Utkal Express Mishap: Has Corrupt Bureaucracy Eroded Rail Safety?

Even when passengers escape death, frequent derailments are not a good sign.

4 min read
A mangled coach of the Puri-Haridwar Utkal Express train being hauled off the tracks by a crane, at the accident site in Khatauli near Muzaffarnagar on Sunday.

The death of 23 passengers due to the derailment of the Haridwar-bound Utkal Express on 19 August is yet another instance of callousness of our Railways. This is not a one-off incident. Seventy derailments were reported in 2016, and almost 30 more have been reported this year. Derailment of goods trains and incidents with no casualty are hardly ever covered by the media.

Even when passengers escape death, frequent derailments are not a good sign. If anything, it shows that either the wheels are worn out or there is some mechanical failure.

Placing the Blame Without Proof

In some cases, even though sabotage is hinted at, the claims are not backed by proof. The sabotage angle is thrown in and by the time the enquiry is over, no one gets to read the report.

In a recent accident in Kanpur on 20 November, the Railways department immediately blamed the fractured tracks, without showing a photograph or any concrete proof. Later on 28 January, a Railway Safety Commission official ruled out sabotage and fog, fixing the blame instead on overaged wheels.

Funds Meant for Safety Misused

The amount, Rs 1 lakh crore, given to Railways for enhancing safety could now be misused — just as the Safety Fund created by Nitish Kumar was misused. The money will be spent on laying new lines and gauge conversion which should ideally come under capital expenditure. Hardly 30 percent would be spent on signal improvement, maintenance and technology upgradation, such as the remote checking of trains.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee report on the action taken on its recommendations says (SCR 188 2013-14) that less than 40 percent of the money allotted for safety had been utilised by the Railways in the last two years!

Mr Suresh Prabhu has an onerous job of utilising this fund for its original purpose. One can hope a number of distressed bridges, old tracks, out of date signalling systems, and other safety enhancement devices are replaced using the Safety Fund.

A Long Pending Technology Overhaul

If you read the previous ten Railway budgets, you can find references to projects like anti-collision device, advance warning system, satellite-based global positioning system, train collision avoidance system, train protection warning system, fire-retardant coaches, vigilance control device, auxiliary warning system, self-propelled ultrasonic rail testing cars (for flaw detection). However, these are still pilot projects.

If you let them, the department will invent phrases for another ten budgets. It feasts on the ignorance of the public, the lack of will on the ministers’ part, and an absence of overall accountability.

Railways would not install scoot and flash devices at unmanned level crossings, but they would appoint people (to generate a source of income) to close the gates. Several gatemen had been found sleeping or absent while accidents happened.

It is not true that more money means more safety. Most of the accidents have been caused by human errors, and this is the result of poor training and wrong recruitment policies. With no change in these, merely pumping more money will not make rail travel safer.

The Department Does Not Listen

For years, the suggestions that every coach must have a fire extinguisher (in SL too), engines must have fog lights (at least two accidents during every fog season), and that they must have helicopters at every zonal or even divisional HQ for quick relief during accidents, have fallen on deaf ears.

It is the height of callousness that the rescue team arrived at the Utkal train accident site on Saturday without a search light. They think it is cheaper to pay compensation than take better safety measures. After an accident on 13 February, a passenger had to walk 4 kilometres just to inform the authorities.

The Railways’ responsibility to transport passengers safely is now only a moral obligation. It must be made a legal one. Canadian railway safety management system regulations and their Safe and Accountable Rail Act ensures accountability are worthy of emulation.

Railway Safety is Not Rocket Science

An independent committee must be entrusted with the money and the plans to implement them. The Chief Vigilance Commissioner has said that corruption is on the rise in the Railways (4 August 2015 in the Times of India). This only goes on to show how far beyond accountability the railway bureaucracy actually is.

Efficiency has not increased even by one percent, as the Bibek Debroy Committee pointed out. Railway Safety Commission should be truly made independent by appointing engineers from outside the department. Although for namesake, this Safety Commission is attached to Civil Aviation Ministry, it is manned by Railway men on deputation.

Can you, trust them any longer? It is high time this monolithic structure is broken down to create five PSUs. They should have technocrats, industrialists, and financial analysts from outside on the Board which is now limited to employees. The self-serving, corrupt bureaucracy is the built-in danger.

(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.)

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