While I pen this article, the latest figure of the dead in the Indore-Patna Express derailment is 145, seriously injured 58, injured 122, due to an avoidable mishap. I am not calling this an accident. I am calling it a mishap, which means a disaster which could have been avoided. After such a horrible incident, a routine inquiry is ordered and the inquiry commission gives its report after many months. By then, the public would have forgotten about this accident till another such unfortunate accident takes place and the data of the dead is then compared to find out which accident was bigger, yet another inquiry commission being ordered. And so, the cycle of accidents and routine inquiry commissions will go on — but who will never forget such horrible, avoidable accidents? The families who would have lost their near and dear ones? A mother who might have lost her children? A son who might have lost his father? A woman who might have lost her husband — the only bread earner of a poor family?
The fact is, if one analyses such rail accidents, mostly poor people lose their lives. Most of such accidents take place in trains categorised as non-VIP ones, unlike the Rajdhani, Shatabdi, etc. Does that mean Rajdhanis and Shatabdis are absolutely safe? The answer is a big no. As the tracks and signalling system are common, what is different is the quality of rolling stock, namely locomotives, LHB coaches and better monitoring of tracks before such trains pass on them.
An accident report is of use if its recommendation is followed in letter and spirit — but nothing much happens with these recommendations. Otherwise, why would reports prepared by experts in consultation with the railways gather dust? The Kakodkar and Sam Pitroda committee reports are just two, in recent times.
When I had taken oath as minister of railways on July 12, 2011 the railways had just been overtaken by an unfortunate accident at Fatephur Malwa, near Kanpur, on July 10. I rushed to the accident site immediately after taking oath, straight from Rashtrapati Bhavan. The pain and misery of passengers and relatives of those who’d died still haunt me. That moment, I vowed to eliminate the recurrence of such painful happenings. I decided my entire emphasis as railway minister was going to be “Safety, safety and safety.” In times of such advanced technology, frequent accidents leading to death on the rail tracks are not acceptable.
Now, the question is, “What is really ailing the Indian railways?’’ I heard the honourable minister, reacting to this incident, say, “strictest possible action would be taken against the guilty.” Who is the guilty? Do we blame the British government for an inefficient railway system? Certainly not. One of the assets we inherited from the Raj was an efficient railway system. Then where does the buck stop? The poor gang-man on duty? Of course not, as he isn’t qualified to know the quality of rail and how much wear and tear it can take. I wouldn’t even blame the minister. My view is, successive governments have to take the blame, all those who have treated the Indian railways as a political tool rather than an asset, capable of transporting people and freight and adding at least two per cent to our GDP.
Indian railways is still one of the best organisations in the world, next to the army, with the most talented people. But the organisation is being systematically damaged by successive governments because of the lack of understanding of this organisation’s potential. Indian railways needs to be benchmarked to the Japanese railway system, Shinkansen, which, since 1964, has been carrying millions of passengers with zero fatality. Indian Railways is more than capable of achieving this benchmark, provided we give it the necessary resources.
The present problem of the railways is that the organisation is on the verge of bankruptcy. Very soon, Indian Railways may need to borrow money to pay salaries as it is likely to report a net loss of Rs 25,000 crore or more. My biggest worry is safety as the Depreciation Reserve Fund (DRF) and Development Fund (DF) are getting depleted, since the railways are cash-starved. The railways are not generating enough operating cash surplus to even meet daily operating expenses. To replace an old asset (tracks, rolling stock or signalling systems), you need to put money in the DRF. On an average, the system requires Rs 20,000-25,000 crore year after year to replace old assets. Instead of that, a provision had been made for a mere Rs 3,200 crore for the DRF in the 2016 budget. Therefore, the much required replacement of old assets is postponed — knowingly compromising safety.
The railways have lost their focus from operation with safety, to peripheral activities like catering, Wifi, bullet trains, etc. The railway organisation is totally demoralised as uncertainty looms large in terms of major changes at the top level. Even an extension for a two-year term given to the present chairman, Railway Board, after his retirement is unprecedented and has caused heartburn. The railways are also spending less on existing assets, like tracks, rolling stocks, etc., while the replacement of worn-out assets is not being done. Freight loading is 15 per cent lower than last year and 25 per cent below target. Passenger traffic is also down by millions. The quality of maintenance isn’t being monitored while replacement of LHB coaches is happening very slowly — if Indore-Patna Express had LHB coaches, the casualties would have been less. Further, continuous track circuiting (CTC) is needed on all tracks to detect rail fractures. With CTC, the derailment of the Indore-Patna Express would not have occurred.
In conclusion, we need to go for a generational change in our railway system and completely modernise it with latest technology. For this, the government needs a massive investment programme without relying on revenue from the railway’s internal generation. This investment will not only save precious lives, it will give handsome dividends to the GDP. It’s time we change the definition of the railways from a “commercial organisation” to a “basic infrastructure provider”.