A veritable lifeline of the country , it is not often that Indian Railways gets pilloried. A serious train mishap would inevitably elicit public wrath as it did in the wake of the Khatauli accident taking a toll of 23 lives, besides injuries to more than hundred travellers on the fateful Kalinga Utkal Express, closely followed by injuries to yet another hundred passengers again in Uttar Pradesh, when the Azamgarh-Delhi Kaifiyat Express collided with a dumper in Auriya.
The gruesome Khatauli mishap prime facie ascribed to callous violation of mandatory operating procedure, in fact, signified dereliction of elementary duty, creeping sloth and indiscipline and systemic failure of, what has been Indian Railways’ celebrated tradition: coordinated team work. Although sudden sack or transfer of Railway Board member(s) is not unprecedented, it was as a rule effected for ‘unsatisfactory’ performance, perhaps never for an accident. Pending a detailed probe to be carried out by Commissioner of Railway Safety (under administrative control of Civil Aviation ministry), the swift and stern penal action by government would appear to signal not just its stated ‘zero-tolerance for unsafe rail operations’ but an indictment on pervasive perception of, and serious concern at, Indian Railways’ continued lacklustre performance. Having ordered the Member Engineering to proceed on virtually premature retirement and top zonal and divisional officers to go on leave immediately, the government has terminated the post-retirement reappointment of the Railway Board chief, to be replaced by Air India chief Ashwani Lohani, professionally a railway officer.
While the inquiry commissioned by Railways will establish the cause of the accident, safety is itself symptomatic of operational efficiency and discipline, to be viewed integral to all its operations. The wages of sin have indeed accumulated over a long time. The czars and czarinas presiding in Rail Bhawan have left the nation’s lifeline battered and bruised, while its seasoned top technocrats let it drift and wither. Buffeted by some myopic, if not maniac, policies, railways lost its very direction, its goal, and its opportunities. From its leadership of nation’s freight and passenger businesses, it kept plummeting to be only a peripheral player because of skewed, debilitating pricing structure; lopsided investments; selfishly advocating social service obligation instead of an unambiguous commitment for the Indian Railway to carry the nation’s goods and passengers optimally, efficiently and economically. It starved the system of essential capacity enhancement and of business opportunities.
Let the perspective be clear. Accidents can occur in any activity involving movement – be it a pedestrian crossing a road or a space-ship heading for the moon. Railways is a transport enterprise in which accidents have been happening ever since the day Stephenson’s Rocket mortally injured Huskisson, a Member of British Parliament, and the broadsides the Punch fired in its ‘Death And His Brother Sleep.’ Today, technologies enable fatality-free rail travel: Japan’s Shinkansen ‘bullet’ trains have operated for more than 50 years with no fatality. And so has the TGV network in France. Involving very high costs, these technologies demand a modern mindset, appropriate management structure and a skilled workforce. With more than 85% of train accidents ascribed to ‘human failure’, the Indian Railways claims to have been constantly investing in newer technologies, mechanisation of maintenance and early detection of flaws.
With highly sophisticated equipment steadily ploughed in the Indian Railway system along with myriad technological aids increasingly made available for maintenance, it should be unacceptable to allow the extent of assets failures that indeed occur, not only impacting train operations, but jeopardising safety. Its asset failures show generally a disturbing upward trend: 3,546 rail track fractures and weld failures in 2016-17; 4,500 diesel and electric locomotives failures; more than 810 detachments of passenger coaches from trains on run; 447 failures of overhead electric wires; and signalling equipment failures of the order of 130,200.
A disciplined workforce led by professionally ‘battle-inoculated’ frontline managers was hailed as the Indian Railways’ sine qua non. So also its time-tested meaningful, efficacious inspection systems. While several functions today have been outsourced, the strength of their own departmental workers has not shown a commensurate fall. There are umpteen cases of unduly ‘overqualified workers’ as also of the untrained and ill equipped. Proliferation of posts as much as ranks and titles inevitably leads to overlap and unaccountability. Much like the country’s entire bureaucratic apparatus steeped in pyramids of yesteryear, the Indian Railways too has added layers when it needed to be far flatter.
Minister Prabhu has gone about setting up myriad ‘cells’ for Transformation, Mobility, Environment et al. The Railways’ energy appears getting dissipated on a minutiae of routine amenities euphemistically termed ‘projects’, inaugurated with fanfare. It seems afflicted by ‘consultivitis’, crowd-sourcing ideas. The most pressing need is of optimising the throughput of freight and passengers, rationalising its services to eke elbow-room for increasing services that would yield better returns, ruthlessly cutting costs, raising productivity of assets consistent with newer and costlier gadgets and technologies it inducts. The bigger the organisation grows, the more it tends to grow. The Indian Railways invests in new technologies and persists with old staffing patterns.
The glaring faultlines in the Khatauli accident reinforce the Indian Railways’ silo-based organisational set-up, giving rise to inter-departmental compartmentalisation coupled with competitive empire-building, rendering it perilously obese, voracious, and dilettantish. The Anil Kakodkar-led rail safety review committee report, 2012, echoed the prevalent public perception of the Indian Railways’ glaring infirmities: “centralised, top heavy and hierarchical along departmental lines”, and emphasised the status quo ante to be restored for senior general management posts to be manned only by those well versed in railways’ core businesses of production, operation and marketing of transport.
The Indian Railways needs to urgently move ahead towards redressing the bizarre policies which have severely dented its innate strength and led to a creeping leadership crisis within its apex managerial structure. It is inconceivable for the top army command to be handed over to the senior-most controller of defence accounts, likewise to an officer from Corps of Ordnance, for example. The army chief or, for that matter, the divisional, corps or Army commander would be drawn only from those who are trained and nurtured to fight on the frontline – from infantry, armoured, artillery. Strangely, the Indian Railways now can have anyone catapulted to the very top, albeit he/she in their formative 25-year service or more would have had no experience in its core businesses, nor any interaction with its customers!
Despite strong advocacy by several expert bodies that the railways be corporatised, it has stubbornly stuck to its departmental character, inevitably perpetrating bureaucratic rigidities and wallowing in competitive frailties of babudom. First, a clear categorical imperative for the Indian Railways is to deftly, and firmly, handle the secateurs in the Kafkaesque Rail Bhawan, then right across the sprawling system — its vast web of installations — workshops, sheds, depots, ‘sick lines’, stations, yards, colonies and offices. It’s not railways’ business to run schools, hospitals, or kitchens. It needs to corporatise and privatise development and manufacture of railway equipment, also construction as well as suburban and regional passenger services.
A fine body of men, much like those in the country’s armed forces, the spirit and symbol of an inclusive India, known for their diligence and devotion, railwaymen only need leadership to seize the future together. If duly nurtured and wisely led, the Indian Railways can bounce back like China Rail (CR). China Rail lagged much behind Indian Railways. In just 25 years, CR has gone far ahead of the laggard Indian Railways, and emerged world’s numero uno. So far it has been a case of lage raho, Indian Railways, in a culture of chalta hai. The time has come for Indian Railways it to embrace, in Prime Minister Modi’s words, gati (speed) with pragati (development), to be a true agent of growth and a leader in India’s transport domain.