The Railway accident on 13 January, when 12 bogies of Bikaner-Guwahati Express derailed near Maniguri, West Bengal looks ghastly.
The Railways claimed that 2020-2021 was safest year because the least number of accidents occurred. Yes, it is true. But then, more than half the trains did not run and for some time, no train ran. Now that the trains started running, we have had two derailments in 2 months. The one in November 2021 in Karnataka was said to be due to boulder falling on the bogies.
What is the Cause of Such Accidents?
It is not difficult to guess the reason for the latest derailment—a large crack on the track—going by the previous accidents. Seven passengers were killed when Seemanchal Express derailed (Feb 2019) near Patna, Bihar. Seven people died and over 60 injured after six coaches of the New Farakka Express train derailed (October 2018) near in Raebareli, Uttar Pradesh.
Obviously, this shows poor track maintenance and slack or absent track-monitoring. 12 bogies must have carried at least 500 passengers. When they derailed, with some of them resting on one side, it is probable that more than 250 must have been injured and 50 of them at least seriously injured. It’s quite possible that the casualties, now put at 5, will rise.
When a doctor injects a wrong medicine or does a careless surgery and the patient dies, the doctor has to shell out compensation in crores and he may even have to go to jail. Have you ever heard of at least one Divisional Railway Manager or one General Manager getting sacked when accident happens? That is the freedom they enjoy.
How Railway Officials Cover Up Criminal Negligence
Bibek Debroy’s report (2015) highlighted and criticised the inter-departmental rivalry that ensures blame is shifted to every other department, with total non-cooperation with any enquiry panel and ultimately they all bask in lack of accountability. Sometimes, they would go to the extent of tampering with evidence before any enquiry panel sets in, as it happened on 8 July 1988 when the island express from Bangalore fell into the Ashtamudi Lake near Quilon in Kerala killing 105 passengers.
The fact was that there was a crack on the track that sent the train from the Peruman bridge to the lake. The Mechanical department rushed to the spot before anyone could and covered up the defect and forced the Chairman Railway Board (CRB) to spin a theory that a tornado blew the train off.
The Hindu correspondent of Quilon quoted an eye-witness saying there was only a drizzle at that time. Till today, Railways has not produced Meteorological report on the said tornado. Coaches rolled but no Railway head rolled. If the Railways file a defamation suit against me, I will be eager to face it as the man who did the cover-up is ready to testify.
Can Ashwini Vaishnaw Change the Culture of No Accountability?
What makes them slack, no matter who the Minister of Railways is the fact that the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS) and his deputies work under Ministry of Civil aviation to give the whole thing a semblance of neutrality. However, as all of them are ex-Railway men or on deputation, they will collide with their colleagues current or former. When the system sows the seeds of freedom from accountability, the fruits are not going to be different.
Ashwini Vaishnaw, an IIT-ian and a Wharton MBA is comfortable keeping things this way. This accident and this article at least should disturb him. Understanding railway mechanism and communications is not Rocket science. Every railway accident should be enquired into by totally independent experts, which will be different for every accident. CRS must also be outside Railways, who will give a report every three months.
Railways are crying for reforms. It requires a surgery. Only when it is reformed, private players will show interest and offer to share the running of the railways. Fix a black box in every train at the driver’s cabin. Keep ready as many helicopters as needed with one-hour radius for each of them. Reshuffle the Board. Make all present Board members department heads.
Fill the Board with industrialist, mechanical engineers, cost accountants, software experts and a prominent member of the public. Have you ever heard of an organisation where all the members of the Governing Board are its own employees?
This is incredible India.
(The writer is Secretary, Consumer Protection Council, Tamil Nadu. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)