Structural Change in Archaic Railway Board is Necessary to Ensure Passenger Safety

The gruesome railway accident in Andhra Pradesh on December 28, in which 27 passengers travelling in an AC coach were roasted alive, brings to fore yet another abysmal failure of safety and security norms within the Indian Railways. Whatever the cause of the fire, most of the victims could have been saved if the train had been equipped with an automatic fire alarm system. Indian Railway authorities have failed to install such systems on a majority of their long-distance trains despite repeated fires.

Although the railways has announced plans to place automatic fire alarm systems in all AC coaches of its Rajdhani, Shatabdi, Garib Rath and Duronto trains, as of now they have been installed in only two Rajdhani trains. This is because financial pressures have caused Indian Railways to slash even its own limited plans to introduce elementary safety measures.

Accidents, including derailments and collisions, are common in Indian Railways. Most of these accidents are due to poor maintenance, which in turn is caused by the government and railway authorities’ failure to provide adequate funding. According to a recent media report, during the past three years, Indian Railways has only spent between 65 and 79 per cent of the money it had budgeted for safety measures.

Preliminary investigation into the fire accident involving the Bangalore-Nanded Express may point at an accidental short-circuit, but it also accentuates the need for frontline safety staff to assure a safer journey. Shortage of safety staff and their harsh working conditions is yet another factor responsible for railway accidents. Indian Railways is grappling with manpower shortages as there are 1,42,311 posts lying vacant in the safety category.

During 2013, there have been at least five incidents of fire on running passenger trains. Just 18 months ago, 32 people were killed by a fire in the Tamil Nadu Express train that runs from Chennai to New Delhi. In November 2011, a fire in a coach of the Howrah-Dehradun Express train burned seven people alive. In April 2011, three coaches of the Mumbai-Delhi Rajdhani Express caught fire while travelling through Madhya Pradesh.

Unfortunately, while a formal inquiry is instituted after every rail accident, there has been no comprehensive review of the structural changes required in the governance of one of the world’s largest railway systems. It is practically difficult to enumerate how many enquiries were set up since August 1947 in over a dozen territorial zones that constitute the Indian Railways. But railway safety manuals, as they exist today, are neither commensurate with current day requirements and realities nor entirely based on specific recommendations of boards of enquiries set up after each major accident.

The Railway Board has no one specifically looking after safety of railway passengers. Its six members deal with electrical, engineering, traffic, staff, mechanical and financial dimensions of the system. From a political perspective, this seems incredible, notwithstanding the fact that luminaries such as N Gopalaswami Ayyangar, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jagjivan Ram, S K Patil, Kamalapati Tripathi, Madhavrao Scindia and Nitish Kumar have held the railways portfolio in the Union Cabinet.

Passenger safety was invariably viewed as a by-product of the workings of the aforementioned functional divisions of the Indian Railways. It rarely received undivided attention of the divisional heads who constitute the field commanders of the Railway Board.

As the railway domain has grown dimensionally and coverage-wise, the archaic Railway Board has failed to grasp the dynamics of rapid change in the mode of public transportation. A structural change in Railway Board, therefore, should be taken up urgently by the government. The present structure is a legacy of the colonial era which is not only outdated but also ineffective.

The present monolith Railway Board should be replaced by a Union Railway Board located in New Delhi and regional Railway Boards for the Northern, Eastern, Southern, Western, Central and North-Eastern regions. All the seven boards, including URB, ought to encompass safety, rail sanitation, communication, research and technology and peoples’ grievances as new chapters of focus and progress.

Such systematic changes will enable the national carrier to incorporate an entirely new rail culture. Laying down rail lines crisscrossing the Maoist-affected areas will not only revitalise internal security operations but could even help end the menace itself as economic prospects of people brighten. Similarly, options of developing Hill Area Rail Networks in states like Arunchal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand should also be explored.

It is also time to consider whether the railways should be shifted from Central List of the Constitution of India to the Concurrent List. This would draw better responses from the state governments in ensuring security of tracks and other critical rail infrastructure.

Indian Railways’ safety, security and sanitation levels could dimensionally change if India can progressively adopt the standards attained by Euro Rail systems. Such adherence would entail automatic, centrally controlled composite train access and locking systems.