Makingrailways safer

Three accidents in less than a week and a toll of well over a hundred deaths seem to speak to the state of safety in Indian Railways. Each of these tragedies may be different but they convey the same grim message. Last week, a snag-hit vehicle stranded on the tracks of an unmanned level crossing in Kanshiramnagar in Uttar Pradesh was pulverised by a speeding Mathura-Shhapra express, killing all 38 members of a marriage party. The Railways always holds vehicles crossing the track at unmanned level crossings responsible for their safety, as trains have the right of way. Around noon on Sunday, 15 bogies of the Howrah-Delhi Kalka Mail derailed near Malwan, claiming 68 lives, with several passengers still missing. Pictures from the accident site speak volumes of the deadly tragedy. The Army and the disaster relief teams had to be called in for rescue work and to cut open the mangled sleeper coaches. In the third instance, an IED blast on the track near the Rangiya station in Assam resulted in the derailment of eight bogies of the Puri Express. Fortunately, there were no deaths in this case.

While the Indian Railways seems to have perfected rescue and relief operations following accidents, it has not met with much success when it comes to accident prevention. The safety drive, for which the Indian Railways secured massive funding in the 10th and 11th Plans, needs a review to identify the grey areas — be it signalling, track replacement, or the status of the rolling stock. In the Kalka Mail derailment, for instance, preliminary reports indicate that the driver had suddenly braked for some reason, which led to the derailment. Why did this happen, and why should it result in 15 bogies being thrown off the rails? The Railways needs to step up its maintenance record, track patrolling, and also review the role of both the Railway Protection Force and the Government Railway Police to make them more effective. Finally, there is the question of political stewardship for this Ministry. The fact that no Railway Minister of Cabinet rank has been appointed since May, when Mamata Banerjee resigned to become Chief Minister of West Bengal, does not send out a reassuring message on the importance the government attaches to this key portfolio. It might be too much to expect today's politicians to emulate Lal Bahadur Shastri who, in 1956, resigned accepting moral and constitutional responsibility for a railway accident at Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu that claimed 144 lives. But at least one hopes the impending Cabinet reshuffle will see the Railways placed in experienced and capable hands.

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