Indian Railways: The Lifeline In Limbo
150 years after it first chugged on course of a glorious ongoing journey, Indian Railways bears a rather dual distinction today. It is the second largest rail network under one management but with largest number of accidents the world over. From a 'Puffing Dragon' to 'Electrical Giant on rail' and then a lifeline to the country, Indian Railways has come a long way but its infrastructure and the system has not.india Updated: Jun 21, 2003 18:30 IST
150 years after it first chugged on course of a glorious ongoing journey,Indian Railwaysbears a rather dual distinction today. It is the second largest rail network under one management but witha recordnumber of accidents.
From a 'Puffing Dragon' to 'Electrical Giant on rail' and then a lifeline to the country, Indian Railways has come a long way but its infrastructure and the system has not.
It has been killing people regularly, thanks to antiquated infrastructure, ill maintenance, and worst of all -- HUMAN ERROR, blamed for two-thirds of about an estimated 400 "consequential" rail accidents that take place in a year.
Last year accounted for 460 accidents.Twenty-five of them were collisions.
No wonder, the slow modernisation of Indian Railways has made foreign media often dubs it as a rolling railway museum attracting nostalgic train buffs from all over the world, says MK Mishra, former member of Indian railway board.
But the Secretary Railway Board R K Singh differs. "The Accident Collision Device and Railways Vision 2050 projects besides a host of new safety provisions will soon give enough answers to the sceptics," he said.
A Railway Ministry survey has found alcoholism among field staff to be a major cause of human error leading to mishaps, and suggested breathalyser tests and random checks for the staff among other measures, says CM Khosla, another ex-member of the Board.
Statistics show that 76 per cent of the accidents take place because of derailments following human error, track problems or adverse weather conditions. Collisions lead to about eight per cent of the mishaps.
In 1968 the Railway Board in response to the Railway Accidents Inquiry Committee set a target of 0.36 as the number of collisions per MTK. But the figure remains for the books.
Railway Ministry, after all, has now woken up to the urgent need to stem the rot in the 66,800-miles long network that transports over 13 million people and tons of goods each day through over 13,000 trains across India.
The Railway Budget 2002-2003 has made special provisions for safety of the passengers. It has planned Rs 17,000 crore Special Railway Safety Fund (SRSF) to replace age-old assets in next six years. Under the move, about 17,000 km of track will be renewed, over 3,000 bridges rebuilt and signal gears will be replaced at about 1000 stations.
There are over 120,000 steel bridges, a lot of which are ageing and accident-prone.
The ever-surging traffic makes the railways all the more vulnerable to accidents. The Railway Minister Nitish Kumar has further announced introduction of 25new trainsand 16 inter-city train services to be called asJan Shatabdi Express.
The red tape has added to problem. Railway safety recommendations are seldom implemented fully, if at all. Statutory probe by Commissioner of Railway Safety is ordered after almost every mishap but action is usually taken against low-level officials, most of them scapegoats.
Sometimes, bizarre theories are expounded for the accidents. When the Trivandrum-bound Island Express from Bangalore plunged into Quilon river in 1989, killing 107 people, the probe concluded that the accident was due to a 'freak typhoon' that hit in the split-seconds when the train crossed the river bridge.
Experts say that though most of the rail accidents in India were avoidable, the mishaps will inevitably occur in such a mammoth and old system, built by the Britishers during the Raj.
Intelligent investment in technology and equipment is the key to safe rail travel, they say.