The deteriorating quality of food on the Rajdhani and the rail fare across trains seem to be two of the biggest discussion points each time the Railway Budget is presented.
But it's time we set aside the Rajdhani food for a bit and focus on what should be at the core of everybody's concern — whether or not passengers will reach their destinations safely, irrespective of budgetary allocations for various expenditure heads. Unfortunately, passenger safety seems to have been the least concern for the political class that sits over the financial fortunes of the Railways each year. And the recent Patna-Indore Express tragedy has once again highlighted this serious issue.
After the accident on Sunday, the government has initiated a probe to find out the possible cause of derailment. The accident site has been videographed, railway engineers and technical staff members were questioned and samples were collected from the debris to ascertain the factors that led to the derailment of 14 coaches of the Patna-Indore Express due to suspected rail fracture.
With as many as 146 deaths, it has become one of the worst rail disasters of recent times. And for once, the issue has united the railway employees’ unions across the political spectrum.
But, what after that?
The same old story of recommendations, promises and near-zero implementation is likely to repeat itself.
However, more than a decade ago in 2004, the Parliamentary Standing Committee in its report submitted to the 14th Lok Sabha had made radical observations on safety and the security of the Indian Railways. “We had recommended several measures for the safety and security of passengers in the Standing Committee report from the renewal of tracks to addressing the acute shortage of staff especially in the safety segment. But, barring a few, implementation of major recommendations was never done. So many passengers died in this accident. Had the new LHB-design coaches been used, as recommended, casualties could have been averted,” Basudeb Acharia, former chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Indian Railways and a seven-time Lok Sabha MP from Bengal told Firstpost.
A few Standing Committee observations:
- Resource crunch has been the basic cause for not proceeding with identified safety items like track-circuiting or renewal of the over-aged assets in the past three or four decades.
- Due to an acute shortage of staff at times, even the station masters have to perform commercial duties like the sale of tickets, booking of parcels/goods, attending public queries etc. In the process, there could be a lapse in train operations. Due to a shortfall in staff (that comes under the safety category), the safety of trains/operations has to be compromised.
- Against the 10 hours of duty from 'rolling on' to 'rolling off' and 12 hours of duty from signing on to sign off, the operational staff, especially gangmen and drivers, in actual practice have to work for even 22 to 24 hours at a stretch. At times, drivers have been found to be working for five consecutive days. Due to work stress and stifling conditions, the life of thousands of commuters is at risk and it certainly affects the safety of train operations.
- In order to earn more revenue, new trains have been introduced and many express trains were converted into super-fast ones and efforts are now being made to provide for commensurate safety safeguards and maintenance facilities. While doing so, proper care is not being taken to replace the over-aged rolling stock. The process of modernisation and renewal of track and maintenance lacks the desired attention.
- While the traffic has increased, the commensurate increase in assets for capacity-generation has not been there. The system is over-stretched, over-stressed and has a direct impact on the safety of the operations in running trains. Renewal and replacement of over-aged assets need to be expedited.
“Consecutive Rail Budgets have been ignoring the safety and security part and allocation in this segment is low in comparison to others. In a decade, the staff shortage has reached three lakh and due to this, time-bound renewal and maintenance of tracks is not happening,” added Acharia, who is also president of West Bengal Railway Contractor Labour Union.
The employees’ unions — whether Left or Right, are vocal against the current state of affairs in the Railways.
The RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Railway Mazdoor Sangh’s secretary-general, Ashok Shukla pointed out, “Every Rail Budget is politically-aimed. The number of trains is increased, populist announcements are made to keep the electorate happy, but ultimately the key concerns like passenger safety, track maintenance, renewal of tracks etc are compromised. The irony here is that Railways has set its standards in every category of operation, but fails to match it. Ultimately, the passengers have to pay the price.”
“There has been no real change in the mindset of Indian Railways since Independence. The political leadership has no control over bureaucracy even today. In the past decade, due to the government’s policy, there has been a massive curtailment in ground level staff, including loco drivers, whereas at the Rail Board-level, the number of members and officials has remained the same. The posts with permanent jobs have been filled by contractual workers, and the cascading effect is glaring,” Shukla added.
“There’s an acute staff crunch in the Railways and in the safety category, the shortfall is one lakh. Several staff members in sensitive positions including signal operators and drivers have to work beyond their capacity and working hours. It has been affecting the performance and safety is compromised. The Railway’s Depreciation Reserve Fund and Development Fund are getting depleted, and whatever is available is mere peanuts. Despite the Parliamentary Standing Committee and Kakodkar Committee’s recommendations, the government has shown a deaf ear to it and train accidents are continuing. We’re taking up this issue with the government,” a member of the Left-affiliated All-India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) remarked.