Speed up trains, but slowly, safely

Indian trains have never been famous for their speed, and even the best of them have enjoyed losing their fight against time. In fact, such a fight has hardly been put up by them, and this has not seemed unnatural in a country where the sense of time is not considered a strong point of the people. Machines cannot be blamed for following the world view of the men who make and run them, and so they have often taken it easy. But things are changing and the wheels on the tracks are set to quicken. The railways have decided to speed up about 700 trains and shorten their journey time, and some of them have already moved into the faster league. Some mail and express trains will be converted into super-fast trains, and other laggards will be made to mend their ways. The gain in travel time will be made more by reducing engine reversal timings and halt time in minor stations and by making improvements in the signalling system, than by speed increases. But these will together have the effect of increasing the average speed of the trains.

The speeding up of trains is welcome, but the exercise should not turn out to be another change being made without adequate preparation. A similar exercise was undertaken when Lalu Prasad Yadav was the railway minister. Railways even gained some revenue because when trains are upgraded, fares are also raised. When there is a plan to increase the speed of trains, the most important consideration should be the safety of passengers. The previous railway minister Suresh Prabhu had tried to improve the culture of the railways by introducing changes in many services but had overlooked the culture of safety that should have preceded them. The railways' focus was more on meeting the minister's demands than on ensuring the safety of passengers. A terrible price had to be paid for this with a series of accidents. The present minister, Piyush Goyal, must watch out against hurrying an unwilling and slow-moving mule called Indian Railways to satisfy the government's need to showcase speed. Passenger safety should get the topmost priority.

The accent on safety is not an argument against speed. But in a system where resources - both material resources like money and intangible assets like attention and efficiency - are scarce, they should not be misallocated and mismanaged to pursue aims which call for a thorough study and better preparatory work. Everybody wants to reach their destination early, but the railways has the responsibility of ensuring that they do so in one piece.

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