Off the track
This was a bad year for the Indian Railways. Days before the year ended, there was another accident near Kanpur, around the same spot in which over 150 lives were lost about a month ago. Luckily this time around there was no loss of life but several people were injured. Traveling in Indian Railways has never been more unsafe as in the recent past. Derailment of 14 coaches of Indore-Patna Express at Pukhrayan near Kanpur in the early hours of November 21 claiming over 150 lives and injuring more than 200 passengers exposed glaring safety lapses and highlighted the urgent need for a separate safety fund to strengthen and upgrade rail infrastructure.
Though Railway Safety Commission is yet to submit the inquiry report, possible rail fracture highlighting poor maintenance of track seem to be reason behind the accident. Now the accident at Rura, also near Kanpur, has gone to highlight the point all over again. Shaken by the increasing train mishaps during his tenure, the Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu has directed his officials to travel in all overnight express/mail trains to find out lapses in rail safety mechanism in each train for the next 10 days starting from Friday last. Prabhu has also decided to set up a committee, which would be headed by former CAG Vinod Rai, to help in revamping the safety mechanism and systemic improvements needed to make rail travel less hazardous. Personnel ranging from junior to senior subordinate level have been told to travel in trains and keep their eye on all aspects of the safety operational mechanism such as signalling, security in bogies, etc. This is in addition to the existing schedule and inspection at various levels. This at best can be called a knee-jerk reaction. The Minister sprung to action only after the number of train accidents in 2016 reached 13 on Thursday last, 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 in the last three years from 2014 to 2016. The larger part of this period has been under the stewardship of Minister Prabhu. It is putting the Ministry’s policy in right perspective which would end the accidents. Rather than pushing for new populist schemes like Bullet Train, the Ministry should focus on strengthening its existing infrastructure. Railways have over 16 lakh employees, monitoring passengers’ safety standards in over 1,000 overnight trains should not at all be an issue for the Ministry. Moreover, everybody knows that winters in North India have large parts getting engulfed in fog. This should have made Ministry prepare itself better for the challenge. However, year after year it has been witnessed that it wakes up only after human lives get lost in tragic accidents. For the rail passengers, the winter months are indeed crisis months. This can be confirmed from the railway record of operations in winter months, which shows that in addition to accidents, it also witnesses abysmal late running of trains. Prabhu should realise that he cannot run the railways on the basis of healthy balance sheets but healthy passenger safety.