Edge of a Precipice

A point, missed by most, is the antiquated and dilapidated infrastructure of the railways. Replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha on 13 December 2019, the Railway Minister informed that there were 38,850 railway bridges, which were more than 100 years old. Much of the railway track is more than fifty years old, with more than 100 per cent utilisation on trunk routes. Train bogies of even prestigious trains, like Rajdhani, are more than twenty years old

Edge of a Precipice

Representational Image (File Photo)

It is truly said that railways are the lifeline of India. After democratisation of air travel, trains have receded from public consciousness, though most Indians still travel by train ~ around 13,169 trains carry, in aggregate, more than 2.20 crore passengers every day. Great metropolises like Kolkata and Mumbai come to a halt if suburban trains are disrupted. Running around 8,500 freight trains, the railways transport more than 1400 million tonnes of freight, every year. Indian Railways have a long history; established by the British to manage their Indian Empire, the Railways soon became a uniquely Indian enterprise.

At the time of Independence, different sections of the rail network were run profitably by different private companies; for example, the GIP Railway preceded the Central Railway, and Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway was the precursor of Western Railway. Post-Independence, from a profitable commercial enterprise, Indian Railways changed into a Government department, mutating, in no time, to a meal train for politicians.

Armies of youth were given jobs in the railways on political considerations, trains were started from the Rail Minister’s constituency, ticketless travel was ignored, hardly any investment was made for proper maintenance of tracks and rolling stock or for improvement of railway infrastructure. Hardly any new routes were commissioned. The result was a creaky and outdated railway system, with a poor record of safety and punctuality.


A comparison with China is instructive. In 1949, China had only about one-third of our track length, but today China’s track length is double of ours. China has 25,000 km of High-Speed tracks where trains run at 350 km per hour. China is now running freight trains up to Madrid, while we don’t run trains even up to Nepal. Poor upkeep of the Rail Museum at Delhi reflects the callous attitude and lack of vision of the Indian Railways. Iconic train engines, which are an invaluable national heritage, are stabled in the open at the mercy of the elements. Marketed better, the Rail Museum could be a big draw for train enthusiasts. With the elite not travelling by trains any longer, railways have lost much of their glamour. The Railway Budget has now been subsumed in the General Budget and railways are hardly in the news, except for some momentous event like the launch of a new train or some railway accident. It would appear, that railways have been relegated to a minor department of the Government ~ which is ill-advised, given the complexity and vastness of the operations of Indian Railways.

Bureaucratic control over railway means continuing with policies like prioritising passenger traffic, particularly of premium classes ~ which is a losing proposition ~ over goods traffic. Presently, on most days, Rajdhani AC 2 Tier or AC First Class fares between metro cities are higher than airfares, making trains the last option for premium passengers. It could be much better for both passengers and railway finances if trains are run with only AC- 3 Tier and Sleeper Class coaches.

The unfortunate three-train accident at Bahanaga Bazar station, in Odisha, which resulted in around 300 casualities has highlighted the neglect of safety considerations in the railways. Though the exact cause of the mishap will only be revealed by a statutory inquiry, by the Commissioner of Railway Safety, contributory causes are, however, manifest. Reports indicate that there is a huge shortage of 3.15 lakh frontline employees in the railways, which is around 30 per cent of the working strength ~ a large percentage of the vacant posts being in safety staff. KAVACH, an Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system, earlier known as the Train Collision Avoidance System, indigenously developed by the Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) in 2011-12, has been deployed on only 2 per cent of the railway network, though the cost of KAVACH is only Rs. 50 lakh per kilometre. Incidentally, KAVACH is a Safety Integrity Level 4 (SIL-4) certified technology with the probability of error being one in 10,000 years.

According to the CAG Report “Performance Audit on Derailment in Indian Railways” (tabled in Parliament in December 2022) “maintenance of tracks” is the major factor in most derailments. The Report goes on to state how track maintenance has been neglected, with allotment of funds for track renewal works declining over the years, and such funds remaining largely unspent. The Report goes on to mention that derailments accounted for 75 per cent of the total “consequential accidents.” Incidentally, the recent train accident also involved the derailment of Shalimar-Chennai Coromandel Express.

Thankfully, massive relief and rescue efforts have prevented further agony for the survivors. After the Bahanaga Bazar train accident, PM Modi has vowed the strictest possible action against those responsible for the mishaps. Mr. Modi’s views have been echoed by Mr. Pradhan, the Union Minister from Odisha. Probably, ignoring the rot in the railway system, the enquiry into the recent accident will find some lower-level functionary, driver, guard, signal maintainer or linesman responsible for the mishap and public conscience will have to be satisfied by his removal, or even imprisonment.

A point, missed by most, is the antiquated and dilapidated infrastructure of the railways. Replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha on December 13, 2019, the Railway Minister informed that there were 38,850 railway bridges, which were more than 100 years old. Recently, there were a series of railway overbridge collapses; a horrific bridge collapse in Mumbai in 2019 left 22 passengers dead, consequent to which the Railways promised a complete audit of all foot overbridges.

However, a similar tragedy took place, again in Mumbai, within one year. Much of the railway track is more than fifty years old, with more than 100 per cent utilisation on trunk routes. Train bogies of even prestigious trains, like Rajdhani, are more than twenty years old. However, finances earmarked for development and renewal are minuscule; Indian Railways earned revenues of Rs. 2.40 lakh crore for the financial year 2022-23, but it earmarked only Rs.700 crore for Depreciation Reserve Fund (DRF) (down from Rs.7,900 crores in 2014), Rs.1,000 crore for Development Fund (DF) and Rs.1,516.72 crore for Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (RRSK).

No wonder, the allegation that the railways concentrate on high-visibility projects to the exclusion of maintenance of systematically important infrastructure has a ring of truth. The lopsided priorities of the Railway Ministry were mentioned in a CAG report, tabled in Parliament in August 2018: “The station development/redevelopment plans mainly address on facilities for the passengers on the station premises and facade of stations only and not on removing constraints and bottlenecks for ensuring timely arrival and departure of trains to/from the stations, which should be one of the most important parameters of the quality of service being provided to the passengers.”

According to the CAG, most railway stations did not have enough platforms to accommodate the trains passing through them, which resulted in delays, yet the Rs.1 lakh crore station redevelopment plan did not address this problem or the problem of insufficient washing and examination pit lines and stabling lines. Frequent late running of trains often results in inadequate time being available for safetyrelated examination of coaches.

Non-availability of important spares in time is another reason for less-than-optimal fitness of rolling stock. A number of high-level committees have studied the functioning of Indian Railways, the latest being the Debroy Committee, appointed by the present Government, which mostly concentrated on structural reforms at the topmost level, and not on the fruitful utilisation of the humungous railway workforce exceeding 11.75 lakh men and women. Consequent to the Debroy Committee Report, officers from all eight railway services were amalgamated into a single Indian Railway Management Service. Many experts feel that this step would further dilute domain expertise, which may not augur well for the railways.

A reality check of railway policies is overdue; a passenger survey would reveal that most passengers want train travel to be safe, comfortable and punctual, rather than railway stations having the look of airport lounges. Systemic changes are required; in view of rapid technological changes, work responsibilities have to be revised at all levels. Demoralised railwaymen have to be enthused. Accountability has to be enforced. Focus on core activities has to be increased, peripheral activities like running of schools and hospitals, has to be curtailed. With its glorious 170-year history, the Railways will come out of the present crisis unscathed, only astute leadership is required.
(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)