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11 December 2007

Indian Railways: An Anachronism

The Indian Railways’ act of using signal detonators (crackers) about a quarter kilometre away from outermost signal points to warn train drivers of approaching stations and yard’s staff of incoming trains under foggy conditions is a ludicrous anachronism in this high-tech era. The news comes in the wake of a recent Press release by the Railways that talked of a laser technology to be developed jointly by IIT, Kanpur, the Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) and other industry partners on a “fog vision instrumentation” project, which will allow trains to run unhindered in foggy conditions.

This is nothing impressive. The largest public sector employer has never suffered from a dearth of ideas. But converting science into practicable technology has always been a problem with it. Browsing the documents of the Commission of Railway Safety, one comes across a plethora of ideas for safety that were either not implemented at all, or were meant only for privileged trains like Rajdhani Express and Shatabdi Express, or were used for experimentation in limited distances within a Division and rarely extended to the rest of the country.

It seems a clear case of glossing over public safety concerns when the files of four committees formed for the purpose in the past -- Railway Accidents Committee (Kunzru Committee) in 1962, Railway Accidents Inquiry Committee (Wanchoo Committee) in 1968, Railway Accidents Enquiry Committee (Sikri Committee) in 1978, and Railway Safety Review Committee (Khanna Committee) in 1998 -- did little more than gathering dust in Rail Bhawan. At the same time, the allocation for the Railway Safety Fund, instituted in 2001, keeps increasing in successive budgets to fund engineering fancies that produce nothing more than pilot projects.

Despite recommendations, old tracks stretching up to more than 10,000 km are not renewed, hundreds of “distressed” bridges remain without reinforcements, more than 1,000 stations are found not to have replaced their overaged signalling gears, more than 1,000 vehicle units are seen running with coaches almost crumbling due to age, and ageing wagons of four-wheeled units run in thousands, as per most bi-monthly safety audit reports. This dismal picture notwithstanding, if there has been a declining trend in the number of accidents from 351 in 2002-03 to 195 in 2006-07, the credit goes to manual vigilance by Railways’ workers, toiling as hard as ever without Government enabling them with adequate technology.

The ‘crackers’ are just one example of Government’s callousness, which is an eyesore considering that, first, the Indian Railways has been patting its back for realising a fiscal ‘turnaround’ for a couple of years. Second, the purported leaders of this change are being invited by one management institute after another where they are supposed to decipher their mantra of ‘success’ to an audience of starry-eyed students.

It will be interesting to hear how the ‘gurus’ explain the awkward paradox when an MBA undergraduate asks them next time if resorting to crackers is the height of ingenuity or subscription to obsolescence. Up to 1.7 lakh crackers at Rs 65 apiece is not even good economics. This funny technique, discarded by the leaving Britons in 1947, demonstrates Indian Railways’ lethargy to innovate and disinterest to implement modern methods of transportation -- to the peril of the harrowed Indian passenger.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.