Bullet train or infrastructure?
By Dhurjati Mukherjee
The recent tragedy at Mumbai’s Elphinstone Road foot over-bridge where over 23 persons died and 39 injured due to the stampede underscores the existing poor infrastructure. Whereby, investment in railway infrastructure is too meagre perhaps, due to the railway’s financial crisis.
In fact, several warnings of the over-bridge’s poor condition were made by commuters during the previous Railway Minister’s tenure but no action was taken. Later in 2015 at the intervention of a Shiv Sena MP, then Rail Minister Suresh Prabhu sanctioned a new over-bridge for Rs 11.86 crores but no action was again taken.
Undeniably, the lack of concern towards suburban travel has been manifest in the fact that the railways has not made any study of foot over-bridges in recent times, of how many passengers use these bridges and whether they are adequate. It is only after the tragedy that the Ministry held a high level meeting Saturday last and decided that a new over-bridge be constructed within a week, notwithstanding this is an impossible task.
Pertinently, one is not aware whether the meeting discussed what plans the railways have to upgrade infrastructure in suburban stations, specially in Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, where lot of attention and resources are urgently needed.
Already, the Shiv Sena has made plain that it would not allow the bullet train project to commence unless the suburban travel facilities and safety measures in Mumbai, which need immediate attention, are improved.
Besides, many commuters have questioned the rationality of the bullet train project when the railways do not have adequate resources to improve basic facilities. Even experts have raised several concerns after the Indo-Japanese deal was finalized.
One, if a large number of ‘estimated’ passengers would prefer to travel by the train. Two, why has the Mumbai-Ahmedabad section been selected and not the Mumbai-Delhi section as in the latter, the number of passengers are much more than the former.
Further, there are a number of flights between Mumbai-Delhi as both these are important metros from all angles and ignoring the national Capital does not seem justified. Certain sections have termed the choice more a political decision than one based on need.
Three, there is no announcement whether there is any collaboration with Japan to increase the speed of Rajdhanis, Dorontos and Shatabdis which are below international standards and most of these trains are regularly running late. The New Delhi Sealdah Rajdhani Duronto has been running late almost every day by at least one hour and sometimes up to three hours.
Simultaneously, India should have solicited Japanese collaboration to make the above and others priority super fast trains to run a little faster by at least an average speed of 110 to 130 km per hour. Moreover rectifying the causes for delay in running these trains.
Though faster travel is necessary for a certain section of the upper echelons of society, there is vast difference between the mindset of Indians and Japanese. In Japan even CEOs prefer to travel by bullet trains but in our country this would never happen.
Status conscious Indians prefer to take a flight or travel by their own vehicle from Mumbai to Ahmedabad than taking a bullet train. Alongside, herein there is never the need to be fast unlike Japan.
Importantly, urgent attention is needed in improvement of infrastructure and technical expertise to upgrade safety measures perhaps from Japan as frequent accidents and derailments have been on the increase. Recall, the Safety Committee under ex- Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar in 2012 followed by the Bibek Debroy Committee for examination and adoption of 106 recommendations. Alas, only 20 of these are in the final stages of implementation.
Significantly, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Railways noted that defects in tracks or rolling stocks contributed significantly to derailments. According to the Committee, traffic saturation left the railways with little time for maintenance of assets, including tracks, and it is here that there is need to find out how with similar busy schedules, tracks are being maintained properly and accidents and derailments are very few.
The Kakodkar Committee recommended a total investment of Rs 1 lakh crores over a period of five years but after three years a Rail Safety Fund was created with an initial corpus of only Rs 5000 crores. The neglect towards rail safety has necessitated that we learn from other countries, including Japan, towards ensuring rail safety. Undeniably, poor people travel by train and accidents and deaths normally occur on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad section. It would have been better to first — or simultaneously — think of safety than spend a huge amount for a section that may not be immediately viable.
Additionally, it is estimated that around 4500 tracks are supposed to be renewed annually but less than a third of this is achieved. An analysis by railway officials found that faulty rail joints and tampering of fishplates which join sections of tracks were among the causes of derailments. Surprisingly, one wonders why these are not taken care of.
Some studies found that the number of daily passenger trains rose by 56 per cent from 8520 in 2000-01 to 13,313 in 2015-16 and the number of freight trains increased by 59 per cent in the same period. However, the track length for all these trains increased by only 12 per cent, from 81,865 km. to 92,081 km!
Consequently, most train corridors are being used far beyond their optimal capacity, leaving insufficient time for planned and systematic maintenance of tracks.
The bullet train could have been more eventful if it was planned on the Mumbai-Delhi section and minimum passenger facilities inducted into the system. Given that the railways are facing a huge financial crisis and efforts to marshal resources are not being undertaken properly. Recently only two or three railway PSUs are in the process of coming out with a public issue to raise funds.
Sadly, other measures like station development or leasing railway land for commercial purposes have not been started in right earnest as this could have helped in raising resources and used effectively for various infrastructure development activities, including track development and maintenance.
Clearly, there is a lack of professional approach in the railway system along-with attention in several areas. Obviously this has led to the accident, thus necessitating the need to focus for generating efficiency and better functioning.
In sum, the political mileage from announcing the bullet train might be counter productive as people realize that something concrete needs to be done to make railway travel faster and safer. One needs to be keep in mind that a majority of those travelling by rail are from economically weaker sections and lower income groups and thus commuters should not be forced to be treated as cattle! —— INFA