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Air India’s Ashwani Lohani is new Railway Board chief, Suresh Prabhu offers to quit

Ashwani Lohani faces a big challenge as the government is trying to revamp the world’s fourth-largest rail network that has 12,000 passenger trains and 7,000-odd stations, and carries 23 million passengers each day.

india Updated: Aug 24, 2017 09:36 IST
Srinand Jha
Srinand Jha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Chairman Railway Board‬,‪Ashwani Lohani‬,‪Suresh Prabhu‬
Ashwani Lohani, who was the chairman and managing director of Air India, at his office in New Delhi. (Livemint photo)

The railways stared at a shake-up as its board chairman resigned and minister Suresh Prabhu offered to quit on Wednesday after back-to-back train derailments hit India’s largest public transporter.

Air India chairman and managing director Ashwani Lohani was appointed chairman of the Railway Board after incumbent AK Mittal resigned, citing personal reasons.

Lohani is an Indian Railway Service officer of the 1980 batch. He has four engineering degrees.

The petroleum and natural gas ministry’s financial adviser, Rajiv Bansal, is the new head of the ailing national airline. He is a 1988-batch IAS officer from the Nagaland cadre.

Prabhu met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and offered to resign. Modi has asked him to wait.

A clear picture of his fate will be known in the next reshuffle of the Union cabinet.

“I met the Hon’ble Prime Minister @narendramodi taking full moral responsibility,” Prabhu tweeted.

He said in another tweet that he was “deeply pained” by the disasters.

More than 70 people were injured as 10 coaches of the Kaifiyat Express bound for New Delhi jumped tracks after colliding with a dumper truck in Uttar Pradesh’s Auraiya early on Wednesday.

Apart from this, a train collided with a lorry at an unmanned crossing in Tamil Nadu’s Villupuram, and a Mumbai-bound train travelled 2km on a wrong route in Odisha, which could have turned disastrous had there been another train moving from the other side.

On Sunday, more than 20 people had died after 13 coaches of the Puri-Haridwar Utkal Express derailed in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district.

The government had initiated swift administrative action against the top railway bureaucracy after the weekend tragedy.

The upheaval is likely to bring about major restructuring in the Railway Board after decades. The entire board was sacked in 1980, when Indira Gandhi was prime minister.

Prime Minister Modi chose Prabhu in November 2014 to head the world’s fourth-largest rail network that has 12,000 passenger trains and 7,000-odd stations, and carries 23 million passengers each day — the equivalent of Australia’s population.

The government is trying to revamp the transporter, but fatal crashes, poor revenue and work sloth have dented the railways’ credibility.

“Prabhu was inconsolable and had been contemplating resignation,” a source close to him said.

The minister has been under pressure from the opposition Congress after the spate of disasters.

He countered through tweets that “in less than three years as minister, I have devoted my blood and sweat for” improving the railways.

“Under leadership of PM, tried to overcome decades of neglect through systemic reforms in all areas leading to unprecedented investment and milestones,” he said.

More than 650 people have lost their lives in 346 train disasters on Prabhu’s watch. When Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad headed the ministry in 2004 to 2007, the railways recorded 759 deaths from 663 accidents.

If his resignation is accepted, he will be the second railway minister to lose his job after fatal train tragedies. Lal Bahadur Shastri had resigned in 1956, when 144 passengers were killed in Tamil Nadu.

Madhavrao Scindia, Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee offered to resign, but their offers were rejected.

First Published: Aug 23, 2017 17:02 IST