|Disaster on wheels|
|Tuesday, 21 February 2012 00:00|
Kakodkar panel paints frightening picture of Railways
It is true, as the Anil Kakodkar committee on railway safety has pointed out, the number of rail accidents has been falling over time, but once you read the report carefully, you wonder why so many more haven’t died. Interestingly, while most remain focused on the 1,019 passengers who have died since 2007-08 (and 2,118 injured), the report points out that 1,600 railway personnel have died in the same period (and 8,700 injured). While Kakodkar estimates R1 lakh crore is needed for railway safety, the details are chilling. Half the money is to be spent on removing manned level-crossings where the bulk of deaths seem to be occurring, but the suggestion is hardly out of the ordinary since that’s something even laymen can see—eliminating the crossings, though, will be a herculean task, given the multitude of authorities that are involved. More worrying is that despite a R17,000 crore non-lapseable Special Railway Safety Fund announced in 2001-02, there’s still no clarity over how it got spent—so what’s the guarantee R1 lakh crore will be treated any different? The Anti-Collision Device (ACD), Kakodkar tells us, is something the railways has been working on for around a decade now, and this was the highlight of the 2003-2013 Safety Plan—given the lack of progress, it’s likely to be an equally important part of the 2013-2023 Safety Plan. Kakodkar also recommends a train warning system and 24x7 monitoring systems—both look a long haul, given the ACD experience.
As rail minister Lalu Prasad revolutionised railway finances by allowing trains to carry more load but, as Kakodkar points out, thanks to the increased axle load, even the 60 kg/m rails are fully stressed, so it is ‘not prudent to use 52 kg/m rails in Indian Railways’. The question 2% of Indians who travel by train want answered is what happens till the time that these rails are replaced, and that’s assuming they will be replaced. The report has nice graphs on how little is being spent on modernising and safety and equally worrying, it says around a fifth of safety-related posts are vacant—things aren’t much better when it comes to spares. In the case of 43,000 ICF coaches that Kakodkar feels ‘are no more safe at the present operational speeds’, the committee recommends the railways switch over to the better-designed LHB coaches in the next five years—once again, what happens in the interim period, and who is to make sure the changeover happens?
Creating an independent Railway Safety Authority is a good idea but, given there have been four such safety reports earlier, the issue is more serious. Sure, Dinesh Trivedi needs to raise passenger fares that haven’t risen in the last decade, but the issue can no longer be of the finance ministry not giving him funds until he raises fares. Too many lives are at stake for the running of railways to be a ping-pong battle between UPA allies—if the UPA is not convinced Trivedi is capable of doing a good job, it has to step in.