2017: Although Indian Railways grappled with Accidents, took efforts to improve Efficiency, Speed, Revenue & Safety

The year that saw the rail budget merged with the general budget, breaking a tradition that had been continuing since 1924, Indian Railways witnessed 63 train accidents in 2017, amid efforts to improve speed, revenue, safety and efficiency!

NEW DELHI: It was a challenging year for Indian Railways as it had to deal with a spate of accidents amid efforts to improve speed, revenue, safety and efficiency.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s grandiose plans for his bullet train project has taken off last year, 2017 won’t be remembered as a good year for the Indian Railways. The year saw a change of guard at the ministry – the third of the Modi government and the 11th in the past eight years – with Piyush Goyal replacing Suresh Prabhu in September after 20 people died due to the derailment of Puri-Haridwar Utkal Express.

The new railway minister spelt out his priorities in terms of passenger safety, non-fare options to increase revenue, fast-tracking investments and electrification of routes.

There was also a change at the top in the Railway Board and Ashwani Lohani took over as its Chairman in August.

Days after taking over, Lohani wrote a letter to the employees urging them to pitch in wholeheartedly to set right the “image perception” of the national transporter that it was facing at a critical juncture.

Lohani said Railways had suffered a “serious dent” in the recent past due to unfortunate incidents and mentioned the need to bring down its operating ratio by steps such as reducing expenditure and increasing freight loading.

Railways is the largest rail network in Asia and the world’s second-largest under one management and carries 23 million passengers daily. It is also the world’s largest employer under single management and has an estimated 130,000 employees.

The year also saw the rail budget being merged with the general budget, breaking a tradition that had been continuing since 1924.

The foundation stone was laid for the country’s first bullet train network on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route being built in collaboration with Japan that will cover the distance in just over two hours and is expected to have spin-offs, including new technology and skills.

The Railways have evolved a road map to increase speed of trains on some stipulated sectors that connect the metro cities as well as some state capitals.

It has also set a target to eliminate all unmanned level crossings by next year.

The challenges that Railways face include modernising the rolling stock such as locomotives and coaches, and reducing load of its sections running at above-line capacity (40 percent of Indian Railways’ 1,219 line sections are utilised beyond 100 percent).

Goyal has laid emphasis on mopping up internal resources and said that the national transporter was not looking at more funds in the 2018-19 budget as it is focused on monetising its own assets.

The Union Budget for 2017-18 pegged the Indian Railways’ capital expenditure at Rs 1.31 lakh crore, the highest ever in its history. Of this, gross budgetary support from the Finance Ministry was to the tune of Rs 55,000 crore.

According to an analysis done by IndiaSpend, a data journalism initiative, India’s death toll from train derailments in 2016-17 was the highest in a decade.

However, Railways’ own data says that “consequential train accidents” decreased from 107 to 104 in 2016-17 compared to the previous fiscal. It says that the number came down from 85 to 49 between April 1, 2017, and November 30, 2017, in comparison to the corresponding period last year.

The government had declared in 2015 that it will invest Rs 8.5 lakh crore in Indian railways to change the face of the sector. Goyal said earlier this year that railways is looking to invest about Rs 9.7 lakh crore in the next five years and this would help create 10 lakh job opportunities.

He also said that the ministry was reducing the time period for electrification of rail lines to save around Rs 10,000 crore per annum on fuel.

During the year, the railways introduced the country’s first semi-high speed fully AC train which has several modern facilities such as on-board LED TV, tea/coffee vending machine and bio-toilets.

The railways also started an SMS service about delayed trains with Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Tejasand Gatiman covered in the initial phase.

It also launced a new catering policy and initiated steps for 100 percent LED lighting at stations.

Under Project Swarn, 14 Rajdhani and 15 Shatabadi trains have been identified to significantly improve passenger experience.

If the efforts for a turnaround in the Railways yield results in the short term and there is boost to employment, it is likely to bring electoral dividends for the Narendra Modi government.

As many as 63 serious train accidents, leading to deaths and injuries, were reported between January 1, 2017, and November 30, 2017, or one accident in every five days, according to this reply to the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Parliament) on December 15, 2017.

Of these, 45 (71%) were derailments, 12 (19%) accidents at unmanned level crossings due to negligence of road vehicle users, four collisions, one due to fire in train and one at manned level crossing gate.

Indian Railways, the largest passenger system in the world with 23 million passengers every day, was hit by 78 derailments in 2016-17 with 193 people dead, the most in 10 years, IndiaSpend reported on August 22, 2017.

As many as 37 derailments have been reported in 2017-18 between April 1, 2017, and November 30, 2017, a 45 per cent decline compared to the corresponding period of the previous year (67 derailments), according to this reply to the Rajya Sabha on December 15, 2017.

Derailments accounted for 76% of all (49) consequential trains accidents in 2017-18.

Back-to-back train accidents in August 2017 led to the resignation of the then railway minister Suresh Prabhu, Business Today reported on September 3, 2017.

Nine train derailments were reported in 27 days over August and September, IndiaSpendreported on September 14, 2017.

Another tragic incident that struck the railways this year was the stampede on the railway foot over-bridge at Elphinstone station in Mumbai on September 29, 2017, which killed 23 people and left 38 injured. Heavy rains, crowd and confusion were the reasons for the mishap, a railway committee report said, The Hindu reported on October 11, 2017.

Mumbai’s local trains carry about 7.5 million passengers every day, packed, on average, to 2.6 times capacity, IndiaSpend reported on September 29, 2017. Such pressure on the commuter-rail system strains platforms, bridges–such as the one at Elphinstone Road where the stampede occurred–and other infrastructure as they struggle to cater to many times more commuters than they were designed for.

The final inquiry report into a major train accident in Khatauli in August blamed several officials, including a junior engineer, for the tragedy that killed 23 people, a senior Indian Railways official has said during the Divisional Railway Manager (Delhi Division) R.N. Singh’s inspectin at Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Khatauli railway stations on Saturday.

The DRM said the final report of the inquiry conducted by the Safety Commissioner into the tragedy had been submitted to the Railway Board.

On August 19, fourteen coaches of the Puri-Haridwar Utkal Express jumped the rails in Khatauli, nearly 40 km from Muzaffarnagar, killing 23 people and injuring more than 150.

On August 30, the Railway administration suspended 13 employees at the Khatauli station for lapses during duty hours.

Mr. Singh said the Railway Board was not considering withdrawing the action taken against the employees.