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No lessons learnt

Although the media has dedicated more than its fair share of column inches to the lack of safety in our railways, nothing seems to have changed for the better. On Friday morning nine passengers died and over 100 were injured after nine bogies of the Bangalore-Ernakulam Intercity Express derailed 45 kilometres from Bangalore. The accident reportedly occurred after the train hit a boulder that had fallen on the track. Relief and rescue operations are ongoing, with medical teams from both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka on the spot. Railway officials have said that efforts were being made to reach those trapped inside the derailed bogies.

The lack of technological knowhow continues to dog the Indian railways, the largest carrier of passengers and cargo in our country. 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. In his bid to modernise the Railways, Union Minister Suresh Prabhu could do a lot worse than invite investments in such technology, in order to avoid such tragedies in the future.

In a recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, however, it was found that authorities in South Western Railway flouted safety norms. The Research Design and Standard Organisation (RDSO), the technical advisor to Railway Board and Zonal Railways, had pointed out several flaws on the broad gauge line between Kottur-Harihar in Karnataka. Despite the warning signs, railway authorities did not pay heed to these flaws and several cracks remained on the rail track. The national auditor highlighted that a stable and strong formation is essential for the safety of track and safe running of trains. Unfortunately the mandatory ‘parameters’ were not followed.

CAG officials suspect that financial scams could be behind these shortcomings and the matter might be subject to an investigation. The report was a clear marker of the compromises Railway authorities have made, leaving the life of its passengers at grave risk. Last month in a report on the Nizamuddin-Ernakulam Lakshadeep Mangala Express accident in 2013, where three passengers died, the commissioner of railway safety emphasised on the need for ultrasound broken rail detection system for early discovery of cracked tracks. Due to bureaucratic apathy however, such technology has not been forthcoming. Therefore, the central government’s recent decision to introduce foreign direct investments in Indian Railways is yet another tale of how the current administration has put the cart before the horse.
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