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Blood on The Iron Tracks
In The Midst of Discussions Regarding Modernisation of Indian Railways, Issues Related to safety of The Existing Infrastructure cannot be Ignored

While announcing the Railway Budget last year, Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee announced that passengers travelling with large-sized IPL tickets would not be required to purchase railway tickets for train travel all through the IPL. This announcement was not based on any policy measures that would have escalated revenues or supported disadvantaged sections, but simply on an IPL TV commercial with a tagline “Sabse Bada Ticket”. Clearly, that was not the kind of largesse what Mamata’s electorate would have been expecting!

Indian Railways (IR) caters to over 10 billion passengers every year and operates around 16,000 trains every day that cover a distance equivalent to four times the distance between the earth and the moon every day. Last year, the ministry envisaged 12 high-speed railway corridors where trains could run at speeds of 250-350 km/hour! But juxtapose this with the rising frequency of train accidents, and you start seeing the connection.

Since April 2009 till the end of July 2010, over 15 major railway accidents occurred. In recent years, the Railways has witnessed over 350 accidents a year on an average. Factors like dense fog, derailing, collisions and wrecked bridges can be addressed with technical and administrative competence. Even factors like the Maoist menace can be controlled through an adequately deployed security infrastructure. Consider how, despite a decade-old report suggesting urgent refurbishment and replacement of 50,000 railways bridges and over 10,000 km of tracks, not much heed has been paid. An inspection of security systems across 138 stations by the Parliament Committee in May 2010 found that CCTVs were not available in 87 of them and the systems in 10 out of 24 major stations were non-functional. Moreover, a 2009 audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found no security in 76 trains, which had routes passing through vulnerable regions; for trains under Western Railways, only 300 bullet-proof jackets had been provided. Of course, the availability of guns & rifles is hugely inadequate.

And a post-haste look at transforming the unclean image of a rail journey would also be quite welcome, given the quite negative image that the Indian Railways has been able to develop over the years due to their own undoing.

Coming back to the safety issue, in 2003, the Centre had floated a ‘Corporate Safety Plan’. But despite that, CAG recently revealed that the management staff at Railways have under-utilised the funds allocated for safety work (Rs.20.90 billion out of Rs.46.07 billion) and have also delayed most safety-related projects. The Railways, deemed to be India’s largest employer, had over 86,108 posts vacant in the safety department as of March 2008. A punctuality audit revealed that over 50% total runs missed their arrival times, leading to a loss of Rs.474.1 million. Add to this the Rs.26.5 million that went as compensation for death and injury to passengers in 2009-10, a 21% rise yoy. We may need to take a leaf out of the book of the Euro Rail model, where maintenance and administration are privatised. For now, we could at least look at privatising the security system, along with adoption of advanced and modern signalling and luggage scanning processes and an advanced GPS system.

Change is imperative. There’s no price costlier to pay than a human life.

By:- IIPM Think Tank

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