Two rail accidents in four days put high-speed train dream off the track

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train accidentWhile Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking initiatives to collaborate with Japan to develop world-class Railways infrastructure to run high-speed trains such as bullet trains, the Indian Railways is bent upon to shatter his dreams causing frequent setback due to collisions and derailments that had killed around 200 people and injured thousands this year. Uttar Pradesh witnessed two horrible derailments on 19th August and 23rd August 2017, just within four days killing 23 passengers and injuring around 232 travelers and outsiders. It was the fourth major accident this year on the crumbling Railway tracks. Minister for Railways Suresh Prabhu offered to resign owning up moral responsibility for mishaps but the Prime Minister reportedly asked him to “wait.”. Railway Board Chairman AK Mittal had to quit immediately in view increasing derailments.

At least 32 people died in the Jagdalpur-Bhubaneshwar Express derailment on January 21, and 150 people died in the Indore-Patna Express derailment near Kanpur in November last year. Series of accidents have shaken the roots of confidence of people in the functioning of the largest national carrier. With the introduction of new trains growing need of matching structural changes in its infrastructure network, manpower and functioning is inevitable but the government failed to provide adequate financial resources. The chairman Mittal was ousted because Prime Minister Modi was very annoyed over slackness and lack of monitoring in Rail operations. Mittal was an officer from the services of stores throughout his career and except procurement he had very little practical experience of traffic management. He was reported to be a blue-eyed boy of Suresh Prabhu, who managed two years extension of service for him.

New Railway Board chairman Ashwini Lohani is a 1980 batch officer with excellent track of record as CMD of Air India.

He has been credited for uplifting sinking Air India into a profit earning venture offsetting its huge losses. Now he has been trusted to overcome the challenges that Indian Railways is facing. Indian Railways has the biggest organised and effective trade union mechanism of the world.

The Unions are against any attempt of privatisation aimed at reduction of jobs for the employees. Since the new chairman promised passenger’s safety as his fore most priority therefore he has to go for a special recruitment drive to fill up shortfall of about 2 lacs safety related employees.

Unfortunately the focus and priority of Railways has not been on passengers’ safety but to explore various methods to increase its income from it’s over lived assets. Though safety surcharge has been imposed on every passenger since Nitish Kumar’s regime and work was undertaken for improvement of tracks and signaling system. When RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav became Railways Minister he emphasised to earn more and more revenue. He allowed approximately six tons of extra load per wagon that badly damaged the track conditions. Lack of investment on track improvement and back up infrastructure has resulted in frequent accidents and derailments.

The General Secretary of All India Railwaymen Federation Shiv Gopal Mishra told “Tehelka,” “We are facing acute shortage of safety staff. About 2lacs posts are laying vacant including 70,000 trackmen who are responsible for safe operations of train movements. With the less staff the burden of discharging duties have grown manifold leading to stress during abnormal working hours. They have to work overtime beyond human limits. Sometime due to fatigue such human errors take place taking toll of innocent passengers.” Mourning the death of passengers Mishra told painfully, “Railways has been very shabbily treated by government of India despite being its own setup. Neither proper investments to improve infrastructure have been provided in budget nor has shortage of staff been recouped by inducting safety staff.”

Amid ambitious plans to rollout high speed bullet trains on the tracks of Indian Railways two major accidents just within four days have badly exposed its preparedness, poor infrastructure and lapses in operational management resulted in frequent derailments including Kalinga Utkal Express, which killed at least 23 people and injured over 156. Fourteen carriages of Kalinga Utkal Express had gone off-track in Muzaffarnagar district in Uttar Pradesh, 114 Km away from New Delhi, on the evening of 19th August, 2017 where heavy repairs were going on without any caution. The train was carrying pilgrims for Haridwar. The coaches were left piled atop each other after the express train derailed at the speed of 100 kilometers per hour, crashing into nearby houses and a college.

Just four days after the Utkal Express tragedy 74 people were injured after the Delhi-bound Kaifiyat Express derailed near Auraiya district in Uttar Pradesh early on 23rd August, 2107. While no deaths have been reported yet, the stranded passengers have been sent back to New Delhi. The train travelling from Azamgarh to Delhi collided with a sand dumper around 2.50 am between Pata and Achalda railway stations and its 10 coaches got derailed, a spokesperson for the North Central Railway (NCR) told media. NCR sources said that work for a dedicated freight corridor was in progress at the site at the time of the accident.

On August 29, An engine and nine coaches of Nagpur-bound Duronto Express derailed near Asangaon in Maharashtra. According to the officials, the derailment may have been caused due to the construction work being conducted on the third line. One passenger was reportedly injured in the mishap.

Earlier in another shocking accident on the wee hours of 20th November, 2016, when fourteen coaches of Indore-Patna Express were thrown off track at Pukhrayan, a town around 60 km from Kanpur, when the train was midway in its 27-hour journey between Indore and Patna. The coaches jumped from the tracks and smashed up against each other, killing more than 150 passengers. Two coaches were completely smashed up beyond recognition and several other coaches were hanging off the tracks.

Experts blame under-investment and poor safety standards for the frequency of rail accidents. India’s railway network is the world’s fourth largest and remains the lifeline of this vast country, but it is poorly funded and deadly accidents often occur. The recommendations of various committees on safety such as Khanna Committee, Kakodkar Committee are gathering dust in the Railway Board.

Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had agreed upon to accelerate execution of Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed Rail (MAHSR) Project, a flagship project between the two countries by holding the Ground Breaking Ceremony in September 2017. Indian government has pledged $137 billion over five years to modernise the crumbling railways and signed numerous upgrading deals with private companies. Japan has agreed to provide $12 billion in soft loans to build India’s first bullet train.

The Indian Railways has gone a sea change in respect of its independent existence and separate identity as BJP led NDA government has merged its budget in the general budget. Now when Railway budget is part of consolidated budget of India the responsibility to fund its modernisation and infrastructural development lies in the hands of Ministry of Finance. The Union budget is already overburdened with the expenditure of seventh pay commission for its employees and therefore it do not have finances to meet the needs of Railways. In such circumstances government has no options but to allow partnership with private players in its developmental projects.

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