Governance and Policies

Indian Railways needs to focus more on safety, Prabhu’s resignation will not help

India’s state-owned transporter is witnessing an unprecedented change. Railways minister Suresh Prabhu has put in his papers; the railway board is in the process of being restructured following the decision to replace the chairman of the board.

Aug 25, 2017
India’s state-owned transporter is witnessing an unprecedented change. Railways minister Suresh Prabhu has put in his papers; the railway board is in the process of being restructured following the decision to replace the chairman of the board. So, is one to assume that the government is now determined to confront and address the challenges of providing for safe rail travel?
 
Former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri was independent India’s first railways minister to quit following a train accident. Others including Madhavrao Scindia, Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee had also offered to resign after similar tragedies. But their resignations were not accepted by the prime ministers of the period.
 
Upon his/her elevation, each railways minister has declared the subject of passenger safety to be the top priority. But the record of the Indian Railways — particularly in respect of the numbers of passenger deaths — has progressively worsened over the years. Long-pending technology upgrade plans such as the installation of Train Collision Avoidance Systems or the Anti-Collision Devices have not moved forward. Rolling stock (locomotives, coaches or wagons) are antiquated; signalling systems are obsolete; track renewal targets have been lagging behind — and the transporter is also hobbled by the issue of underinvestment.
 
Railway expenditure as a percentage of transport sector expenditure was placed at 56% in the Seventh Plan (1985-1990), but reduced to 30% in the Eleventh Plan (2007-2012). In the last two decades, the share of the Indian Railways in overall GDP had been static at 1%, further reducing to 0.9% in 2012-2013. In case Mr Prabhu’s resignation is accepted, how will the new railways minister tackle these multiple issues that have a direct bearing on passenger safety?
 
The question has no easy answers, but one fact remains: The NDA government’s quest to provide for a modern and efficient transportation system matching global standards is commendable; but age-old practices and methods that have served the aim of passenger safety in the past cannot be entirely rejected. The railways need to go back to basics and get it right.
 
Hindustan Times, August 25, 2017

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