All aboard the train to nowhere

India has had some of the worst train accidents in the world, more frequently than any other country

This column was first published on 3 August 2012 and had to be republished due to technical glitches.

If you look at lists of the worst train accidents in the world, India figures more often than any other country. You take any period, accidents in the past 50 years, or 20 years, or this century, India appears the maximum number of times as the country that had the worst rail accident on the planet in a particular year. In 1981, a brake failure and an attempt to evade a buffalo during a cyclone led to an unestimated number of deaths in Bihar. In 1995, Firozabad, in 1998, Golden Temple Mail, in 1999, Gaisal near Guwahati, in 2005, Nalgonda, Andhra Pradesh. No other country makes the grade to this dubious honour so often. Not even Pakistan, whose railways share the same legacy. Sri Lanka appears just once because the tsunami of 2004 swept away a passenger train. Other countries on that unfortunate roll are Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Iran, Egypt and North Korea, none of them countries we aspire to emulate. China, whom we do wish to emulate, had one serious accident in 2008 where 70 people died. Do note that this is a list of only the worst train accidents in the world. The Indian train accidents which may not be classified as the worst but resulted in fatalities are many more. Here’s a smattering of those which happened in this century:

May 2002: 12 killed, New Delhi-Patna Shramjeevi Express derails while passing over a bridge in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh

June 2002: 34 killed, Kasgunj Express crashes into a bus at a rail crossing

May 2003: A burst stove causes a devastating fire in a speeding passenger train in Punjab, killing 40 people

July 2003: 22 passengers and motorists killed in a ghastly accident in Andhra Pradesh, when the engine and two coaches of a train fall off a bridge crushing vehicles passing underneath

May 2010: 148 die, Gyaneshwari Express derails after track sabotage and derailed coaches are hit by an oncoming goods train

July 2010: 60 killed, a speeding Sealdah-bound Uttarbanga Express slams into the Vananchal Express in Birbhum, West Bengal.

There is a dangerous, specious argument that whips out the length of the tracks, complications of the railway system in India and the number of trains running everyday, to suggest a few accidents are bound to happen when you are the world’s third largest railway network. That’s like a hospital saying it will deliver babies safely most of the time. Safety is not negotiable, especially when a majority of accidents have occurred due to negligence and faulty equipment. As you can see, the accident record cuts across sectors, kinds of train and class of travel. Essentially, it could be any of us in one of those trains. Let’s see who’s responsible to ensure we don’t get burnt on our berths or thrown into a river while sleeping in the train.

There is a Commission of Railway Safety in Lucknow, which curiously works under the aviation ministry. Its function is “to direct, advise and caution railway executives on matters of safety" though it is quickly clarified that “the responsibility for safety rests solely with the Railway Board and the zonal railway authorities". The inquiries made by the commission seem to have no correlation with the accident tally. In 2008-09, there were 177 accidents. The commission lists 25 inquires. In fact, the number of inquires are uniformly at 24 or 25 every year, as per the information on its website. Among its achievements it mentions provision of emergency exit doors in coaches. We don’t know which trains have them but the Tamil Nadu Express doesn’t seem to have been a beneficiary.

There is no dearth of recommendations on how to improve safety. The railways ministry is a rambling entity with 45 departments. There must be someone in charge merely for nomenclature of its various committees. One is called a High Powered Committee, to look into “duty hours of railways staff and other safety related aspects". There is an Expert Group on Modernization of Railways. It presented a landmark report to the railways minister in February 2012 recommending various safety measures including eliminating all level crossings, mechanized maintenance of track and equipping trains with warning systems. The most important among these expert groups is the High Level Safety Review committee or the Kakodkar committee that also presented its report to the minister in February 2012. (February seems to have been a busy month for him). The Kakodkar committee observed what is plain for all of India to see —that the railways was in terrible shape, financially and infrastructurally, like a train going nowhere. It attributed frequent train accidents to poor equipment and lack of empowerment of ground level personnel. The report made over a hundred recommendations to improve safety, including installation of an advanced signalling system and changing the design of coaches. (None of them say the government should step out of this business of running trains, which ought to be the top recommendation.)

The expense to achieve improved rail safety was estimated at 1 trillion. The committee suggested how the money could be raised at least partly, through sale of land, of which the railways has humongous amounts, levying a safety cess on passengers and taking a grant from the central government. “These are all suggestions by the committee, we haven’t decided yet," the railways minister is reported to have said, and indicated he would find ways to raise money as he was reluctant to charge a levy to passengers.

Between February, when this report was tabled, and now, there have been eight train accidents, including last week’s one of Tamil Nadu Express, almost like a side show. The Tamil Nadu Express story has already been edged out in a matter of hours. Meanwhile, China, in an uncharacteristic move this June, sought public opinion for a draft legislation on improved railway safety. Maybe someone should ask Indian passengers whether we will pay a safety tax if it will mean reaching our destination alive. Chances are we will say yes.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns

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