The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Indian engineers put Britain back on the rails
- A dozen work for three weeks on signalling boxes to return a colonial favour

London, Aug. 13: India has sent 12 mechanical engineers to carry out specialist restoration and maintenance work on five Victorian railway signalling boxes in Stockport in the Manchester area because of a shortage of skilled staff in the UK.

The dozen engineers, who are due to fly back home this week after working alongside their English colleagues for three weeks, have been imported by Network Rail.

The cost of getting them over is put at £40,000 but their skills were necessary to sort out the signalling, without which a £8-billion upgrade of the West Coast main line would have been held up.

Today, the tabloid Daily Express, which is not known for its sympathetic coverage of India — or any other foreign country or foreigners for that matter — made the import of the Indian engineers its main front-page story, with the headline “Indian Workers Fly In To Fix Our Railways: Only they can mend the ancient signal boxes”.

The word “Our” is underlined. Several interpretations can be put on this headline, as follows.

Aren’t we lucky that Indian engineers, who are the best in the world, have found time to help us out'

How dare engineers from a poor, starving, corrupt Third World country interfere with the marvellous railway system of a country which was kind enough to give India its railway system in the first place'

Are we now as bad as India' Is the equipment we use so dilapidated that only the Indians, who obviously have similar stuff, can remember how these darned things can be fixed'

Most readers of the Daily Express, a once great newspaper which now has half the circulation of its rival, the Daily Mail, would tick the third.

Inside, to give its readers an image of what Indian railways are like, the paper prints a photograph of a passenger train where the entire population of the region seems to be clinging to the outside.

In case, there are doubts about the message which the Daily Express is trying to get across, it quotes Louise Ellman, the Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, who is a member of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee.

“This is a very sad commentary on the state of affairs in the UK and we need to take drastic action so we can provide the railways with the level of expertise they need,” she said. “Network Rail should be investing now to train up our engineers to do the repair work needed.”

A spokesman for Network Rail said today: “The workers were drafted in to ensure there were adequate resources to complete the work on time and to minimise disruption to the travelling public. Due to a shortage of specialist mechanical engineers in the UK, NR sourced the best possible staff available to carry out the job. In this case, they were from India.”

This is an English way of saying the best could only be found in India. The spokesman added: “NR and the rail industry are carrying out many initiatives to address the skill shortage, including the setting up of a foundation degree in railway engineering, apprenticeship schemes and a graduate training scheme.”

The Indian engineers have been repairing 19th century signal boxes. They are made of rods and levers and regulate traffic on the all-important West Coast line that links London with the northwest.

The boxes were to have been replaced by one “super box” but the old equipment had to be brought back into service when its hi-tech substitute failed to work on one section.

The Daily Express pointed out that India’s 67,000-mile rail network carries 13 million passengers a day and that on average there are 300 accidents a year.

To be fair, the paper also quoted John Thurso, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on transport, who remarked generously about the work of the 12 engineers: “I suppose this is a great tribute to Indian engineering.”

Indian newspaper readers might also appreciate a multiple-choice question:

1. Can we have a safety record as bad as Britain’s'

2. Can lavatories in Indian trains, the problem of ticketless travel, cleanliness of stations, etc. be no better than Britain’s'

3. While we are dispatching Indian engineers abroad, can we also send our railway minister Laloo Prasad Yadav to advise the British'

The minister is quoted by the Daily Express as saying that “safety on trains was the responsibility of Lord Vishwakarma, the Hindu God of Machines”.

Here, too, the Brits can’t match their erstwhile subjects.

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