Though the railway ministry has been sharply focused on increasing capital expenditure over the last two years, the tragic Indore-Patna Express accident where 142 of the 200 injured have already died—this is the deadliest tragedy since 2010—brings the focus back to where it should always have been, on railway safety. Naturally, man-made error cannot be ruled out but, as the Anil Kakodkar report brought out in 2012, very large assets of the Railways are in very poor shape, leaving open the possibility of an accident at any point in time. While the Kakodkar panel gave a figure of R1 lakh crore for the railways’ safety needs, it added that, thanks to the increased axle load, even the 60 kg/m rails are fully stressed, it was “not prudent to use 52 kg/m rails in Indian Railways”—though the enquiry committee will finally determine what the cause of the derailment was, the junior railway minister’s first comments suggested it was the result of a fracture in the tracks. Certainly, more regular inspection of the tracks may have caught the fracture—if there was a fracture—but from what Kakodkar’s report said, the problem seemed to be endemic. Kakodkar then went on to add that there were 43,000 ICF coaches that “are no more safe at the present operational speeds”.
Though it is true the railway minister had been pushing the finance ministry for a R1.2 lakh crore safety fund, even he knows the ministry does not have anywhere near the resources needed. In any case, it was up to the Railways to try and generate as much of this money. The Railways lose upwards of R30,000 crore a year on passenger carriage and surely it should have been attempting to reduce this in order to be able to spend more towards the fund it expected the finance ministry to hand to it on a platter; indeed, the losses on the consumer side force the Railways to overcharge on the freight side which, in turn, have lowered its ability to earn more from the freight sector. Ultimately, unless the Railways starts becoming a viable enterprise, its ability to spend on safety will always remain constrained.