Railways Minister of State Mukul Roy had not left for the accident site in Assam until late tonight. That should come as no surprise.
Being an absentee Minister was something his Trinamool party boss,Mamata Banerjee,had perfected when she was at the helm in Rail Bhavan more busy fighting the Left in West Bengal than running a department that has 2 crore passengers travelling each day.
And ever since she left to run her state,even with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreeing to take charge,it has remained largely rudderless. So much so that when Roy was sworn in as MoS and given a first among equals status in terms of the subjects he was allocated,the all-important Safety and Security of Railways went to the much junior Bharatsinh Solanki.
While the PMO is now said to be engaging Rail Bhavan mandarins more regularly,the focus,sources said,is on pushing key infrastructure projects and financial reform safetys slipped onto the backburner. No wonder then that the Ministry is still to come out of Mamatas shadow.
On July 7,nearly full-page ads issued by Metro Railways,Kolkata,and the Eastern Railways,showcased her flagging off four new trains and inaugurating passenger amenities. The ad had Mamatas photo,it had no mention of the Prime Minister or the two other Ministers of State K H Muniyappa and Solanki.
Despite being a running theme,safety (or the lack of it) continues to be the most important issue confronting the Railways. Consider:
* Between 2000-01 and 2009-10,a staggering 2,763 rail accidents occurred on the Indian Railways network killing 2,651 people and injuring 5,464 more.
* Of the total accidents,60 per cent (1,680 accidents) were derailments.
* As per Railways own assessment,as many as 52 percent of the accidents (1,439 accidents) were caused due to Failure of Railway Staff.
Just over a month ago,the Railway Ministrys Safety Directorate issued an alert to all the zonal railways asking them to take necessary precautions to pre-empt accidents. Significantly,of the 11 kinds of accidents that had been quoted for reference,eight were derailments. The causes of these derailments ranged from signal passing at danger by loco-pilot to track defect to obstruction of track to non-clamping of disconnected point to excessive loading and shifting of consignment to brake-binding.
For the first time in decades,over 60,000 safety-related posts of gangmen,pointsmen,signalmen and Assistant Station Masters have been lying vacant for months now.
On the technology front,the introduction of key safety technologies like the Anti-Collision Device (ACD) and the Train Protection Warning System (TPWS) is either caught in red-tape or is being implemented at too slow a pace.
Of late,Railways started comparing its safety record to that of the road network. In 2007,more than 1.13 lakh people were killed and 5.13 lakh injured in road accidents. Railways,on the other hand,witnessed only 177 accidents in 2008-09 and only 207 persons were killed, an official said.
In Kolkata,Roys reluctance was very evident. A senior public relations officer of North Frontier Railways,when contacted said: We have received no communicaiton from the railway ministry regarding the visit of the MoS to the accident site today. A visit to the Howrah Station 24 hours after the accident revealed that the Railways was yet to update its information on the dead and injured.
Roy,one of Mamatas closest aides,is portrayed as the partys face in Delhi after she took over as the CM. Trinamool sources said that Mamata wanted Roy to be her successor in the Cabinet reshuffle but may have to give in to another Trinamool Congress union minister,Dinesh Trivedi,as the next Railway minister.
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