Heads continue to roll following two major railway accidents within five days (about 100 people were injured in the Kaifiyat Express accident on Wednesday). Railway Board chairman AK Mittal resigned on Wednesday and railway minister Suresh Prabhu is likely to be axed in the impending Cabinet reshuffle. After meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Prabhu tweeted, “I met the Hon’ble Prime Minister @narendramodi taking full moral responsibility. Hon’ble PM has asked me to wait.” One possibility, CNBC-TV18 speculated, is that the PM may go in for an omnibus transport ministry with Nitin Gadkari heading it. In a statement that can only be seen as confirming Prabhu’s exit, finance minister Arun Jaitley said accountability was a good system, adding, though, that the decision on Prabhu’s offer to quit would be taken by the prime minister. Though railway accidents and fatalities have come down dramatically during Prabhu’s tenure, what may do him in is the casual attitude that led to the Kalinga-Utkal Express accident on Saturday near Khatauli in Uttar Pradesh. Soon after the accident, as FE reported exclusively, recordings surfaced of purported conversations between the assistant station manager at Khatauli and the controller who authorises train movements in the area.
The former is heard telling the latter that the track inspectors want the railway lines to be shut for 15-20 minutes so that they can carry out repairs on the track, but the controller says this cannot be done because they are too many trains lined up to cross that stretch. While poor maintenance of tracks is one thing, the recordings — which the railways have neither confirmed nor denied — show a blatant disregard for safety. Suspending senior officials and even asking the Railway Board’s member, engineering, to go on leave was supposed to signal tough action. Clearly, this was not enough and, on Wednesday, the Railway Board chairman also put in his papers.
Ashwani Lohani, Air India’s CMD, has been appointed the next chairman of the Railway Board. Rajiv Bansal has been given the additional charge of the Air India CMD post for a period of three months or further orders. Bansal is currently additional secretary and financial adviser in the ministry of petroleum and natural gas. While Prabhu quitting will be in the highest traditions of taking responsibility, what is ironic is that casualties/accidents have come down under his tenure, and the spending by the railways — overall capex as well as on safety — has also gone up significantly. Accidents are down to around 115 per year in the last three years versus UPA-2’s 135 and UPA-1’s 207 and, at 652, fatalities are down from UPA-2’s 938 and UPA-1’s 759. While accidents at unmanned level crossings fell significantly in Prabhu’s tenure (from 52 in FY13 to 20 in FY17), the number of derailments rose (from 49 to 76).
Under Prabhu, safety expenditure is up to Rs 54,000 crore per year compared with Rs 34,000 crore per year during UPA-2 — a Rs 1 lakh crore safety fund, to be mainly funded from the general budget, has just been created for the next five years. Despite this, however, as the report of the Lok Sabha committee on track upgradation and modernisation points out, while the railways need to upgrade 4,000-5,000 km of track every year, less than 2,500 km was upgraded in FY17. Extreme congestion on tracks has been cited by the railways in its reply to the committee as a factor that makes such upgrading difficult. Apart from more funds at his disposal, Prabhu’s successor — should he be dropped — will have it easier once the two dedicated freight corridors start functioning — half will be functional by December 2018, the full length by March 2020 — since this will reduce congestion on existing tracks and allow more time for planned maintenance.