Given the Kakodkar panel observations on how unsafe the Railways are, coupled with falling funds for depreciation, it does appear a cash-strapped public carrier is crimping on safety, the result of which has been three major accidents in the last two months resulting in over 190 deaths already—while this narrative may be partially true, the possibility of sabotage can’t be ruled out either. While talking of needing Rs 1 lakh crore for safety needs, the Kakodkar panel had said as far back as 2012 that, thanks to the increased axle load, even the 60 kg/m rails were fully stressed, and it was “not prudent to use 52 kg/m rails in Indian Railways”; it went on to add there were 43,000 ICF coaches that “are no more safe at the present operational speeds”. Forget augmenting safety, funds allocated to the Depreciation Reserve Fund fell from Rs 7,775 crore in FY15 to Rs 3,200 crore in FY17. With the political dispensation doing little about the annual Rs 30,000+ crore passenger subsidies, one big casualty in the process of cutting expenses has been safety staff—according to a report in The Times of India, there are 1.42 lakh safety posts vacant right now.
Since the finance ministry cannot possibly create the R1 lakh+ crore safety fund Railway minister Suresh Prabhu has been asking for, eventually he and prime minister Narendra Modi need to take this call on passenger subsidies versus safety—till Railway revenues increase enough, the trade-off is a reality. But while the Railways is not spending enough on safety, its overall capex has increased substantially over the last couple of years. If this money is available for other areas but not for safety overhaul, the reason is that funds borrowed commercially have to generate a high rate of return—such as for line expansion—and safety projects fail to cross the hurdle in pure RoE terms.
It would, however, be naïve to think just in terms of throwing more capex at safety—it is not clear that more track inspectors could detect each problem. What is required is more holistic planning of the type modern railway networks do. This includes, like GE does with US railroad Norfolk Southern Corporation, using electronics to decide what speed the train must travel at, keeping in mind track and other conditions. Using modern technology and systems means sensors and cameras, including on drones, to do 24×7 scanning of tracks and engines/wagons and feeding information to a central control system in order to do preventive and even predictive maintenance. Moving to a network like this, of course, would require the existing Railway hierarchy to be completely shaken up, something Prabhu has been trying to do unsuccessfully so far—delays in implementation of safety devices are one result of the problem, and getting more PPP projects can mean significantly higher revenues which can be used for safety projects as well. Now that he will not be distracted by the need to increase more passenger subsidies/trains, he needs to focus closely on this—with the PM’s full support.