De-romancing Indian Railways

If you think of railways and you imagine Shah Rukh-Kajol in Dilwale Dulhaniya and Chaiyyan Chaiyyan, or if you are slightly older then the classics like Rajesh Khanna singing Mere sapno kii rani kab ayegi tu or Aao bacchon tumhein dikhaen jhaanki Hindustan kii, then STOP. The Romance of the Indian Railways is truly over. You can’t have over 18-22,000 Indians dying in a year in train-related accidents and still associate railways with lovers and loving. It is plain horror.

Rescue work is carried out after the Secunderabad-LTT Duronto Express derailed at Martur Railway Station in Karnataka on Saturday. Pic/PTI
Rescue work is carried out after the Secunderabad-LTT Duronto Express derailed at Martur Railway Station in Karnataka on Saturday. Pic/PTI

Two ghastly rail accidents in one day last Saturday. Two British women dead and five other passengers injured when the Kalka–Simla train derailed at Kalka station. Most of us who live in the north and have taken vacations in Simla would know it as the Toy train. The route has stunning views and the train goes through dozens of tunnels and bridges. I never liked it as a kid and never liked it as an adult. It always had uncomfortable seating, was always overcrowded, and my childhood memory is of being squished between adults in a tiny very, very slow train that would stop at decrepit stations where nobody got off or got on.

On Saturday, in another accident, two passengers died and eight others were injured after nine coaches of the Duranto Express going from Secunderabad to Mumbai derailed in Karnataka.

Nothing really changes with the Indian Railways. It doesn’t matter which government comes to power, thousands of people die every year in train accidents despite statements of ‘zero tolerance’ to accidents. Forty per cent of train accidents in the country and 66 per cent of fatalities occur at manned and unmanned railway crossings. In 2014 accidents at railway crossings increased by 83.5 per cent when compared to 2013. A ‘high-level committee’ has been formed now to sort this issue out. Tens of thousands of crores have been put at the disposal of this committee to correct this, literally, deadly situation.

The good man that he is, Mr Suresh Prabhu has invited foreign investors to invest in manufacturing here because the Indian government plans to invest $120 billion in the railways over the next five years. That’s all very well, but what about the recurring accidents?

There was something called the Kaya Kalp council that was set up recently to give a facelift to the ailing railway system in the country. It does sound like an expensive spa. And it has the spiffy Ratan Tata heading it too! He and a group of experts, who it seems, know how Railways function in developed countries because they, let’s see now, maybe, take public transport when they travel abroad.

What they want, they say, are reports made on comparative studies. So apparently data will be obtained from China, France, Germany and the UK to find out how they run their systems and don’t have frequent accidents.

Here are some tips from people who travel by trains. More trains, more coaches, better tracks, more safety, more security, more toilets, better lighting, better seats, easier ticketing, user-friendly stations. Less talk, more action. Privatise with single-window clearances. Don’t talk. Don’t promise. Just do it.

The easy way would be to blame previous governments for the state of affairs or excuses that it is the largest railway network and it ferries more passengers than any other rail network in the world. That is fine but we really don’t need thousands of people dying in accidents every year, despite all those wonderful claims.

The huge mandate that has come the way of BJP in 2014 is simply because people believed that the government will not give excuses about why things would not and could not change overnight. Somehow this is not visible in the Railways, as yet.

Eight train accidents due to derailment (doesn’t include railway crossings) and almost 190 people have lost their lives in 2015 alone. As per the National Crime Records Bureau, 27,581 Indians died in 2014 in railway related accidents. The only saving grace is that you are more likely to die in a road accident than in a rail accident. Sadly, that is no consolation. Let’s face it, our Railways are in a mess far greater than anyone imagined and are only getting worse. If they can’t deliver on the once famed services they should at least ensure safety. If Suresh Prabhu delivers that — just safety — he will have made his mark.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on Twitter @smitaprakash

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