The Congress on Monday accused the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Centre of playing with the lives of railway passengers by not focussing on their safety and security and hit out at the railways for seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe, saying the agency is meant to investigate crimes and not train accidents.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying the probe agency cannot fix accountability for technical, institutional and political failures, a day after the railways sought a CBI probe into the tragedy in Odisha that claimed 278 lives.
Kharge also said 'all the empty safety claims' of Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw have now been 'exposed' and the government must bring to light the real reasons that caused this grave accident, which he described as one of the worst in Indian history.
In his four-page letter to Modi, the Congress chief said there is serious concern among the common passengers about the deterioration in safety of railways and therefore, it is incumbent upon the government to ascertain and bring to light the real reasons that caused this grave accident.
He alleged that instead of focusing on strengthening the railways at the basic level, only 'superficial touch-up is being done to stay in news'.
Alleging that the railways was being meted out a 'step-motherly treatment' by the government, Kharge said consistently flawed decision making has made travelling by rail unsafe and has in turn compounded the problems of people.
"Unfortunately, the people in charge your goodself and Railway Minister Ashwani Vaishnaw do not want to admit that there are problems," he said.
The railway minister claims to have already found a root cause, but yet has requested the CBI to investigate, he said, asserting that the agency is meant to investigate crimes, not railway accidents.
"The CBI, or any other law enforcement agency, cannot fix accountability for technical, institutional and political failures. In addition, they lack the technical expertise in railway safety, signalling, and maintenance practices," the Congress chief said.
Congress spokesperson and former Minister of State for Railways Bhakta Charan Das said at a press conference that the accident was a result of the 'misgovernance' of the central government as railway safety clearly stands ignored.
He also took on Prime Minister Modi and asked whether he has ever spent sometime on security and safety of railway passengers.
"Neither the prime minister nor the railway minister is bothered about the safety of railways. The railway department and the Government of India are responsible for this accident and not just the station master. We hope the people of the country are seeing this and the government should answer the questions in the minds of people," Das said.
"This Odisha accident is clearly a result of the misgovernance of the Government of India," he said.
"Does the prime minister care about the lives of people travelling in the railways. Has the prime minister ever monitored railway safety," he asked.
The prime minister is saying that the guilty will be punished, Das said, but claimed that 'everyone knows who the guilty is'.
"The CBI inquiry means the focus is needed to be diverted," he alleged.
Das reiterated the demand that either the railway minister resign or he be sacked.
He also said that the railways has been ignored ever since the railway budget was merged with the general budget and safety issues were never discussed.
Das said Vande Bharat trains are being launched by PM Modi only for getting votes ahead of the 2024 polls and officials are not concerned about safety any longer.
The Congress leader also asked when will work on the 'railway kavach' be completed, claiming that only about 2000 km of tracks is covered against total 70,000 km and the budget allocation for it is also negligible.
In his letter to the prime minister, Kharge said the nation still remembers the 2016 derailment in Kanpur, in which 150 people lost their lives and the then railway minister asked the National Investigation Agency (NIA) to investigate it.
"Subsequently, you yourself claimed in an election rally in 2017 that there was a 'conspiracy'. The nation was assured that strictest punishment would be meted out. However, in 2018, the NIA closed the investigation and refused to file a charge sheet. The nation is still in the dark -- who is responsible for 150 avoidable deaths?" Kharge, a former minister of railways, said.
He alleged that the government has no intent to address the systemic safety malaise, but is instead finding diversionary tactics to derail any attempt to fix accountability.
Attacking the government, Kharge said the train accident in Odisha has been an 'eye-opener' and all the empty safety claims of the railway minister have now been 'exposed'.
"Today, the most crucial step is to prioritise installation of mandatory safety standards and equipment across railway routes to ensure safety of our passengers and no recurrence of an accident like the one at Balasore," he said.
The crash involving Bengaluru-Howrah Superfast Express and Shalimar-Chennai Central Coromandel Express, which were carrying around 2,500 passengers, and a goods train on Friday has left 275 people dead and over 1,100 injured.
Kharge said the latest audit report of CAG makes a special mention of how between 2017-18 and 2020-21, about seven out of 10 train accidents happened due to derailment.
"But this was erroneously ignored. Between 2017 and 2021, there was zero testing of Rail and Weld (track maintenance) for safety in East Coast Railway. Why were these grave red flags ignored?" he said.
Kharge pointed out that the CAG report highlights that funding for the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK) has been reduced by a massive 79 per cent.
It was claimed during the budget presentation that about Rs 20,000 crore would be available annually, but this was not done, he said and asked why were the required funds not allocated for track renewal work.
Is this not being callous about the safety of passengers, he asked.
Noting that the Railway Board itself has recently admitted that loco pilots have had to work longer hours than mandated due to manpower shortage, Kharge said loco pilots are crucial to safety and overburdening them is proving to be the main cause of accidents.
He asked why have their positions not been filled yet.
He flagged the issue of three lakh posts lying vacant in Indian Railways.