It is ironic that at a time when the Railways is spending the most in its history on capex—including safety—it should becoming under such a cloud thanks to the derailment of the Kalinga-Utkal Express near Khatauli in Uttar Pradesh on Friday in which more than 20 people have died. Though the Railways action of suspending very senior officers and even asking the Railway Board’s Member-Engineering to go on leave pending an inquiry into the accident is unprecedented, years of neglect and running down of systems has meant safety standards in the national carrier are quite poor, largely due to extreme congestion of the network. A recording of a purported conversation—FE has not been able to verify its authenticity independently and the Railway ministry is not sure either—between the assistant station manager (ASM) of Khatauli and the Railway Controller, reported in FE today, makes this clear. In the conversation, the ASM is heard telling the Controller that the maintenance team wants 20 minutes to ‘change a glue joint’ but the Controller says there are too many trains scheduled to use the track to allow that. While the inquiry committee will look at the authenticity of the recording and other facts, there is enough evidence to show glaring gaps in safety.
The sad history of neglect has meant that while Railway safety has improved under Suresh Prabhu, it remains far from good. Around 115 accidents per year in the last three years may be less than UPA-2’s 135 or UPA-1’s 207, but with 652 fatalities in the last three years, the record is decidedly poor. And while Prabhu has done well to eliminate over 4,200 unmanned level crossings—around 40% of accidents and 60% of fatalities in the past have been due to accidents on such crossings—the number of derailments has gone up as our page-1 story points out. 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.
Shortage of funds is less of a constraint under Prabhu—safety expenditure is up from Rs 34,000 crore per year during UPA-2 to Rs 54,000 crore under NDA—and a Rs 1 lakh crore safety fund, to be mainly funded from the general budget, has just been created for the next five years. Safety, however, is not just fixing tracks, it involves replacing/retrofitting the existing stock of 40,000 ICF coaches (that’s two-thirds of all coaches), etc, and inculcating a safety culture—the parliamentary committee has come down heavily on the practice of running trains at lowered speeds on tracks that are not renewed in time; the Railways told the committee that heavy congestion compromised its ability to maintain tracks.
Apart from increased safety spending, a large part of the problem will be taken care of once the two Dedicated Freight Corrridors 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. In this context, it is wrong to juxtapose the situation as wasting money on bullet trains vs fixing safety for ordinary trains—you can argue on whether the bullet train is viable, but it is being funded by the Japanese government and, if it is not to be built, it is not as if the money will be available to the Railways to spend on, say, safety.