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Our performance in Railway safety has not been very good. Accidents happen with regularity, and fatalities mount. Railways have a very well-oiled system of relief rrains, enquiries and compensations, which take over in the event of any serious accident. Much less is known about the outcomes of the investigations and accountabilities established, consequences meted out, corrective actions and status of implementation of recommendations arising out of such inquiries. One thing is known for sure. People die due to these accidents. And, the less we talk about accountabilities, the better - because, those golden days of Railway Minister (read Lal Bahadur Shastri) resigning, taking full ownership of loss of lives are now only to be found in the pages of history. Today, the bigger the accident, the lower we go down the hierarchy of officialdom, looking for silent scapegoats.
Whenever we wish to improve an internal situation, we must benchmark our performance with competitive peers. This is as true for an organisation, as it is for a nation. Where do we stand globally, in rail safety? According to International Union of Railways (UIC) report of Oct 2015, fatalities per million train kilometres have fallen from 0.34 in 2009 to 0.22 in 2014, while at the same time, UIC´s Global Safety Index (GSI) has also dropped from 12.54 in 2006 to 8.39 in 2014. All of this shows that the world has made some progress in improving safety. Corresponding numbers for IR were not immediately available. We know from answers to questions in Parliament that deaths have been coming down from 113 in11/12, to 80 in 12/13, to 54 in 13/14, but have gone up to 63 in just six months of 2015. Based on these numbers, I indirectly computed the fatalities per million train kilometres for India in 2011/12 as 0.2 fatalities approx., which happens to be somewhere near the average of all nations. An incoming government cannot be asked to own legacy issues overlooked over the last 50 years. But it can surely be critiqued on its priorities. Train accidents are caused by deficiencies in rolling stock and coupling systems, track systems, signalling technology, level crossing lacunae, and inadequate operation and maintenance. These deep-seated issues cannot be wished away overnight. But efforts can be made to set a direction, and investments made to reduce fatalities over time. The question that comes to mind is do we have our priorities right?
What does the common man, the unsuspecting passenger want? If we know the common man, perhaps we shall also know he would rather reach his destination late than never. He does not need high speed trains. He needs a guarantee of safety, and delivery of hygiene and basic amenities. He wants Railways to invest in tracks, rolling stock, signalling, and all the other things that are needed to prevent accidents. He wants these investments to be done not just from Depreciation Reserve Funds or Safety Funds or even the newly mooted National Railway Safety Fund, but with all the money the Railways have at its disposal. No financial return can be greater than prevention of loss of human lives. Let us not create trains which will have to make an impossible 1000 trips daily to achieve financial viability, by invoking the vague promise of technological spin-off benefits. Let us stay grounded in reality, and prioritise on saving lives.
While assuming charge in 2014, our Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu had rightly said safety and customer satisfaction were his priority areas. We do hope this translates into appropriate visible actions, and eventually into tangible outcomes.