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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The five wise men came, they saw, heard and left a remedy for the troubles faced by the Indian Railways by saying that Rs 1 lakh crore is to be infused into the system. The high-level safety-review committee of the Indian Railways that made the recommendation consisted of some of the best brains of India: G.P. Srivastava of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, N. Vedachalam of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Sanjay Dhande of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and the Delhi Metro man, E. Sreedharan — all headed by Anil Kakodkar, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. After almost five months of labour, the committee has produced a 143-page magnum opus. Although the report suggests that the said Rs 1 lakh crore is to be spent over the next five years, it has left the Union railways minister, Dinesh Trivedi, grappling with the onerous task of getting the financial resources required to foot the bill.

Fortunately, one of the key recommendations — to revert back to the practice of asking officers mostly from the operating and technical services to man the 68 posts of the divisional railway manager for a period of not less than three years — will cost nothing. But it will go a long way in improving the monitoring of the existing safety practices. Similarly, a ban on the introduction of new trains till adequate capacity for operation and maintenance has been developed, a beefing up of the railways’ training facilities to minimize incidents of human failure that contributed to 42 per cent of the accidents over the last five years, and the setting up of a high-level safety authority will also cost the railways very little.

As in the previous accident review committees, vendors’ lobbies have been fairly active in this one too, trying to put their often expensive products on the directorate’s wishlist. The Kakodkar committee has considered these. However, a more detailed exercise needs to be conducted by the proposed safety authority in order to get the maximum value for the railways’ money.

For instance, the proposed allocation of Rs 20,000 crore for an automatic train protection system is meant to prevent accidents resulting from heavy fog, which had caused five major mishaps last year. However, this winter, strict adherence to the standing instruction of observing a speed limit of 15 kilometres per hour in foggy conditions may have resulted in a considerable slowing down of trains for a month or so, but they have successfully prevented such mishaps.

Similarly, Rs 50,000 crore is earmarked for the elimination of manned and unmanned level crossings, where accidents often take place. The loss of human life is entirely due to the negligence of road users, who cross the tracks unmindful of the approaching trains. So the states must be made to share half the cost, reducing the financial burden of the railways.

Other measures, like installing more weighbridges at key locations to check the overloading of wagons that often leads to derailments of goods trains, must be adopted by the proposed safety authority.