Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Railways, focus on safety, not speed

Feb 17, 2015:
Friday’s train accident at Anekal near Bengaluru once again showed that the Indian railway system is not as safe as it should be. More importantly, the derailment of the Bengaluru-Ernakulam Intercity Express killing nine passengers and injuring scores is yet another wake-up call to the Railway Ministry to focus on safety rather than on speed.
For millions of Indian rail passengers reaching their destinations is paramount rather than how long it took to reach. If this simple sentiment is understood by the Railway mandarins, a lot of good will happen in the running of hundreds of trains that crisscross the country each day. 

The government, in fact, must seriously rethink its plans to bring in foreign experts and, with their help, build high-speed trains that, for instance, can cover a 36-hour journey between New Delhi and Chennai in just seven hours. One possible reason for the Anekal derailment was the substandard condition of the tracks. This was due to poor maintenance of this stretch, going by reports. If that is indeed the case, one shudders to think of the consequences if something like this were to be happen on tracks on which the high-speed trains are to run. The other speculation is whether the train was travelling at a higher speed than designated on the Anekal stretch. Though the loco pilots aver they were well below the speed limit, some passengers quoted in the media said the train appeared to be travelling too fast. The inquiry instituted into the accident will eventually come out with the exact causes but what this accident, like the many others earlier, indicates is that India has a long way to go to make its safety record near-perfect.

One of the issues associated with safety is unmanned railway crossings. This country is still in the previous century where unmanned crossings are concerned. Thousands of these highly unsafe crossings dot the country. Successive governments have routinely mouthed promises to either man these crossings or build underpasses or overbridges. But, nothing much has happened on this front. Accidents are routine at these spots and unsuspecting people get killed. According to one report, of the 33,000 railway level crossings, some 16,000 are unmanned. Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu has demanded Rs 20,000 crore to eliminate unmanned crossings. On the other hand, for just 500 km of high-speed rail, the cost is a mind-boggling Rs 63,000 crore. If high-speed is on top of the list why not unmanned crossings? The Railways must get its priorities right and opt for safety over speed. Accidents like the latest one in Anekal are entirely avoidable. Period.


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