Railways: Increase in traffic minus infrastructure is the bane

Railways: Increase in traffic minus infrastructure is the bane

The tragedy that took place at the Dhamara Ghat station in Khagaria district in Bihar when an express train mowed down over 30 pilgrims, a majority of whom were women and children, stranded on a track at a station that does not even have a proper platform, needs scrutiny for a number of reasons. A recent official report revealed that almost 15,000 people are killed each year from crossing rail track.

The accident is a classic case of the disproportionate increase in railway traffic compared with infrastructure that has been the cause of many accidents bedevilling Indian Railways. In a study probing 11 railway accidents in 2010 alone, and a rise of railway accidents in recent years, a study paper – apart from identifying wobbly infrastructure as one irritant – identified zones that are accident-prone because they are unable to handle the congestion, based on statistical analyses of data drawn from the Indian Railways website. The study notably found that there are serious flaws in the scheduling of trains on some routes because if all trains were to run as per schedule there, the railway system, unable to handle the onrush of traffic, would be left with no other means than to make trains wait at signals, leading to long delays in trains’ run-time. This, according to the study, is a wilful concession of “human error and/or system failure leading to accidents”.

The study noted that of the 11 accidents, eight took place in the Indo Gangetic Plain (IGP) – a north-eastern belt which hosts some of the most traffic-intensive segments of rail routes – seven out of the 20 high-traffic segments where infrastructure-development such as railway lines and tracks have not grown over the years, though the number of trains has increased manifold, a predicament which made the Delhi-Tundla-Kanpur ‘trunk segment’ as the most risk-prone. It also observed that with the reduction of time lapse between two trains as they cross the same point, possibilities of accidents soar up, like in the Delhi-Kanpur segment (with 20 per cent of the trains on this segment delayed by more than one hour) and the Ahmedabad-Surat segment where delays cause congestion, make the trains wait at the signals, and thus make the situation prone to accidents like derailments and collisions.

Second fiddle

Infrastructure-development has always been made to play second fiddle to demands of populism and building of a vote-bank, if one examines the treatment the railway ministers – right from the railway minister in the 1990s ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury to the successive ministers like Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mamata Banerjee (particularly instructive was her expulsion of Dinesh Trivedi who dared to hike passenger fares) – meted out to the fourth-largest railway network of the world that – by dint of a creaking system plagued by delays, overcrowding and slow freight delivery times – can hardly hope to service Asia’s third-largest economy.

The ministers simply refuse to accept that as the largest transport PSU in the country it cannot be made to suffer from low investment and political meddling saddled as it is with its own problems of debt and revenue methods. To them, exigencies of local constituencies get precedence over economic justification. Thus while more trains continue to be added to the constituencies of the respective ministers, and tracks and wagon factories continue to be laid in their home states, little attention is paid to infrastructure-building, the primary network of which was built before independence.

What could be the way out? Following a legacy of loss-making, Argentina in 1990 embarked on an ambitious privatisation programme, with the objective of reducing the financial burden of the railway system and split its fully integrated and centralised network into separate businesses for freight services, inter-city services, and metropolitan commuter rail services. In 1992, the British Rail was privatised and as per the new policy framework, operations got separated from infrastructure – while infrastructure, in its turn, got divided into fixed facilities (track, stations and yards etc.) and vehicles. While the passenger services were franchised through competitive bidding, freight services were sold to different private companies. The European Union (EU) adopted a string of packages starting from 2001 in order to shore up the infrastructure capacity of its railways, safety management, qualitative improvement of passenger rights and services.

Indian Railways operate on gigantic dimensions covering over 63,000 route kilometres with daily loading of 1.6 million tonnes of freight and daily transporting of 14 million  passengers (akin to moving the population of Australia every day) by logging more than 2 million train kilometres per day. In view of the enormous demographic load on the Indian Railways in general and the Dhamara Ghat station accident in particular – though Indian Railways has seen deadlier accidents in terms of casualties – it would be prudent to shelve projects like its hare-brained plans to have bullet trains, for which, as per a report, the government spoke to Japanese, French and German manufacturers to purchase six new trains, which are capable of running at speeds of up to 325 kilometres (202 miles) per hour.

For a country, where tracks – congested by newer and newer trains every year – are continuously invaded by stray cattle, humans (or elephants in forests) and where civic awareness is abysmally low, we cannot hope to have high-speed trains like Shanghai's Magrev, Japan's Bullet Train, and France's TGV, or Europe’s Thalys without committed tracks put in place.  Plagued by fire and arson, looting and rape, poison deaths, smuggling, human trafficking and runtime delays, Indian Railways is not exactly an adventurer’s delight. Not a year goes without a major accident taking place due either to a human error, or a technological glitch. Indian Railways needs a drastic overhaul to have its basics right, bullets trains can wait.