Railways should focus on safety

The Indian Railways’ poor safety record is being further tarnished by more and more accidents at frequent intervals. Some of them have resulted in a high number of casualties, too. The derailment of the Jagdalpur-Bhubaneswar Hirakhand Express in Vizianagaram district in Andhra Pradesh on Saturday resulted in the death of 41 people. This was the third major accident in the past two months. An accident near Kanpur in November had taken over 150 lives. There were also incidents like that involving the Jhelum Express in October when an accident was narrowly averted because of sheer luck. After every accident, statements are issued by the minister and railway authorities promising better safety measures in future. Enquiries are conducted to identify the reasons and to fix responsibility for the accidents. However, accidents continue to take place. Eighty major accidents took place last year against 69 in 2015.

The Railways is trying to increase the speed of trains and to introduce bullet trains in the country. Experts from a few foreign countries have recently surveyed railway tracks for running high speed trains. But one of the basic functions of the Railways, which is to ensure the safety of passengers, is ignored. There are still many unmanned level crossings where accidents occur frequently. Tracks and coaches are not in good condition and are not maintained and repaired regularly. Rail fracture is a major reason for derailments but track inspections are not done efficiently. According to reports, there are not enough gang men to do the inspections and they are not well-supervised in their work. There are 1.43 lakh vacancies of security staff that remain unfulfilled. The depreciation reserve fund, which is used to replace aged assets, is actually diminishing. It is not because of lack of ideas that security is being hit. Many committees have gone into various aspects of the functioning of the Railways. They have made valuable suggestions to improve safety levels and to modernise the Railways. High investment is needed. The Kakodkar panel put it at Rs 1 lakh crore in 2012.

Adequate funds for investment have to be found and all aspects of the functioning of the Railways have to be improved. Its place is unique as infrastructure and as a public utility. Safety is the first requirement of a mass transport system. It does not help to blame the Pakistani ISI or the Maoists for the accidents. The Railways’ priorities need to be reoriented and the organisation should be better managed and administered. Rather than serving the fancies of high-end passengers with bullet trains, it should aim to meet the basic needs of ordinary passengers.

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