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The Rediff Interview/Ashok Bhatnagar, former Railway Board chairman
July 03, 2003
Former Railway Board chairman Ashok Bhatnagar says railway accidents can only be minimised for a country the size of India as totally eliminating train disasters would be a Utopian concept.
In a conversation with Chief Correspondent Tara Shankar Sahay, he disagrees with the criticism that very little is being done by the railways to improve its safety record. Accepting that the railways had an enormous challenge ahead, he, however, reiterated that the Indian Railways was still one of the best in the world.
What do you have to say about the recommendations of various inquiry commissions into railway accidents not being implemented or being negligibly implemented?
Secondly, most of these subjects require infrastructural improvement. This means that somebody must be able to manufacture and supply that equipment. But no manufacturer worth his salt will take up an assignment which he can wind up after two or four years. So the country also is supposed to have a manufacturing capacity (of railway equipment spares) and a capacity of supply.
Similarly, in a big organisation like the railways, you cannot create an outfit that will function for three or four years and wind up. What will happen to the personnel involved? So it is all on a programme basis.
Another problem is that since the inception of the Wanchoo Committee (1962) when India was not so industrialised, the workload in those days on the railways was pretty high. At the same time, the railway infrastructure had to be improved and updated. We imbibed foreign technology and adapted it to Indian needs. But technological changes were also taking place. Steam engines the world over were being phased out and replaced by their electric and diesel counterparts.
Thus, our rolling stock and design changes became unavoidable and the subsequent technological requirements became different. So you had the Sikri Committee after that and then the Khanna Committee. Now you can say that we are 75 per cent modern in terms of railway infrastructure. We have more or less stabilised now, those infrequent mishaps notwithstanding.
Due to the size and depth of our railway infrastructure, the 1962 technology is still with India. This fact has not been appreciated including by some inquiry commissions. It has been forgotten that the life of railway assets is very long (40 to 45 years). If you have technology of 1962, then naturally condemning our first locomotive, I would say, is a little imprudent.
In between, you can have any number of committees, you will still be saddled with those (vintage) assets. We are not so rich to decide, alright, let's get rid of outmoded technology. Till 1996 we continued with the steam engine. And even now there are certain pockets of the Indian railway where steam engines ply. They are still a serviceable asset and can deliver and, therefore, some of the commissions have not very specifically commented on [them].
Safety is totally relative to speed. Hence track modernisation is taken up on fast lines. Elsewhere, it is priority two and will be taken up when we have the money and resources available.
Hence, selection of the railway system is of paramount importance. Similarly, the noise generated by fast trains is another (unsettling) factor. There have to be padded walls all along the railway track to deaden the noise. You have to take care of the dust factor and allied environmental damage. Only if you fulfil these requirements will the railways be regarded as an advanced system.
The British also realised this and in 1924 they decided that the railways should become self-sufficient and profitable. So they took it out from the ministry of communication and by what is known as separation convention allowed the railways to have its own ministry. And that system is still continuing. But it would be totally wrong to consider that the railways should be at par with roads.
Then how do you explain the increase in railway accidents?
What do foreign countries feel about our railway system?
If railway accidents can happen in France, Germany and UK having advanced systems, what is so surprising about India which is the world's largest system today? At the same time, I want to emphasise that the Indian railway system is one of the safest in the world today. It is the only system that is inspected every day physically by a person. This system does not exist anywhere in the world because nobody else can afford the manpower. You resort to technology and technology can fail. That has to be understood. The element of chance is always involved.
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