The train to nowhere

The train to nowhere

Will the Railways finally listen to some sage advice?

Will the Railways finally listen to some sage advice?

Different from the previous rail safety committees,mostly led by retired eminent judges,the latest,the Kakodkar rail safety review committee comprised of eminent scientists,technologists and engineers. With a view to assessing the adequacy of railway safety systems and the growing gap in infrastructure and technologies to cope with them,the bulk of the 106 recommendations incorporated in the Kakodkar report,with a projected implementation cost of Rs103,110 crore,underscores the salience of effective good governance,the lack of which has pushed Indian Railways to “the brink of collapse”.

Not that there was any panic situation for the committee to be constituted in September 2011. IR’s safety record has been steadily improving over the decade: the incidence of accidents per million train kilometres fell from 0.44 in 2002-03 to a record low of 0.15 in 2010-11; total casualties (deaths and injuries) likewise decreasing from 1,400 to 844. Fortuitously,the accident affecting the Kalka Mail near Fatehpur on July 10,2011,resulting in 71 fatalities and 264 injuries,raised an alarm over rail safety standards and practices.

The Kakodkar committee report echoes the prevalent public perception of IR steadily sliding into a moribund entity,and focuses on its “grim picture of inadequate performance due to poor infrastructure and resources”,also highlighting creeping infirmities,namely,“ lack of empowerment at the functional level”,its organisation “centralised,top heavy and hierarchical along departmental lines”. A litany of maladies afflicting IR is exacerbated by obdurate resistance to sane advice.


Although IR’s finances remain perilous,it has persisted with “ridiculously low fares” for a decade,notwithstanding a 300 per cent increase in input costs. Again,the emaciated patient is flogged to carry more load on its back. As the committee bemoans,more and more passenger trains are introduced on the overloaded infrastructure,rendering it vulnerable to unsafe and unsatisfactory services.

The committee’s recommendations in regard to a significant revamp of IR’s R&D eco-system would need further consideration for an appropriate strategy. Its current R&D infrastructure, woefully inadequate and anachronistic,needs active participation of the scientific and technology community,besides institutional linkages with centres of excellence. As IR must meaningfully hike its R&D spend,it would naturally examine the recommended structure of the proposed Railway Research and Development Council and its ancillary arms such as Railway Research Institute and Centres.

Without in any way doubting a need for an efficacious safety architecture and audit mechanism,the proposal of a statutory Railway Safety Authority would deserve much more deliberation. Prudence would demand there be no undue emphasis of oversight lest it turn out to be counter-productive.

No doubt,aids like several advanced signalling systems recommended would enhance safety and enable faster and more modern transit facilities. Viewed in this perspective,the projected cost of Rs 20,000 crore on equipping 19,000 route km on busy corridors will be an investment well worth its while. So also the proposal to incur additional investment of Rs 10,000 crore over five years on the induction of new LHB passenger coaches to replace the existing ICF coaches which have outlived their utility.

In a bold,swift move,let IR eliminate within five years all its 32,735 level crossings — 17,839 manned and 14,896 unmanned — as recommended. Involving as it would an estimated expense of Rs 50,000 crore,it would appear expedient,especially in the context of much higher speeds of trains,and their number,contemplated by IR.

There appears considerable merit in the committee’s observation that the status quo ante for only operating and technical officers being considered for crucial posts of divisional managers and general managers be restored,with a minimum tenure of three years. It would be much like the army where the division and corps commands are led only by the fighting arms.

The committee rues the “implementation bug”. The non-implementation bug does not bite IR alone; selective amnesia is government’s forte. Railways are an integral part of the social milieu and national ethos. Charting a roadmap for IR to garner resources for implementing its recommendations,it has rightly specified timelines and also executing agencies to be in place.

IR can ill afford to overlook three aspects: first,the implementation of the recommendations must ensure scrupulous appraisal of existing wherewithal at all installations and infrastructure,especially manpower and minimising of the unit cost of operation; second,itself symptomatic of operational efficiency,safety should be viewed as integral to all operations,not in isolation; and,third,an accident signifies a breakdown in efficiency and thus the need to do the utmost to avoid it.

The writer was the first MD of the Container Corporation of India Limited,