Over 40 people were injured today after 15 coaches of the Ajmer-Sealdah Express derailed near the Rura railway station in Kanpur dehat district. This is the second major train accident in a span of one month. Recently, over 150 people were killed and several others injured when the 14 coaches of the Indore-Patna Express derailed in Kanpur Rural district in November. At a time when Suresh Prabhu-led Indian Railways is looking to radically reform and transform the institution, such incidents raise severe questions on what is being done to make rail travel safer.
What should the priority areas of Indian Railways be? Are enough steps being taken to ensure that passengers are able to complete their train journey without such incidents happening? The Ministry of Railways has recently decided to revise the amounts of compensation payable in respect of death & injuries to the passengers involved in accidents and untoward incidents. And, while Indian Railways has introduced a Rs 10 lakh railway insurance scheme that can be availed for just 0.92 paise at the time of booking your ticket, shouldn’t more emphasis be put on trying to prevent a mishap? FE Online asked Railway experts, and most of them stressed on the need to invest in upgrading outdated infrastructure and rolling stock.
Akhileshwar Sahay, Adviser at Feedback Infra and a renowned railway expert suggests that Indian Railways has to at first develop a culture of zero tolerance and drive this culture down to the lowest person. “Apart from this, Railways should immediately implement all the recommendations of the Anil Kakodkar Committee that do not require much investment. For one, there was a recommendation of setting up a rail safety architecture similar to that of British Rail. The British Rail is considered to the safest in the world,” Sahay tells FE Online.
“Let the central government pay the entire bill of whatever safety upgradation is done. Railways should not pay for it. Also, one has to take away all the social obligations of Indian Railways, price it transparently. Zero announcements should be made for new trains, you need the spares first,” he says, adding that that most important bit is to ensure organisational accountability from the highest to the lowest level. “There has to be a complete decimation of the silos within railways, and that is something that Mr Prabhu has also promised,” he says.
Professor G. Raghuram at IIM-Ahmedabad, and an expert on Indian Railways believes that multiple things require attention when it comes to making rail travel safer. “The most important is track assessment. We need to check the quality and condition of the tracks and the use of advanced technology needs to be integrated. We are far behind in terms of adapting and using technology. Today, the technology should be so advanced that trains should be able to detect the condition of tracks ahead,” he tells FE Online. “Why should it require people to physically go and check tracks?” he asks. “Also, the quality of rolling stock needs to be assessed. Rolling stock needs to be maintained and new ones need to replace the ageing coaches. Apart from this, signalling systems need to be upgraded, better technology needs to be used,” he advises.
Agrees, Abhaya Agarwal, Partner and PPP leader, Ernst Young India, who is of the view that Indian Railways should spend at least Rs 50,000 crore every year to upgrade infrastructure. “There is immediate need to remove the dust on the Sam Pitroda report (on railway modernisation) and create a time bound plan for investment in infrastructure and safety. That should be the main focus area,” he tells FE Online. According to Agarwal, “there are a lot of announcements being made, but very little of that has to do with upgrading infrastructure and rehabilitation. We need to put in public domain a concrete plan for railway infrastructure, both in terms of new and upgradation of old one.” “There are a lot of bridges that are being used beyond their life, we need to replace tracks, focus on signalling and advanced warning systems. Overall, I believe that the government needs to spend at least Rs 50,000 crore every year just to upgrade and modernise the existing infrastructure,” he adds.
Shri Prakash, former Railway Board member wonders which direction Indian Railways is heading in. “Railways is drifting away right now, there is not much sense of direction. Passenger traffic is falling and revenue generation is also not good. On top of that these accidents,” he laments. “I think Indian Railways needs to maintain the rolling stock and bring in new coaches. That is the most important factor to ensure safety in my view,” he says.
In his Railway Budget 2016 speech, Suresh Prabhu spoke of the the “Mission Zero Accident”. The mission involves two things; elimination of unmanned level crossings and introduction of TCAS (Train Collision Avoidance System). The TCAS is an indigenous technology and Railways plans to equip 100% of the High Density Network with it in the next 3 years. Railways has also initiated a proposal to install TRI-NETRA systems on locomotives for enhancing the vision of Locomotive Pilots in inclement weather. But even as all these steps are taken, there is little doubt that much more needs to be done by Indian Railways to get its act together in terms of rail safety, and urgently too.