Perilous journeys, destination unknown
Rail safety suffers as politics overrides sensible priorities
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NEW DELHI, September 2002, (IPS) - With the death toll in this month's train wreck in Bihar passing 100, criticism is again being directed at the government for its policies on safety in a rail network that moves 15 million people a day. Sixteen coaches of the luxury Rajdhani Express bound for the national capital from the eastern metropolis of Kolkata fell off a 95-year-old bridge built by the British over a small river near Rafiqganj station some 200 kilometers south of Bihar's capital, Patna. The engine crossed over safely and two other coaches were unharmed.

Federal Railway Minister Nitish Kumar was quick to defend his ministry and sought to blame the crash on possible sabotage. He added that fishplates, which hold rail sections together, had been removed. The government has ordered an inquiry into the exact cause of the accident, but Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani said he sees no reason to suspect sabotage. Advani holds the key home portfolio as well.

As politicians squabble over the likely cause of the crash, experts are claiming that not enough priority is being given to safety on India's aging railway network, which marked its 150th anniversary this year. Said C.M. Khosla, former member of the country's Railway Board: "Too many decisions are being made based on political considerations. Upgrading and modernization are being neglected for lack of funds." Khosla said that over the past 10 years, the percentage of money allocated by the rail ministry for track renewal alone has gone down from 17 percent to about 14 percent when it should have been going up. "You can see the results," he said.

Experts attribute a spate of horrendous accidents in recent years to "populist" budgeting, which has kept fares low and the trains and tracks overcrowded. They claim that the improvement of safety systems has not matched the railways' incessant expansion. The last major railway accident, at Kadalundi in Kerala in June 2001, claimed 57 lives when a train fell from a century-old bridge into a lake. According to M.K. Mishra, who also served on the railway board, passenger traffic over the past 50 years has gone up by more than 500 percent and freight by 600 percent, but maintenance spending has not kept pace.

Experts say that bridges, tracks and signaling equipment dating back to the steam era were never designed to take on fast-moving, heavy, air-conditioned coaches of the type used on the Rajdhani class of trains, which are meant to link together India's major metropolises with the national capital and provide an alternative to air travel. Internal documents of the railway ministry reveal inadequate facilities for even routine examination of engines and rolling stock, while more trains are added to timetables to please political constituencies.

Last year, in response to frequent accidents, the government announced a safety tax on tickets and budgeted Rs.1500 crores to be spent over the next six years on safety measures, especially track and bridge renewal. But the money is already being diverted to new lines and the creation of new railway centers that are being opened with much fanfare. Said S.M. Vaish a retired general manager: "There is no lack of funds. It is a question of priorities... after all there can be no opening ceremonies for a safety project."

Test audits in the past have in fact revealed widespread ignorance by the staff on matters of safety. At least a third of accidents are caused by the errors of railway staff, records show. Another third are the result of failure of tracks, including fractures caused by excessive use and the slow phasing out of overaged rolling stock. An estimate made last year showed that at least 50,000 of India's bridges date back to the 19th century and some 12,000 kilometers of track urgently need replacement. At least 35,000 coaches and goods wagons need to be retired.

India's railway network now stretches over 63,000 kilometers, making it the world's second largest. The money to improve the railway system could be found by raising tariffs, which are among the lowest in the world. But that would be unpopular - the railways network is big enough to present its own budget every year immediately before the annual budget itself is presented. Nitish Kumar's immediate predecessor as railway minister, Mamata Bannerjee, had in fact committed herself to a "no passenger fare hike" policy, although experts like Khosla estimate that keeping fares low does not necessarily translate into votes.

Ranjit Devraj
September 2002

Ranjit Devraj is a correspondent with Inter Press Service, a global news resource faciliating south-south and south-north dialogue on important economic, social, environmental, and other issues. IPS is distributed by Global Information Network

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