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Populism and poor technology ensure bloody track record for Railways

George Iype in New Delhi

When more than 120 passengers died in the Bilaspur train accident on Sunday, Railway Minister Ram Vilas Paswan said the disaster was caused by "human failure."

But the story is one of a much larger failure -- human, no doubt --but not in the way Paswan meant.

A growing network, populist demands and poor funds have given the Indian Railways a bloody track record in the past decade. Since 1986, railway ministry reveal more than 5,000 people have died in train accidents across the country.

India has the second-largest rail network in the world and it transports the largest number of passengers -- four billion people -- annually. Rail experts argue that accidents will inevitably occur in such a mammoth system.

"While sophisticated communication and automation systems have considerably reduced the number of accidentsin the West, there has been a steep increase in the number of accidents in India," says Rajmani Singh who retired from the Railway Board last year.

Singh said rail accidents frequently occur in India because technological upgradation in the country has been "minimal and occasional."

As in everything else, politics too plays a major role. "Every year trains are introduced on populist demands, completely disregarding safety norms," says a senior railway ministry official. "Every railway budget announces nearly 10 new routes without making corresponding budgetary provisions for systems and technical improvement," he adds.

Little wonder then that the Railways's track record in the last 10 years has been dismal. According to railway ministry data, more than 6,000 kilometres of rail track across the country are in "bad shape" and need immediate replacement.

Whether it is systems failure or human error that causes accidents, experts believe a majority of them could have been avoided if proper signalling equipment was installed. Trains are recklessly added, but the corresponding investment in technology and equipment which will automatically ensure safety, is disregarded.

Soon after the country's worst-ever train accident involving the Purshottam Express and Kalindi Express -- more than 400 passengers were killed -- in 1995, the ministry earmarked Rs 2 billion for new signalling and telecom equipment. But the project has not yet taken off.

The accidents end hundreds of lives in their prime, but rarely do they cost senior railway personnel their jobs. After every accident, there is a statutory enquiry by the commissioner of railway safety. Action is taken, but usually against some low-level officials.

Sometimes, bizarre theories are expounded for the accidents. When the Trivandrum-bound Island Express from Bangalore plunged into the Quilon river in 1989, killing 107 people, the enquiry concluded that the accident was due to a 'freak typhoon' that occurred in the split-seconds that the train crossed the river bridge!

Statutory enquiries into train accidents have found that more than 70 per cent of them have been caused by the failure of railway staff. A railway ministry survey says that alcoholism among field staff was found to be a major cause for rail accidents. It has suggested breathalyser tests for all field staff, random check of all field staff and implementation of the recommendations made by various high-power committees.

But the reports of all rail safety and enquiry committees are gathering dust in New Delhi's Rail Bhavan.

Advancing alibis rather than assuming responsibility has been each railway minister's track record and this insensitivity has compromised the safety of passengers.

The railways's latest performance budget lists ten major objectives for the Ninth Plan, but improving rail safety is not one of them. The railways claim that rail safety has consistently improved with a reduction in the incidence of train accidents per million train kilometres from 5.5 in 1960-61 to 0.82 in 1993-84.

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.

In the United States, the National Transportation Safety Board looks after the safety aspects of its railway network. Experts have often suggested that a similar board could be set up in India to ensure that high-traffic corridors are made less accident-prone.

Funds for safety and signalling should be increased as major costs are involved in introducing track circuiting, a fully automatic system which does not allow two trains to be on the same tack at one time. Some progress has been made in introducing this on heavy duty corridors in the country, but a lot remains to be done, experts say.

Should the railway minister resign for railway mishaps that frequently occur across the country?

Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned from the Nehru Cabinet in 1962 taking moral responsibility for two accidents in two days -- one in Andhra Pradesh and another in Tamil Nadu. Fortysix people were killed in those accidents.

But there have been bigger accidents since then, and railway ministers have refused to quit, arguing that they cannot be held responsible for accidents in such a huge system.

As the railway minister said on Monday, "human failure."

Rescue operations at rail accident site complete

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