OPINION

Keeping safety on the rails

The preliminary finding of the Commission of Railway Safety that the derailment of the Indore-Rajendranagar Express near Kanpur in November 2016 that killed over 140 people was primarily caused by carriage and wagon defects should serve as a reality check for the Railway Ministry. While sabotage is indeed a factor in some derailments, bad railway performance is responsible for the majority. The CRS report merits serious consideration: it has specifically identified a variation in the wheel gauges of two coaches, and found carriages being run beyond their useful life. This is not a rare instance where inquiries have found the Railways seriously deficient. In fact, the annual report of the CRS Lucknow for 2012-13 cites failure of railway equipment, derelict staff, rail fractures and, on some occasions, non-railway factors to be responsible for fatal accidents. The collision of the Hubli-Bengaluru City Hampi Express with a goods train that left 25 people dead, for instance, was caused by failure of staff. The Kakodkar committee on railway safety found that out of 441 derailments it analysed, only about 15% were the result of sabotage, while the majority were caused by factors completely under the control of the railway administration.

India’s Railways serves the vital function of providing travel access to millions, and, as Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his article ‘Third Class in Indian Railways’, have the responsibility of making it equitable and comfortable. It must also be safe. The Railway Ministry is pursuing a major safety initiative, the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, with a non-lapsable corpus of Rs. 1,19,183 crore. Not only should such a fund be constituted, given the past contribution of dedicated safety funds to rail track renewal, it should be governed by a transparent framework with public reporting requirements. The Finance Ministry says the Fund should rely mainly on internal resources, but there is a strong case for higher gross budgetary support to raise safety in a government-run transport network that has a universal service obligation. Replacing ageing and unsafe carriages with modern Linke Hofmann Busch coaches is a five-year-old Kakodkar panel recommendation, but supply has not kept pace with requirement. Travel demand has, meanwhile, continued to leap as economic growth both needs and encourages greater mobility. Raising the performance of the Indian Railways needs a clear vision for both service and financing, with zero tolerance for accidents. Along with technologies such as ultrasonic flaw detection to keep tracks safe, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu and his team must look at ways to carry more passengers safely.

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