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Rail accidents to social media outreach: As Suresh Prabhu offers to quit, some highlights of his stint

Railway minister Suresh Prabhu said he tried to overcome “decades of neglect through systemic reforms”

india Updated: Aug 23, 2017 21:38 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Suresh Prabhu‬,‪Minister of Railways of India‬,‪Narendra Modi‬‬
Union railway minister Suresh P Prabhu at an event in Coimbatore.(PTI Photo)

With heads rolling in the Indian Railways after two train accidents in five days, railway minister Suresh Prabhu hinted on Wednesday he had offered to resign on moral grounds.

The Congress accused Prabhu of having “utterly failed” in his job and asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to sack him and appoint a “responsible person” in the position.

Prabhu said he had tried to overcome “decades of neglect through systemic reforms in all areas leading to unprecedented investment and milestones”.

Here are a few highlights of Prabhu’s term as the rail minister:

Deadly accidents

A series of deadly accidents have hit the Indian Railways network recently.

On Wednesday, Congress leader Randeep Singh Surjewala said 28 major train accidents, killing 259 people and injuring 973, had taken place since the Narendra Modi-led government took office. The death toll from derailments in 2016-17 was the highest it had been in a decade.

India’s death toll from train derailments in 2016-17 is now the highest in a decade, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of data tabled in Parliament on March 31, 2017 and August 11, 2017.

The derailment of the Puri-Haridwar Utkal Express on August 19, 2017, killed more than 20 and injured over 200 people.

CAG report criticises railways for contaminated, recycled foodstuff

Pointing out that an iron nail had been found in the plate of cutlets offered to a passenger, the Comptroller and Auditor General slammed the Indian Railways for serving food articles “unfit for human consumption” such as recycled, contaminated and expired items and unauthorised water brands.

In a joint inspection conducted in collaboration with officials of the Indian Railways at 74 stations and 80 trains between July and October 2016, the country’s top audit body observed grave deficiencies in the food hygiene standards, including fungal growth around the “petha” (sweets) pieces served to passengers.

The CAG also criticised the railways over cleanliness and management of linen, and suggested putting in place a mechanism to ensure strict compliance to norms.

Passenger finds lizard in food

Indian Railways removed the caterer of the Howrah-New Delhi Poorva Express after a passenger complained he was served a lizard in his order of vegetable biryani. The passenger said he ordered food in Mokama and complained to the ticket collector and tweeted to railway minister Suresh Prabhu after finding a lizard in his biryani.

SRK fan dies, prompts railways to re-think policy

The death of a Shah Rukh Khan fan at the Vadodara railway station prompted the Indian Railways to re-think its policy that permits film stars to undertake train journeys after payment of a “special fee”.

Film shoots are permitted in trains, stations and railway premises after deposit of a special fee, while a smaller amount is charged for rail trips by cine stars to promote their films. Sections in the railways feel that the policy in the regard must be revisited, given the strong possibilities of stampedes at the overcrowded railway stations.

Rail Budget and Union Budget merged

The government merged the rail and general budgets from 2017, ending a 92-year-old practice of a separate budget for the country’s largest transporter. The BJP-led government’s decision to scrap the railway budget was seen as a policy reform measure aimed at doing away with the “culture of populism” that took a toll on the state-owned transporter’s financial health over the years. Financial experts said it would also help people do better tax planning.

Alternative reservation scheme

Waitlisted passengers now get the choice of travelling on reserved berths in alternative trains. Called Vikalp, or alternative train accommodation system (ATAS), the scheme provides reserved berths or seats within 12 hours to passengers on the waiting list in another train bound for that destination. The change doesn’t entail any additional fare or charges. But there is a caveat: alternative berths will depend on the availability of vacant seats in another train.

Dynamic fare pricing system

Last year, the government decided to introduce a dynamic pricing system on Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto trains under which base fares were to jump by 10% for every 10% of seats booked on these trains, with a cap of 50% hike in the original fare.

The new structure was aimed at addressing the “fare versus freight” distortion of the railways that has suffered decades of low investment.

India’s fastest train, Gatimaan Express at 160 kmph, launched

India’s first semi-high speed train, running at a speed of 160 kmph, was introduced on the Indian Railways system from April 5. Railway minister Prabhu flagged off the train, which runs between Hazrat Nizamuddin and Agra Cantonment stations.

In May, the rail ministry said it had sanctioned Rs 17,000 crore to develop Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata as integrated semi high-speed corridors (160-200Kmph). “(We) formed ‘National High Speed Corporation’ to undertake high speed railway construction between Mumbai and Ahmedabad,” it said.

High-speed internet at railway stations

In 2016, rail minister Prabhu’s budget announced unlimited Wi-Fi at over 100 stations. The ministry announced a partnership according to which the American tech giant and the Railways’ telecom wing, Railtel, were to jointly work to blanket railway stations with Wi-Fi.

In May this year, the rail ministry said it provided high-speed WiFi at more than 130 stations and that it targeted to reach 400 stations by yearend.

First independent cleanliness ranking for railway stations launched; developing an online portal to receive continuous feedback from passengers

Independent regulator Rail Development Authority approved

In April 2017, the Union Cabinet approved the setting up of a regulator — the Rail Development Authority.

Seen as a big reform measure, the regulator was set up to undertake the task of fixing tariffs on the basis of prevailing market prices and other parameters, including the cost of travel.

The RDA has also been entrusted with the task of ensuring fair play and a level playing field for stake-holders/investors in the Indian Railways. It was also to set efficiency and performance standards for the Indian Railways and to bring transparency in the functioning of the state-owned transporter.

Help is just a tweet away

There are several examples of how the railway ministry -- very active on Twitter -- helped passengers in distress through social media.

A female passenger travelling alone in a train in Maharashtra sent out a distress tweet and, at the next, jawans from the Railway Protection Force were waiting to attend to her.

A request on Twitter drew a prompt response from Prabhu who helped a patient in getting his tickets in Dibrugarh Rajdhani confirmed for travel from Jalpaiguri to Delhi.

According to the rail ministry’s three-year performance report, it handles 6,500 tweets per day with the help of 24/7 operations via a centrally managed cell. The tweets are classified as critical, non-critical, suggestions and others. For every actionable tweet, a ticket is opened in the system. Critical tweets are communicated via SMS or phone calls. Each ticket is monitored at various stages in the system until resolution. Average response time of less than 30 minutes, the report says.

New Rail Catering Policy announced

In February, as part of a move aimed at improving the quality of meals served to passengers travelling on the 64,500km network of the state-owned transporter, Prabhu empowered the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) with catering responsibilities once again – seven years after Mamata Banerjee had divested the corporation of the job.

In a perceived attempt to enable the transporter to break the “cartel” of rail contractors, the functions of preparing meals and its onward distribution to train travellers were bifurcated in the new catering policy.

With inputs from agencies

First Published: Aug 23, 2017 21:38 IST