Augmenting research, promoting greater engagement with the academic community and ensuring safety can make the Railways ready for the future

The railway budget presented by Railway Minister Sadananda Gowda, while clearly an exercise in balancing competing demands in a resource-constrained enterprise, reflects a pragmatic approach at least in terms of the statement of objectives in somewhat qualitative terms. India has the fourth longest railway network in the world. However, in proportion to the population served, the track length is one of the lowest. In terms of energy and environment, travelling by train is an order of magnitude superior as compared to road transport. With high-speed trains, rail transport could compete favourably with air travel up to a range of around 500 kilometres. Given all this, it is somewhat ironic that the growth of railway tracks has not even kept pace with the growth of roads in our country.

Quite apart from the inherent inefficiency of investment and operation, this has also led to inadequate inspection and maintenance. The decision to bring in a modern vehicle-borne ultrasonic flaw detection system and a broken-rail detection system was thus long overdue. With the intention to introduce high-speed trains, this is even more important, especially if these trains are to run on some of the existing tracks. Among different causative factors for poor quality of tracks, discharge of human waste on tracks is an important one. In this context, the move to fit bio-toilets in rail coaches should thus see greater emphasis along with the welcome thrust on cleanliness.

Operational efficiency and safety

Unmanned level crossings have also been a major cause of fatalities on tracks. Such fatalities are not even recorded as a fault in railway operations. The move to eliminate these unmanned level crossings is therefore very welcome. Replacing manned level crossings with road-over-bridges or road-under-bridges is also a good investment that will pay dividends in a few years with permanent improvement in operational efficiency and safety. With an increase in the number of trains, one would need to augment rolling stock inspection facilities during turn around at terminal locations. These facilities are in bad shape at many locations and could well prove to be a cause for more accidents if not properly attended to. Maximum speed can be achieved if rakes are fitted with earlier design of couplings. Clearly, all the proposed high-speed trains must have rakes that are safe for the kind of speed that is being spoken about.

Bringing about improvements in signalling is a key factor in enhancing operational efficiency as well as safety. The Railways would do well in deciding on the standards it would want to follow on the basis of a long-term perspective, without being influenced by vendor-driven logic. In doing so, vulnerabilities that can come about through situations that could compromise communication systems need to be properly weighed in. One did not see any mention in the budget on this account although there is considerable emphasis on using IT solutions for several passenger amenities and administration — a welcome move.

Working conditions and facilities for engine drivers also need serious attention. They need rest before going on duty, there needs to be clarity on their conditions en route, and attention needs to be given to workplace ergonomics.

The budget speech has a very brief mention about structural reforms in the context of functions of the Railway Board. Although the details are not available, several aspects need careful attention if Railways is to function as an objective-oriented collective. That overlapping roles of policy formulation and implementation of the Railway Board need to be separated finds mention in the speech. In the context of safety management and regulation, this is a matter of importance and needs urgent attention.

Replacing manned level crossings with bridges is a good investment that will pay dividends in a few years

It was heartening to hear about the government’s intent to set up a Railway University to improve skills as well as its intention to set up an Innovations Incubation Centre. Railways have good technology development infrastructure. Augmenting research, promoting greater engagement with the academic community within the country and abroad, and creating an ecosystem that synergises industry and academia with Railways would go a long way in making the Railways a technology powerhouse and leader. A sufficiently empowered and enlightened leadership that could lead to such a paradigm shift would of course be a prerequisite. Given the size of our Railways, and its growth potential in the context of our needs, we should pursue this path for maximum economic gain for the country.

A good beginning

Several ways of raising resources have been mentioned. The Railway Minister has rightly observed the need to harmonise the functioning of Railways as a commercial enterprise as well as a welfare organisation. With the assets at the command of the Railways, this harmony needs to be brought about in a manner that is not exploitative of the poor.

Overall, it seems to be a good beginning. Since sufficient details have not been spelt out, we need to wait for things to unfold. However, one thing is clear. As we embrace bullet-trains, there must be a sea change in our outlook toward management of railway technology.

(Anil Kakodkar is former Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission.)

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