Rail safety, always at discount

Rail safety, always at discount

The recent rail accident in Uttar Pradesh that left 80 dead and over 350 injured is a grim reminder of the harm that can befall citizens when left to the mercy of poorly maintained machines.

With sabotage ruled out, post-mortems are afoot to ascertain why the train jumped the tracks. The dice is loaded against those who maintain the tracks when compared with those who maintain the rolling stock, the coaches and the engines. Here’s why: engineers at the rail sheds get a reasonable amount of time to inspect the coaches while they’re readied for the return journey. However, the window is far shorter for those who maintain the tracks. The reason: the staggering pace at which new trains are introduced every year. Former railway minister Lalu Prasad upped the ante, crossing the century mark, only to be sustained by his successor, Mamata Banerjee.

This populism binge comes at a heavy price. Sure, the rail inspection system can be automated to keep up with the rising train density. This proposal is unacceptable to government (read political class) since it means fewer jobs.

There is more to it.

It’s bad enough that the rails are not well maintained; but all is not lost even when the train jumps the tracks due to this reason. Modern coaches are designed with enhanced safety that lets you off with a few bruises or broken bones. You can still get home. This is because the coaches don’t telescope and pile up over each other; the coupling between coaches stays firmly in place even when they jump tracks at high speeds.

But that’s a small proportion of what the railways churns out—of the 2,800 coaches produced last year, only 400 were of this kind. The rest belong to a design dating back to the late 1940s. And, in the event of an accident, they telescope, instantly sniffing out scores of lives—this is exactly what happened a few weeks back.

The only reason it is still produced is that it is 40% cheaper than the newer design coaches introduced at the turn of this century. With limited funds to spend, the rail ministry mandarins have, over the years, adopted this “rationalization" to help politicians score their “centuries".

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