Deadly Derailment of Two Trains presents the Sorry Dichotomy of India’s Rail Ambitions

A man-made tragedy?

The deadly derailment of two trains in Madhya Pradesh presents the sorry dichotomy that marks India’s rail ambitions: the inability to run a safe, dependable and comfortable railway system on the one hand, and aspirations to move to flashy bullet trains on the other. It may be argued that, prima facie, negligence on the part of the railways was not responsible for the horror that visited the Janta Express bound for Mumbai and the Kamayani Express proceeding to Varanasi.

Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu has said preliminary information pointed to floodwaters from a dam washing tracks away. If that is true, what becomes evident is the absence of a safety protocol to handle operations during extreme weather, particularly at vulnerable points such as bridges — of which there are over 35,000 that are over a hundred years old in the railway system. It is imperative that the government pays sufficient attention to the question, and institute a specialist safety agency of the kind suggested by the Kakodkar Committee, tasked with the preparation of a time-bound action plan to avert derailments and collisions. In the current year, up to June 2015, there have been 15 derailments, and the numbers have shown a rising trend over the last couple of years.

Though the minister of state for railways said it was an act of nature many questions are being asked, one of them being whether the tragedy was manmade. Indian Railways does not have a good track record with regard to maintenance. Nothing much seems to have changed on this score since the new government came in; there has been more talk of wi-fi and five-star packaged food and other such amenities. Some of the people interviewed at the site said the government focuses only on trains like the Shatabdi and Rajdhani, patronised by the well-off, and “leaves the others to God”. If there is any truth in this, the rail minister should change this perception. Till then we have to wait to know, especially about when these particular tracks were last examined.

As the national mobility lifeline — used heavily by the ‘uncomplaining millions’ as Mahatma Gandhi called less affluent passengers — it is vital for the railways to make safety the top operational priority. The Kakodkar Committee concluded that with constant pressure on finances, maintenance of infrastructure has been hit. To serve the objective better, the mechanism to review safety should be made statutorily independent. Design of coaches plays an important part in reducing death and disability due to accidents; India’s train coaches, however, are far from modern, leave alone being world-class; they require a paradigm shift in terms of ergonomics, use of materials and build quality. In a fast-developing country with an enormous reserve of manpower, modernising on a short time-scale should not be difficult.

On the question of safety, it needs to be emphasised that the railways cannot exist in a vacuum. State governments must bear responsibility for the safety and monitoring of the physical terrain through which trains run, and be prepared to handle disasters. The decision to release water from a dam, for instance, cannot be taken without heed to the downstream consequences. Again, accident victims must have access to medical facilities. But, prolonged neglect of the public health system in most States offers little hope that things can be turned around quickly. These derailments once again turn the spotlight on many things that are wrong and need urgent attention.