Railways on Notice – Safety, not Bullet Trains, needs to be Top Priority

Why 150 million passengers choosing not to travel by train is a big Red Alert for the Indian Railways!

IR Safety ImpAlmost a year into his tenure as railway minister, Suresh Prabhu, has done what he should have done right after taking charge: called a meeting of the most senior railway officials and told them he will not have any more excuses on safety. The meeting took place in the wake of several railway accidents causing deaths and raising serious safety concerns all around. The glamourous new idea of the government has been creating a diamond quadrilateral of high-speed train links, and Mr Prabhu’s public pronouncements till date have mostly dealt with the need to find fresh big-ticket investments.

There has been no commensurate public concern over too many rail accidents – although introducing bullet trains and the like without improving safety can only lead to more serious accidents. Yes, the railways does need to modernise, which does not come cheap; and investment and safety are conceptually linked if new technology is considered as a route to greater safety. But whenever there is talk of addressing the poor safety record of the Indian Railways, all that the leadership can think of by way of a solution is big-ticket investment. Even as Mr Prabhu expressed his exasperation over the continuing spate of accidents, the railway board chairman spoke of a Rs 1-lakh-crore safety plan to be put before the Union Cabinet. Of course there is a need to invest for creating necessary infrastructure to eliminate level crossings and renew ageing tracks and rolling stock. But the railway establishment should know that safety can be improved also without spending a paisa more – by toning up the way the organisation functions.

The need of the hour is to ensure that well-established safety practices and drills which have been allowed to be run down are again followed with alacrity. The drill of inspecting tracks before trains are allowed to go through has become lax. This drill helps detect breaches in tracks caused through ageing, sabotage, or when flash floods wash them away. If there are sections where the traffic is too heavy for this kind of inspection to be undertaken with the necessary periodicity, Mr Prabhu must cancel some passenger trains on the ground that the present traffic density is unsustainable.

As Train Accidents/Derailments increased almost on daily basis, Railways accounted a loss of 150 Million Passengers in first five months of FY16 – a clear sign of Passenger Traffic weaning away to Road mode!

Several accidents take place because of human error. The only way this can be undone is by motivating the staff better – which cannot happen unless they see the minister and top officials leading from the front. The minister has reminded top railway officials that he has already delegated substantial autonomy to them and it is high time they were held accountable. He has given them six months to act and underlined the need for safety audits by neighbouring zones (not a zone auditing itself) – but he should have done this six months ago.

The reality is that there is no sign that the railways today is a more toned up organisation. For the past several months, it has not been able to appoint a full-time member on its board to oversee traffic operations – a responsibility that includes overseeing safety as well. An additional member is looking after this crucial portfolio. A certain amount of outsourcing of passenger services is being done with immediate improvement in delivery – but subsequent backsliding. The performance of outsourced agencies needs monitoring; but in a business-as-usual scenario, that does not take place. More than anything else, railway safety today needs to be a greater priority.

passengers dwindling on IRThe Ministry of Railways is also at a loss as to why the number of passengers travelling in trains is going down despite no increase in fares. The railways have lost 150 million passengers in the five months of the current financial year, and Suresh Prabhu is worried. The trend of declining passengers left the Minister of State (MoS) for Railways Manoj Sinha astounded. “The trains are always full. You cannot get a reservation. Then how can you say the number of passengers travelling in trains is going down. There must be something wrong with the numbers,” he is believed to have said.

The railway ministry numbers show that while 3,575 million passengers travelled in trains in the period between April to August in FY15, the figure for the same period in the current year was 3,425 million, a fall of 4.2 per cent in ridership. Going by the trend, railways expect a nearly 5 per cent fall in passenger traffic by the end of the year.

This is the second year in a row that the passenger figures have shown a downward trend. Railways had lost 191 million passengers in 2014-15 too. “Though we were concerned, we thought it was an aberration and things would be alright. However, now things are becoming worse and we have to buck the trend for the sake of railway’s financial health,” a senior official in the traffic directorate of railways told. For that the railways have to first figure out the reason for the passengers’ cold shoulder.

As a follow-up to the GMs meeting, Chairman Railway Board (CRB) AK Mittal has sent a letter to all the zonal GMs, asking them to find out from the divisions under them as to why the passenger numbers are declining.

“The Railway Board Members cannot figure out the trend. It has defied their belief that their low fares vis-a-vis road travel would ensure that passengers do not go anywhere,” the traffic official said.

Several officials failed to see any sense in CRB’s letter. “It does not require rocket science to figure out why the passenger figures are going down. Maximum loss has been in the short distance and suburban segment. Obviously, passengers prefer road journeys to the unwelcoming railways. They prefer to pay more to save time than to wait for low fare, unpunctual and crowded trains,” an official said.

He listed out several reasons for passengers’ unhappiness, right from booking of a ticket to the journey itself. “It is a pain for most passengers to buy a ticket. There are long queues. Ticket vending machines have been installed at some stations like New Delhi but many of them don’t work. If they work, they ask for the exact amount of money and do not return cash. Mobile booking Apps have been launched for some segments but how many can use them. Most passengers don’t have credit or debit cards,” he revealed.

Another official said there was also the possibility that ticket compliance had reduced and many passengers were travelling without tickets. He said there was a shortage of about 5,000 train ticket examiners (TTEs). “TTEs anyway restrict themselves to reserved sections and hardly venture out to the unreserved sections of the train,” he added.

The only saving grace was that railways had registered a marginal increase of 8 million in the reserved category, mainly accounting for long distance and AC-coach travelers. (Courtesy: HTET)