It seems to be raining rail accidents these days, with two in swift succession. The hapless Suresh Prabhu is a good general but an unlucky one. He made sweeping changes in Indian railways (IR) since November 2014 when he became Minister. Most dramatic was his willingness to diminish his “empire” by merging the rail budget with the national budget. Similarly, far reaching was his delegation of financial powers for purchase and contracts away from the moribund Railway Board to the General Managers of the sixteen different railway systems which manage operations. Good management practise, yes. But more importantly it severed the ministerial potential for graft. Not many ministers have done similarly elsewhere.
Suresh Prabhu – a good but unlucky minister
Mr Prabhu has offered to resign owning up moral responsibility. Prime Minister Modi may have to let him go, reluctantly. Such is the dharma of politics. Having another accident on his watch would be unacceptable! Of course accidents are unlikely to stop merely by replacing the minister. Data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau records that in 2014 IR suffered 28,360 accidents or 78 accidents per day. So the chances of an accident happening, anytime, are high.
IR is low on transparency
IR would have us believe otherwise. In a document titled “Transforming Railways, Transforming India” issued in 2016, reviewing achievements since 2014, the number of accidents over the period 2009-2014 is mentioned as an average of 135 per year which resulted in 693 deaths. The National Crime Record Bureau data puts the number of deaths from railway accidents in 2014 as 25,006, with an additional 3,882 people injured. The discrepancy between the IR and the NCRB database is due to creative use of data by IR, which reports only “consequential” accidents involving derailments or collisions. The NCRB data is comprehensive and based on the First Information Report filed with the police for all accidents connected with rail travel.
IR not to blame for 62 percent of accidents
To be sure, not all the 25,006 railway accidents in 2014 were due to the fault of IR. 62 percent of these accidents occurred due to “people” error – travellers walking negligently on railway tracks and getting run over or falling from over full trains. But even around 11,000 accidents year is worrisome.
Rail still safer than road transport
To be fair to IR, their safety record should be compared with the other option available to travelers – road travel. The safety record of road travel is even worse. NCRB data for 2014 records 450,900 road accidents in that year with 141,526 deaths and 477,700 injured. The combined length of the National and State Highways, which carry the bulk of the traffic, is around 220,000 km or twice the length of rail track. The number of accidents however is 16 times more; the number of deaths is 6 times more and the number of injuries is 123 times more. Whilst the safety of road travel is a poor metric to use, it does provide a perspective of the objective conditions, in which IR operates.
Other than the likely moving out of Suresh Prabhu and the resignation of the the Chairman of the Railway Board, the other – more worrisome fall out – is going to be a typical short-term, defensive response of putting safety above all else. No private utility could have survived without doing as much, routinely. Consider,how tangled the Nuclear Power negotiations became when government legislated to put the onus of criminal and civil liability for accidents on the private sector suppliers of nuclear power equipment. But government service providers have more leeway in avoiding criminal action against them for safety lapses.
Safety or speed – a false binary
But the fact is that choosing between fast, modern trains and safe travel is a false binary. The populist, Luddite approach of slowing down the speed of trains, to avoid mishaps, is like asking car owners to go back to Ambassadors to reduce the risk of accidents by traveling slower. Technology allows you to travel both faster and safer. Air travel is for example both faster and safer than road travel. The Hyper Loop, when it arrives, is expected to boost both safety and speed at lower cost. The Indian Railways compete with other means of transport like road and air. It must provide the expected level of speed, convenience, comfort and safety which comparable transport options already embed. It has failed to do that, thereby losing marketshare to road transport over the last two decades.
Just as high-speed highways and the growing network of air routes has changed the way Indians travel, the Railways must also offer a bouquet of services to suit the differentiated needs of specific routes and category of customers. High-speed, premium railway transport on high-density routes radiating out from the hubs of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai can transform travel by rail. Similarly, the rapid expansion of metro lines is a smart option to reduce the urban carbon footprint and road congestion.
Both speed and safety are a function of reliable track infrastructure adequately insulated for unregulated traffic ingress and suitable rolling stock. The planned high speed, dedicated, rail traffic corridors intend to achieve precisely these objectives – much like expressways do in highways.
Sans investment, neither safety nor speed is possible
None of this — speed, safety or security — is possible, unless we step up investment in Indian Railways. We cannot manage the 108,000 km of track and 11,000 trains which run daily, by jugaad, penny pinching, dodgy maintenance schedules and techniques, antiquated rolling stock, poorly trained and equipped personnel and management systems, which have not changed since the first train ran in 1853.
Corporatize IR for efficiency enhancement
Indian Railways must be corporatized so that it can shine like other public-sector companies like National Thermal Power Corporation, Indian Oil Corporation and Steel Authority of India. This is impossible as a government department because the administrative and financial rules are unsuited to the dynamics of running a business.
Shun politics – Let IR become commercially viable
Railway tariff cannot be subject to politics. The same passenger who has no problem paying Re 1 per km for bus travel between cities pays just 28 paise per km of second class, rail travel and 45 paise per km in reserved sleeper class. Suburban rail travellers pay just 18 paise per km. This is an unsustainable and unnecessary subsidy, undeservedly enjoyed, mostly by the middle class. Rail tariff for non-AC travel must be increased to remunerative levels, thereby generating funds for improving the quality of services.
The spate of accidents has focused public attention on the need to restructure IR. What needs to be done is well known – using technology across the service delivery chain – track development and maintenance; signaling; rolling stock; communication; disaster relief and management systems. But none of this will happen unless Indian Railways is set free from the bureaucratic constraints which bind down its management cadres today. We can save lives, reduce the fiscal burden, improve rail services and make the economy more efficient by corporatizing IR. Time to walk the talk on good economics also being good politics.
Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, August 24, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/240817/making-trains-safer-and-faster.html