DC Debate: Making trains safer, and faster...

Deccan Chronicle.

Opinion, Op Ed

Given the Indian Railways’ safety record, high-speed trains shouldn’t be its priority.

Rescue and relief works underway at the accident site where Utkal Express train derailed at Khatauli near Muzaffarnagar. (Photo: PTI)

Rail mishap a man-made disaster: Ashish Dua

If one looks at the recent rail accident in Muzaffarnagar’s Khatauli, it was a man-made disaster. It could have easily been avoided if the Railways took more care about the needs of its current infrastructure. Instead of making tall poll promises about bullet trains, the government should first improve its safety record. We see major PR exercises by the Indian Railways, with TV channels invited to cover the trial runs of high-speed trains, but it can’t keep its existing tracks safe.

The current government is more interested in optics than concrete work. In a reply to parliamentary question, the railway ministry has said it’s working on six high-speed train corridors. It adds that if we leave aside escalation, the per km cost of bullet trains on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor is Rs 140 crore and the entire project will cost about a whopping Rs 97,636 crore. The answer also states the ticket cost on this corridor will be 1.5 times of AC First Class fare. If we do the approximate calculation, a ticket on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train will cost Rs 2,800, minus escalation. An air ticket now costs about Rs 1,500. Instead of locking up such investment for almost five years, the Railways would do better to improve the infrastructure.

We have one of the world’s largest rail networks, comprising 115,000 km of track over 67,312 km and 7,112 stations. In 2015-16, the Indian Railways carried 8.101 billion passengers annually, or over 22 million passengers a day, and 1.107 billion tons of freight in the year. It is the main source of transport for ordinary people to reach longer distances.

Derailments are mostly caused by “rail fractures” during extreme summer and foggy winter conditions due to the expansion/contraction of tracks. Progress on track renewal and signalling upgrade plans have been slow. In contrast to the need to construct 5,000 km of new lines each year, a target of only 2,700 km has been set in this year’s Budget.

The cost of rail travel is now the highest since Independence, but the quality of service and security of tracks is at its lowest. Train fares have gone up 70 per cent, and there have been 27 major accidents and 259 deaths since May 2014. Figures also indicate underinvestment in track safety. On the other hand, the government is busy selling dreams about bullet trains and high-speed trains.

It has been five years since the Anil Kakodkar Committee submitted its recommendations on the safety aspects of Indian Railways, and had these been implemented in any meaningful way, such tragedies would not have occurred.
This government is all about optics. The Railway Budget was merged with the General Budget this year, but what difference has that made? We can see there is no difference at the ground level. There is an urgent need to lay new tracks as the present ones are overused, and there is too much pressure on them. Once again in the Budget this year, the government announced no new trains.

The reason given was the money saved will be used to augment the infrastructure. But there has been no improvement. Hence it is imperative the government ensures the existing tracks are augmented and new tracks are put in place, instead of going in for election gimmicks.

The writer is an AICC member.

Keep away bureaucratic constraints: Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Choosing between fast, modern trains and safe travel is a false binary. The populist, Luddite approach of slowing down the speed of trains, to avoid mishaps, is like asking car owners to go back to Ambassadors to reduce the risk of accidents by traveling slower. Technology allows you to travel both faster and safer. The Indian Railways compete with other means of transport like road and air. It must provide the expected level of speed, convenience, comfort and safety which comparable transport option embed. It has failed to do that, thereby losing marketshare to road transport over the last two decades.

Just as high-speed highways and the growing network of air routes has changed the way Indians travel, the Railways must also offer a bouquet of services to suit the differentiated needs of specific routes and category of customers. High-speed, premium railway transport on high-density routes radiating out from the hubs of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai can transform travel by rail. Similarly, the rapid expansion of metro lines is a smart option to reduce the urban carbon footprint and road congestion.

None of this — speed, safety or security — is possible, unless we step up investment in Indian Railways. We cannot manage the 108,000 km of track and 11,000 trains which run daily, by jugaad, penny pinching, dodgy maintenance schedules and techniques, antiquated rolling stock, poorly trained and equipped personnel and management systems, which have not changed since the first train ran in 1853.

Indian Railways must be corporatised so that it can shine like other public-sector companies like National Thermal Power Corporation, Indian Oil Corporation and Steel Authority of India. This is impossible as a government department because the administrative and financial rules are unsuited to the dynamics of running a business.

Railway tariff cannot be subject to politics. The same passenger who has no problem paying Re 1 per km for bus travel between cities pays just 28 paise per km of second class, rail travel and 45 paise per km in reserved sleeper class. Suburban rail travellers pay just 18 paise per km. This is an unsustainable and unnecessary subsidy, undeservedly enjoyed, mostly by the middle class. Rail tariff for non-AC travel must be increased to remunerative levels, thereby generating funds for improving the quality of services.

Despite these formidable institutional constraints, IR’s safety record is far better than that of road. Going by National Crime Records Bureau data for 2014, road travel killed 141,526 people and injured 477,700 others in 450,900 accidents. In comparison, rail travel killed 25,006 people and injured 3,882 others in 28,360 accidents. Of these, 62 per cent of rail accidents related to people error — either falling from trains or getting run over on the tracks. Rail accounts for around 20 per cent of inter-city travel but only 15 per cent of fatalities and less than one per cent of injuries, making it safer than road travel. Even a single death is one too many. But the way to minimise accidents is to infuse the latest technology across the service delivery chain – track development and maintenance; signaling; rolling stock; communication; disaster relief and management systems. None of this can happen unless Indian Railways is set free from the bureaucratic constraints which bind down its management cadres today.

The writer is adviser, Observer Research Foundation.

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