In­dia rail­ways suf­fer from in­ad­e­quate funds, ne­glect

Net­work op­er­ates more than 12,600 trains, car­ries 23m daily

Kuwait Times - - BUSI­NESS -

It’s of­ten de­scribed as In­dia’s life­line, trans­port­ing 23 mil­lion peo­ple across the vast South Asian coun­try each day. In­dia’s rail net­work, the world’s third largest, op­er­ates more than 12,600 trains car­ry­ing pas­sen­gers and cargo along 115,000 kilo­me­ters of track. With more than 1.4 mil­lion em­ploy­ees, it is the coun­try’s largest em­ployer. But not all is well with sta­te­owned In­dian Rail­ways, as was high­lighted Sun­day when 14 packed cars on a pas­sen­ger train skid­ded off the tracks, killing at least 148 peo­ple in the north­ern state of Ut­tar Pradesh, af­ter two more vic­tims died of their in­juries yes­ter­day.

For years, it’s been clear that the much-ro­man­ti­cized legacy of Bri­tish colo­nial rule, built more than 160 years ago, is badly hob­bled by fund­ing short­falls, aging tracks, out­dated sig­nal­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems and a traf­fic vol­ume that has pushed these sys­tems be­yond their lim­its. The week­end’s deadly train tragedy, the cause of which is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, has fo­cused at­ten­tion on how In­dia can re­store both ef­fi­ciency and public con­fi­dence in its rail­ways.

In­dia’s econ­omy has boomed in re­cent decades, and dozens of pri­vate air­lines have emerged to serve the grow­ing up­per mid­dle class. But for tens of mil­lions of In­di­ans liv­ing in the hin­ter­lands or un­able to af­ford air travel, trains are their trans­porta­tion life­line. It can be a dan­ger­ous life­line. In­dia’s crime records bu­reau says that in 2014, the lat­est year for which fig­ures are avail­able, more than 25,000 peo­ple died in rail­way ac­ci­dents that ranged from trav­el­ers fall­ing from the roofs of mov­ing trains to train col­li­sions.

In 2012, a govern­ment safety com­mit­tee said about 15,000 peo­ple die ev­ery year try­ing to cross train tracks, which it re­ferred to as “a mas­sacre.” On Sun­day, hours af­ter the ac­ci­dent in north­ern Ut­tar Pradesh state, Rail­way Min­is­ter Suresh Prabhu an­nounced an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and said any­one found guilty would be strictly pun­ished. But blame should also fall on suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments and rail­way min­is­ters that have starved the or­ga­ni­za­tion of funds, deny­ing it key re­sources to up­grade crit­i­cal equip­ment and push­ing it to the brink of bank­ruptcy, said for­mer Rail­way Min­is­ter Di­nesh Trivedi.

Trivedi said the rail­ways need 200 bil­lion to 250 bil­lion ru­pees ($3 bil­lion to $3.8 bil­lion) sim­ply to re­place old equip­ment. In­stead, the govern­ment ap­proved a mere 32 bil­lion ru­pees ($485 mil­lion) in the 2016 bud­get. “There­fore, the much-re­quired re­place­ment of old as­sets is post­poned - know­ingly com­pro­mis­ing safety,” Trivedi said. Crit­ics of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, who came to power in 2014, say his govern­ment has con­cen­trated too much on high-pub­lic­ity rail plans, like want­ing to in­tro­duce high-speed “bul­let” trains, in­stead of bor­ing but nec­es­sary up­grades and re­pairs.

“When we can barely man­age train speeds as they are at present, such talk of build­ing bul­let trains on which bil­lions of dol­lars are to be spent is il­log­i­cal,” said Ba­sudev Acharya, a for­mer law­maker who headed a par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee over­see­ing rail­way op­er­a­tions. “What needs im­me­di­ate fix­ing is to en­sure ad­e­quate funds for main­te­nance of the ex­ist­ing stock and, most im­por­tantly, fill­ing up va­can­cies among safety work­ers,” Acharya said. Rail­way work­ers say decades of fund­ing crunches have taken their toll. Pas­sen­ger trains in In­dia run at slow speeds, av­er­ag­ing around 50 kilo­me­ters an hour, while freight trains are even slower, av­er­ag­ing half that. “Even at such low speeds we have a high num­ber of deaths in rail­way ac­ci­dents. Can you imag­ine the toll if the speed were any faster?” said N B Dutta, a rail­way lo­co­mo­tive driver and pres­i­dent of the All In­dia Loco Run­ning Staff Association, a train op­er­a­tors’ trade union. On Sun­day, four chil­dren were killed by an in­ter­city

‘A mas­sacre’ Com­pro­mis­ing safety

ex­press train while cross­ing the tracks in the north­east state of As­sam. Dutta spoke of cru­cial safety-re­lated po­si­tions that re­mained va­cant, plac­ing rail conductors un­der stress. “We work four to five nights con­sec­u­tively,” though rules say conductors should only work two nights in a row, said Dutta.

His col­league, C. Su­n­ish, said the stress can be im­mense, with driv­ers try­ing to catch sleep in rail­way sta­tion wait­ing rooms af­ter 12- to 14hour shifts. Su­n­ish said suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have failed to im­ple­ment the rec­om­men­da­tions of state-ap­pointed com­mit­tees on rail safety. “Ev­ery time there is an ac­ci­dent, the min­is­ter will or­der an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but the out­come re­mains the same. No cor­rec­tional mea­sures are taken,” he said. Al­though the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Sun­day’s train de­rail­ment is still un­der­way, rail­way ex­perts said it was most likely caused by tracks that had de­te­ri­o­rated over the years. Most rail­way tracks are checked ev­ery day with ul­tra­sonic de­tec­tors that can spot changes in track con­di­tions. This is fol­lowed by vis­ual in­spec­tions, rail­way man­agers say. But with many jobs va­cant, some lapses in checks should be ex­pected, they warned. Run­ning the rail­ways in In­dia, reg­u­lat­ing the bud­get, en­sur­ing safety and man­ag­ing rail traf­fic is done by a gov­ern­men­tap­pointed Rail­way Board.

— AP

HYDERABAD: In this Jan 13, 2016 file photo, In­di­ans scram­ble to en­ter a train in Hyderabad, In­dia. For more than 150 years, In­dia’s sprawl­ing rail net­work has helped knit this dis­parate coun­try to­gether.

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