683 crore.