The horrific rail mishap at Kanpur shows up once again the yawning gap between the Indian Railway authority’s ambitions and the creaking infrastructure on the ground. Prime Minister rendra Modi has made no secret of his dream to have an efficient rail network befitting India's rising economic status. But his government is faced with an unenviable choice — should it go for a high-speed railway running on higher capacity, or should it first tighten up on the security aspect? Either way, it will cost big money and much time. Sunday morning’s disaster has claimed the lives of 146 passengers while leaving over 200 injured; while prima facie, 14 bogies of the Indore-Pat Express went off the rails, other possible angles like sabotage or faulty bogies are reportedly being investigated. Since derailment accounts for over half the number of rail accidents in the country, it is being speculated that the tracks may have fractured due to temperature fluctuation typical to colder November nights, or heavier train loads. After all, Railway authorities have raised the average speed of passenger trains by 5 km per hour every year and are running freight trains with 25-tonne axle load. Some experts have been warning that higher speed and capacity should be accompanied by tracks sufficiently strengthened to take the load, as well as better sigling system. The Opposition is now expectedly gunning after the NDA government for its ‘misplaced focus’ on running Spanish Talgo coaches at high speed and hankering for Japanese bullet trains. In the past six years, rail mishaps have claimed over 620 lives, the worst being the May 2010 disaster in Bengal in which some 170 passengers traveling by Gyaneshwari Express were killed. The perception has grown that Indian Railways simply lacks a disciplined safety culture, that there is no sensitivity and concern at all about lives being lost cheaply.
In 2012, the then Railways minister Dinesh Trivedi after accepting the Anil Kakodkar committee report on railway safety, had said in his rail budget speech that his focus would be “safety, safety, safety”, and there would be ‘zero tolerance’ of accidents. His strong emphasis on safety reflected some very harsh words used in the Kakodkar report, that the Railways had no practice of ‘independent safety regulation’, that it suffered from an ‘implementation bug’. It took serious issue with the running of unsafe coaches, lack of a standard list of safety components, and non-adherence to quality norms. Most of all, the report noted that not only 15,000 people got killed every year on average while crossing rail tracks, the casualty rate among railway employees too was quite high with 1,600 killed and 8, 700 injured in a 43-month period to October 2011. “No civilized society can accept such massacre on the railway system,” the report had remarked. Sadly, in a system where rail tracks have to be checked manually by an army of trackmen, it was found that more than 300 trackmen die every year across the country in the line of duty. Some of the key recommendations in this report are yet to be implemented, even though Railways minister Suresh Prabhu in the 2016 rail budget announced Mission Zero Accident to work on the safety front. The fact remains that a rail infrastructure covering more than 67,000 km of tracks, operating around 12,600 trains and carrying 2.3 crore passengers a day, needs a mega budget for its upgradation and safe running. Suresh Prabhu did ask for a Rs 1,19,183 crore rail safety fund this year, but the Fince ministry was ready to provide Rs 1,11,683 crore. With the political disinclition to raise fares, Rail Bhavan is battling a severe fund crisis. The expectation is that with the scheduled merging of the railway budget with the Union general budget from next year onwards, the Central government will take more responsibility to raise funds for the cash-strapped Railways. It should start with filling up vacancies in the rail safety wing, and push for technological solutions to detect track faults, make coaches safer, improve visibility and sigling, and ensure better track protection.