Any railway accident is lamentable, but more so when it could have been prevented with a little foresight and proper communication. The two trains that derailed on a rickety bridge which was flooded in Madhya Pradesh fall into this category.
As usual, we see arguments, even from former railway ministers about why India should not focus on bullet trains when it has not done enough about the upgrade and safety of the existing system. This is not an either-or situation. While bullet trains should be introduced where feasible, the existing network should be constantly upgraded and monitored.
Around 23 million people use the railway network each day and this makes it imperative that modernisation is an ongoing process. Lack of sufficient budget is a valid reason, but this can be remedied if the government is ready to bite the political bullet.
The answer lies in raising passenger fares at periodic intervals and not just freight charges. But passenger fare is a political hot potato and one which is perceived as having the potential to alienate voters if hiked now and again. It is no secret that vast tracts of tracks are outdated and pose a danger to traffic.
Level-crossings are often not manned and coaches lack fire safety measures. The skills of the huge workforce, which run the railways, too must be upgraded along with the infrastructure. The railways has, by the admission of successive ministers, large reserves of real estate. These have to be put to productive use or disposed off to raise revenues.
In keeping with the government’s push for Digital India, what the railways urgently need is better technology. This can prevent so many man-made errors. This can be used for early warning about dangers on the tracks, oncoming rail traffic and smoother coordination in the huge and sprawling network.
It is true that in recent years, ticketing has improved by leaps and bounds, thanks to technology. But alongside, there have been allegations of the tracks being damaged due to reckless overloading of freight.
A thorough overhaul of the tracks should be the first priority now that two accidents have happened, and so many lives lost, simply because of poor maintenance. The on-again, off-again proposal to privatise sections of the railways should be examined afresh as this might relieve some of the load on the government and improve services.
Unlike in previous mishaps, this time around, the authorities have launched rescue and relief operations promptly. But once this incident has ceased to be news, plans to minimise such mishaps should not get derailed as has happened in the past.