NEW DELHI: Sunday’s rail accident that killed at least 68 and injured 181 occurred on the Delhi-Howrah route — one of the busiest routes — thanks to successive ministers from the eastern part of the country.
The ministers — be it Ram Vilas Paswan, Lalu Prasad or Mamata Banerjee — pushed railway mandarins to run new trains at higher speed catering to their constituency despite the route being saturated.
In this route, where more than 70% of the sections are critical, 17 sections of this route are more than 120% utilized, 12 sections are more than 100% utilized and 11 are more than 80% utilized, according to calculations of 2007-08.
The route, a part of golden quadrilateral, was put under more strain after Banerjee took charge and went on to announce a slew of Kolkata-bound trains in quick succession. With technological advances, though railways manages to run more trains on this route, the situation turns worse during winter heightened by intense fog.
To make matters worse, the pressure on tracks have increased over the years due to increasing loading capacity per wagon, despite warning from several committees and experts that “overloading” has been damaging tracks, and consequently putting human lives at risk.
“The pressure has increased as the ministry could not lay new tracks or upgrade the existing one,” an official admitted.
R K Singh, an ex-chairman of the railway board, put the inadequacies in perspective. “For the last three budgets, railways has depleted its depreciation reserve fund, which is used for renewal, security, upgrading of assets, and also capital fund spent for creating new assets,” said Singh, during whose tenure a special safety fund of Rs 17, 500 was set up and used for renewal of 17,000km of rail tracks.
Figures show that within less than four months at least 125 people were killed in train accidents, excluding 38 deaths when a train rammed into a bus at an unmanned crossing in Uttar Pradesh.
According to latest data, there were 57 deaths between April and June, and the number of accidents stood at 24. Authorities claim to reduce the accidents by calculating it in terms of accidents per million train kilometer which was 0.17 in 2009-10 against 0.44 in 2003-04, but it disregards the fact that the number of people killed in train mishaps has increased in recent years. In 2009-10, 238 people were killed and between April 2010 and January 2011, the figure was 336.
While railways adopted corporate safety plan (2003-13) long ago, though a lot of announcements came from successive railway ministers, not much happened on the ground.
Passenger’s safety could not find a place in the ministers’ scheme of things, who were busy in pushing populist policies. They ignored recommendations of expert panels and the Planning Commission to undertake structure reforms and push zero-accident policy.
Railways attempt to fill around 1,22, 000 safety-related vacancies got mired in controversy after the central bureau of investigation raided the railway recruitment board over hiring scam.