The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The white paper entitled, “Safety on the Indian Railways”, tabled recently on the floor of the Lok Sabha, proudly claimed that there had been a drastic fall in the number of accidents per million kilometres. The total number of railway accidents four decades ago stood at 2,131. In 2002-03, the figure dropped to 414 — 30 collisions, 280 derailments, 88 level-crossing accidents and 8 fires. The performance is even more commendable if we consider the fact that traffic density, during this period, shot up from 388 to 756 million-train kilometres.

However, this performance begins to seem less impressive when compared with that of the Japanese railway system — one of the more advanced railway networks in the world. Japan which, with 773 million train-kilometres, has a level of train traffic comparable to India’s, has had no collisions either in 1999 or 2000. The number of derailments were restricted to 6 in 1999 and 13 in 2000. Over 70 per cent of rail accidents on the Indian Railways have human failure as the reason behind them.

The impeccable safety record of the Japanese railway workers can be attributed to a set of factors. They are inducted in the system strictly on merit; they undergo a rigorous training schedule and have their commitment and capability to perform monitored at regular intervals. In addition, they have, over the years, developed state-of-the art technology to improve the reliability of their rolling stock, track and signalling equipment. The emergence of a computer-aided system has eliminated the probability of human errors to a very large extent. This has enhanced the safety of the Japanese railway system and the numbers of fatal accidents have dropped.

The Indian Railways, on the other hand, has not had as much success in upgrading technology on account of inadequate resources — both financial and human, as well as poor and half-hearted research and development efforts. Recently, the Union minister for railways, Nitish Kumar, announced a grand “corporate safety plan” which promises to reduce the number of rail accidents by 50 per cent by 2013. Like the first ever committee to address the problem of rail-safety under the chairmanship of H.N. Kunzru, which was constituted more than four decades ago, this too may result in more paper work, but with no effective results.

The motto of our people’s representatives seems to be, “Whenever in doubt, don’t”, or rather, “Whenever in doubt, form a committee”. Bureaucrats can easily rustle up 400 pages of impressive prose, full of facts and figures, garnered preferably from more than one source, to make a road map for the next few years, if not a whole decade. Sadly, by the time their prescription is implemented, those involved will perhaps have hung up their boots and the report itself would have become history. The immediate fallout of forming such a committee, of course, is that the intensity of the attack from the political opposition is blunted and the problem relegated to the back burner for the time.

The bureaucrats on the railway board are not very keen on adopting short-term goals that can be achieved within a couple of years, the efficacy of their suggestions fully tested before implementing them on a long-term basis. The last such safety committee was set up in 1998 and was headed by a retired judge, H.R. Khanna. He was assisted in his task by 4 ex-railwaymen, 2 members of Parliament, a professor from the Indian Institute of Technology and last, but not the least, a former chief commissioner of railway safety.

The deliberations that went on for over 3 years included a number of visits to major railway systems in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States of America and Japan. Scores of serving and retired officers were interviewed and their valuable suggestions incorporated in the two volume report that consisted of over 300 pages. The committee ended up making no less than 278 recommendations of which only 40 have been accepted so far.

Of course, the recommendation for the provision of a Rs 15,000 crore fund for a special “over-aged asset replacement programme” was accepted in toto by the finance ministry and endorsed by the prime minister last year.

The Japanese railway’s superb track record has been the result of a well thought-out investment policy, devoid of a populist approach. Soon after World War II, which laid to waste most of the Japanese industry and economy, the railways were identified as the main driving force behind Japan’s economic development. Within a couple of decades, the famous Tokaido line from Tokyo to Osaka was opened with the first ever 300-kilometres-per-hour trains running on dedicated lines. Since then the Japanese have become world leaders in rail transport technology. Money was wisely invested in projects that would bring long-term benefits to the society at large and not with the sole objective of winning the next round of elections.

Given the political compulsions of the ministers of the present government who face elections in the near future, and who are already falling over each other to publicize their respective success stories, Nitish Kumar can no longer afford to point fingers at agencies other than the railways for its non-performance in the vital area of safety in train operations. Some hard decisions, including a total freeze on new projects, new trains and other populous hand-outs, would have to be taken while resources, both financial and human, are mobilized to plug all safety loop holes. Time is running out for the railways minister who will have to honour his commitments if he is to recover his plunging credibility levels.

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