Railway Reforms should continue with a sharper eye on Safety and Execution

At around 7 am on Wednesday, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu called up the Prime Minister’s residence to seek an appointment. The minister insisted he wanted to meet the PM immediately. The PM apparently conveyed the message that Prabhu could meet him after the cabinet meeting scheduled to be held that day. Prabhu seemed restless; he woke up at 4 am that day and instructed his key officers to move in no time to the Rail Bhawan’s control room. 

Soon after the cabinet meeting ended and Prabhu had a brief interaction with the PM, he tweeted, saying he was extremely pained by the “accidents, injuries to passengers and loss of precious lives”. Then he announced he had offered to resign. “Hon’ble PM has asked me to wait”, he clarified. He did not come to his office; instead he left the PMO and headed straight to an “undisclosed” location. “We have no clue. He has gone out of Delhi,” said one of his key aides when media persons rushed to Rail Bhawan that afternoon to hear from the horse’s mouth.

When we spoke with four railway officers to piece together this report. None wanted to come on record. At least on two points, they echoed the same versions. First, the two rail accidents in four days — Kalinga Utkal Express derailment at Khatauli in Muzaffarnagar (in which 22 died and 106 were injured) and Kaifiyat Express derailment at Auraiya (25 injured), both in Uttar Pradesh — took place because of human error by railway employees. Two of them doubted the authenticity of the control room audio clips that got circulated after the first incident, but conceded that there was enough proof to conclude that the men on the ground goofed up and allowed the train to pass at high speed despite glitches on the track. The audio clips make it clear that punctuality got precedence over safety. 

Second, officers close to Prabhu said the minister is indeed emotional. He thought of quitting soon after he had returned from the site of the Indore-Patna Express derailment last November, one of the worst train accidents that resulted in 150 deaths. Yes, poor safety statistics, 251 death from 145 derailments in the last two and half years alone will continue to haunt Prabhu or his replacement. And if the PM does replace Prabhu, the new minister will surely accord the highest priority on safety. But that raises several questions on other fronts.

Will there be a pause on spending on rail infra – Rs 4 lakh crore has been spent between 2014 and 2018 as against Rs 4.9 lakh crore between 1947 and 2014? Or, will the IR succeed in mobilizing huge extra budgetary resources (like, for instance, the Rs 1.5 crore loan taken from the Life Insurance Corporation)? Or, will the raging safety debate slow down the highspeed rail project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, for which the government needs to cough up just 20% of the proposed Rs 1 lakh crore; the rest will come from a Japanese government loan at a meagre 0.1% interest? 

Prabhu may have failed the nation on safety, but will a new minister be able to match him on the reforms front? I wish the new minister won’t take the railways on older tracks, like announcing new trains and laying foundations without any followup, a railway insider quips. 

IR Control Room Voiceovers 

Excerpts of audio clips, purportedly between the Khatauli station master and Delhi division control room ahead of the Kalinga Utkal Express derailment that killed 22 and injured 106. It appears a 20-minute block was asked for maintenance work, but was denied by the Delhi division’s control room:

1ST VOICE: Khatauli…Abhi nahi chale Utkal? Signal de de? (From Khatauli…Utkal Express has not started? Should we give the signal?)

2ND VOICE: Abhi nahin… (Not now)

1ST VOICE: Khatauli…20 minutes ka PWI block mang rahe hain (Khatauli…They are asking for a 20-minute maintenance work block); PWI is the permanent way inspector who heads the team of gangmen entrusted to physically check the tracks

3RD VOICE: Ye kaun sa block hain? (Which block is this?)

1ST VOICE: Pata nahin, koi gluejoint change karne ke liye bol rahe hain. Main isko bol raha hu, gaadiyo ka group hain. Ye kaise hoga? (I don’t know exactly. They are talking about changing some joints; I was telling how can we order a block when there is a queue of trains?) ….. De du 15-minute ka block? (Should we give it a 15-minute block?)

4TH VOICE: Block ka time nahi hain. Gaadiya bohut hain…(There’s no time for the block. There are a number of trains)

1ST VOICE: Thik hain (okay)