Is a train accident-free India just a dream? Certainly not, for it has been achieved on the Japanese ‘Shinkansen’, the high-speed bullet trains that have had a casualty-free record since its inception in 1964.
Only two derailments have taken place, both due to natural calamities. The first one was on October 23, 2004, when eight coaches were derailed near Nagoka because of an earthquake. The second derailment was on March 2, 2013, in Daisen due to a severe blizzard.
There was no passenger casualty in either case. There are only about 1,000 such trains, running on about 2,400 km of dedicated, elevated track, free from any interference or trespassing in Japan.
Ridership in 2007 was 353 million, which fell to just 307 million in 2011. On the other hand, the Indian Railways have a sprawling network of more than 64,000 km, all at ground level, open to not only trespass by people and vehicles but also sabotage by Maoists and political activists of various hues.
Two recent accidents in Bihar — one involving a freight train in Muzzafarpur, East Champaran, and the other of the Dibrugarh-bound Rajdhani Express near Chapra — appear prima facie to be the handiwork of the Maoists or other miscreants because the track had reportedly been tampered with.
Besides, there are about 7,000 commuter trains, 12,000 long-distance trains and 6,000 freight trains. The Indian Railways carry nearly 20 million passengers a day, unmatched by any other railway system in the world.
Fortunately, the commissioner of railway safety, who probes incidents involving passenger casualties, though a railway expert, functions under the ministry of civil aviation and is unlikely to succumb to pressure from the railway ministry to sweep things under the carpet.
Besides, his findings are reviewed annually by a parliamentary committee on the railways.
Given the ground reality, we need to minimise and for that matter even eliminate rail accidents: First, a hands-off approach with minimal political interference, ensuring that valuable financial resources are not wasted in non-remunerative projects. For instance, adding new passenger trains that adversely impact the availability of tracks for maintenance, etc.
Second, the railways should be treated as a vital national asset and a proactive role by the state police and not just the government railway police is needed to prevent sabotage.
Third, the practice of setting up a safety review committee under a retired judge — as has been the norm so far — or an expert group which simply reproduces a wish list of various departments estimated to cost Rs. 1 lakh crore, is hardly the way to go.
What is essential is an immediate external audit of the current practices of maintaining assets by an independent agency or a team of Japanese, German or French railway experts. Perhaps the World Bank could help in creating the team or the Railway Board can invite bids from agencies specialising in this field.
Last, but not the least, political will and a committed technocracy or bureaucracy to carry this through are perhaps indispensable.
(RC Acharya is a former member of the Railway Board. The views expressed by the author are personal.)