Institutional accountability, to be meaningful, must be a multi-pronged and sustained process. The Railway Ministry’s decision to suspend four officials and send three others — including a member of the Railway Board — “on leave” is welcome. Twenty people died following the derailment of the Kalinga Utkal Express on Saturday. This is the first time that a member of the board, a secretary-level post, has been held responsible for an act of negligence that cost lives. Punitive action alone, however, is not enough. Lack of safety in one of the largest railway networks in the world must be systemically addressed. The frequent accidents are an indictment of the railway system as a whole, and it is only through a wider response that the challenge can be met.
About 53 per cent of the 586 accidents in the last five years occurred, like the Utkal Express tragedy, due to derailments. In December 2016, after a series of accidents, most notably the death of 150 people after the derailment of the Indore-Patna Express on November 20, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu emphasised “going back to basics” in a video conference with general managers of the Railways. He stressed, “no fittings can be missing and integrated blocks will have to be taken for maintenance work of overhead equipment, signalling and tracks.”
Prabhu also pointed to the need for caution boards and overhead number plates and that they be retro-reflective. In the Utkal Express tragedy, it appears, prima facie, that the accident occurred due to negligence during track maintenance and because the Permanent Way Inspector did not place warning signals for oncoming trains. It is clear that the urgency for following “the basics” that Prabhu emphasised as recently as last year has not trickled down to where it matters.
According to an analysis by IndiaSpend, there has been a 56 per cent increase in the daily tally of passenger trains over 15 years — from 8,520 in 2000-01 to 13,313 in 2015-16. The number of freight trains increased by 59 per cent in the same period. But the running track length for all these trains increased by only 12 per cent.
Maintenance continues to fall short of the requirement. The sheer pressure on railway tracks makes accidents more likely. Then there is the fact that despite being the largest employer in India, the Railways continue to face staff shortages in critical areas. The action against senior officials sends a strong message: Laxity will not be tolerated when it comes to the lives of passengers. Minister Prabhu must now follow up by implementing the sustained systemic changes he has himself flagged in the past.