FinMin’s go-slow attitude on Rail Safety Fund puts passengers at risk

The Indian Railways has more than 68,000 km of tracks, about 12,800 trains and carry 24 million passengers a day. This wide reach in itself is the biggest concern for the ministry as a single flaw or an act of negligence or a sabotage could turn a train travel into a death ride.

Since Suresh Prabhu took charge as the minister of railways, he had given an additional emphasis on safety and stressed on a Rs 1,19,183 crore safety fund called the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh. However, the move has not got the finance ministry’s approval, and this, among others, has become a roadblock in removing the carrier’s safety bottlenecks. In addition to this, staff shortage of 0.12 million and the state of finances are also causes of concern for the Indian Railways.

Sunday’s accident in Kanpur district has again raised questions on the safety of rail passengers, bringing under the spotlight the corrective measures that have not been taken.

Of the accidents that the railways suffer annually, 87% are due to human failure — 44% due to the failure of railway staff and 43% due to the failure of others. 2% of the mishaps are due to equipment failure, 2% due to sabotage, 6% due to incidental factors and 3% are under investigation on labelled as causes could not be established.

Railway officials said a bulk of the accidents every year was due to the 6,000 un-manned level crossings. This has made critics stress that staff strength was a major cause of concern. “Of the 0.12 million vacant positions in the railways, 75% pertain to jobs ensuring safety. The government should fill up these vacancies as soon as possible,” tweeted Congress functionary Ahmed Patel, soon after the accident.

“The railways has a lot of safety issues,” Congress leader C P Joshi, who was railway minister for a brief stint under the United Progressive Alliance government, said. “Rather than looking for more speed, the government should take safety as an important priority, as accidents are increasing. There isn’t enough money to invest on safety aspects, like looking into the wear and tear of tracks. There is a question on whether track maintenance was done properly in this case. Can our tracks sustain the heavy load due to an increase in the number of goods trains?”

The railways had decided to increase the average speed of passenger trains by 5 km an hour every year and to run freight trains with 25-tonne axle load. These, experts said, should happen with strengthening of tracks and bridges and upgrading of the signalling system. The tracks now might not be able to take this load, they added.

Critics said the finance ministry’s go-slow mode with regard to the safety fund was affecting the railways. Out of the Rs 1,19,183 crore asked by the rail ministry for the safety fund, the finance ministry said it would fund Rs 1,11,683 crore. “Identified safety related works are related to track works, bridge rehabilitation, safety works at level crossings, replacement and improvement of signalling systems, improvement and upgrade of rolling stock, replacement of electrical assets and human resource development,” said Minister of State for Railways Rajen Gohain in a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha last week.

To add to that, the financial situation of the national carrier has worsened over the years, because of which the maintenance budget has also been affected, said Shanti Narayan, former member (traffic) of the Railway Board. “The political decision over the years to not go for a passenger fare hike is affecting the railways badly. It is suffering a loss of more than Rs 30,000 crore a year because of this.”

A high-level committee led by Anil Kakodkar had come out with a report on railway safety in February 2012 detailing 106 recommendations, covering safety, organisational structure and others. Sixty-eight recommendations were fully accepted, 19 partially accepted and 19 not accepted by the Ministry of Railways. So far, 22 recommendations of the committee have been implemented and 20 were in the final stages of implementation.

“It is this delay in implementation of these suggestions and the go-slow attitude on the safety fund that are leading to loss of lives,” said a former railway official, requesting anonymity.