In dire straits

The high-level safety review committee headed by Anil Kakodkar, set up after some train accidents last year, has made a number of good recommendations to improve and upgrade the safety system of Indian railways.

The railways’ track record on safety is poor and a number of committees have, in the past, studied the problem and suggested solutions. There have also been proposals on how to manage the railways better and improve its finances and operational efficiency.

But through the years, the railway system, which has a key role in development and public service, has deteriorated and it is now facing serious financial constraints. The railway minister, for the first time, has asked for a bailout of Rs 10,000 crore, as it is expected to lose money. In the circumstances, finding funds for improving safety standards is not easy.

But the committee has, unlike other committees in the past, worked out the budget needed for an upgrade and suggested methods of raising the resources. It has estimated that over Rs 1 lakh crore is needed under different heads. Improved signalling needs Rs 20,00 crore, better coaches Rs 10,000 crore, infrastructure maintenance Rs 20,000 crore and elimination of level crossings Rs 50,000 crore.

A safety cess of Rs 5,000 crore with a matching contribution from the government, earnings from railway land, a road cess of about Rs 5,000 crore and deferment of annual dividend can raise half the required amount over five years. The Rs 50,000 crore required for level crossings can be self-generated because the railways spends about Rs 7,000 crore every year to maintain them. The five-year road map is sensible and practical and can be implemented if there is the necessary political will.

Railways minister Dinesh Chaturvedi has already disfavoured the safety cess, just as he has refused to consider any increase in fares. Railway fares have been stagnant for many years but costs, in terms of fuel price, salaries and other expenses, have kept mounting. The railways is a public utility but it has to be run with commercial sense.

New projects are not undertaken for lack of funds, old ones are languishing and the entire system is creaking. Passenger safety should be the most important consideration but has received scant attention. Political and populist approaches to managing the railways has always been its bane. The Kakodkar panel recommendations deserve serious study and implementation in the best interest of passengers.

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