Accountability key to India’s rail safety

Indian Railways needs more investment and less political interference to fix the problems that are ailing it for years

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Accidents on Indian railways occur with alarming regularity. Less than two weeks after a fire on an express train killed 23 people in southern India, a similar incident killed at least nine passengers near Mumbai on Wednesday. In many ways, the state of the railways typifies the problems that plague India itself.

As a large and cumbersome organisation with more than 1.3 million employees, Indian Railways operates one of the oldest and most extensive networks in the world. Its track length has expanded to more than 114,000 kilometres over its 160-year history, and its rolling stock includes thousands of trains that have been introduced over the years. Unfortunately, the government has done little to overhaul the creaking infrastructure to ensure passenger safety – despite countless high-level committees, special panels, status reports and white papers pointing to the need to do so.

The authorities might have drawn satisfaction from the statistics that the accident rate has fallen from 0.44 per million train kilometres travelled in 2002-2003 to 0.15 in 2010-1011, but these statistics obscure more than they reveal, and raise more questions than they answer: are periodic inspections carried out on trains? Is firefighting equipment available on board each compartment? Are there adequately trained staff on board to fight fires? Are safety devices maintained properly? The list goes on. All of these issues point towards a lack of accountability and sclerotic bureaucracy that not only stalls progress of the railways but that of the nation.

Despite Indian Railways’ central role in Indian society, its business style remains highly bureaucratic and subject to the whims of the political class. This helps explain why, as the BBC reported earlier, a substantial portion of the organisation’s safety funds (created back in 2001), remained unutilised more than a decade later. Indian Railways finds itself in need of considerable investment – and it needs to be done now. Achieving its goals, as in its ambitious space missions, will require more government funding but also less political and bureaucratic interference.

In a country like India where the reliability of road transport is affected by poorly-maintained and overcrowded highways, trains assume a disproportionate importance in society. Based on the accidents like those in the past few weeks, rail passengers certainly deserve better than this.