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Safety promises sacrificed at populism altar

New Delhi, Feb. 26: Railway minister Nitish Kumar talked about safety and improved passenger amenities, but went ahead and lopped off allocations on safety-related projects.

A quick peek at the numbers reveals that the railways have reduced allocations in several areas a natural outcome of preparing a populist budget as the government goes into poll mode.

For instance, the budgetary allocation in 2003-04 for road safety works at level crossings has come down to Rs 120 crore from Rs 125 crore in this fiscal.

The railways have been indicted in several inquiry reports for accidents due to the poor state of tracks. Allocations for track renewals have come down from Rs 3,516.50 crore to Rs 3,391 crore. Rs 313 crore have been set aside for safety work for roads, which are over or under bridges, down from Rs 325 crore this fiscal.

Allocations for signalling and telecommunication works, which is regarded a cornerstone of any safety improvement programme, has come down by as much as Rs 23 crore to Rs 704 crore in 2003-04 from Rs 727.05 crore in this fiscal.

Railway ministers usually face flak on two occasions: when they raise fares and when there is a train accident. This time Nitish Kumar has taken care of the first by coming out with one of the most populist railway budgets in recent memory.

In the second area, he has tried to wriggle out of a sticky safety record by offering to come out with a white paper covering the issues involved in safety in train operations which, he said, would be presented during the budget session.

On top of the agenda is to install anti-collision devices on major train routes. This is an intelligent micro-processor-based equipment, which has been indigenously developed by Konkan Railways.

The device can be installed in locomotives, brake vans, stations and level-crossing gates. Field trials of this device have been completed and deployment of the equipment has already started. It is proposed to carry out anti-collision device survey of 10,000 route km and provide the devices over an additional 1,750 route km.

Continuous track circuiting is also being implemented at selected sections of some of the routes at a cost of Rs 425 crore in this budget. The measure is for detection of discontinuities caused by rail or weld fracture or acts of sabotage.

To minimise injuries during rail travel, coaches will be re-designed without any sharp corners in the interior by padding up vulnerable areas, the railway minister said. Tight lock couplers will also be gradually introduced to prevent coaches from climbing over each other in the event of a collision.

The special railway safety fund, which stood at Rs 2,210 crore for the current year, has been increased by Rs 100 crore in the revised estimates.

The railway minister said action had also been taken to initiate underwater inspection and computerised non-destructive testing with state-of-the-art equipment as part of plans to introduce a modern bridge management system.

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