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Train Collision Again Highlights Modi Government’s Misplaced Priorities

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Train Collision Again Highlights Modi Government’s Misplaced Priorities

Instead of equipping existing trains with anti-collision devices, it is preoccupied with introducing “super-fast” and high-speed trains.

Train Collision Again Highlights Modi Government’s Misplaced Priorities

Onlookers watch as rescuers work after a cargo train rammed into Kanchanjunga Express, a passenger train, near New Jalpaiguri station, West Bengal state, India, Monday, June 17, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Diptendu Dutta

Ten people were killed and scores of others injured when a freight train rammed into the Kanchenjunga Express, a popular passenger train, near Jalpaiguri in eastern India on Eid morning.

The accident occurred within a fortnight of the Narendra Modi government being sworn into office. It put the spotlight once again on the appalling safety record of Indian Railways, and the misplaced priorities of the Modi government.

In the past five years, Indian Railways has been in the news for Prime Minister Modi flagging off high-speed Vande Bharat express trains with much fanfare. Since 2019, he has flagged off 50 such trains, with ten of them being launched on a single day in the run-up to the recent general elections.

However, the prime minister has been conspicuously absent when massive train accidents repeatedly thrust Indian Railways into the headlines. The Kanchenjunga Express accident occurred almost exactly a year after the horrific Balasore train tragedy where 300 people were killed when three trains collided in the eastern state of Odisha.

Incidentally, as per the Ministry’s data, as reported in the Business Standard newspaper, in the past five years there have been three train accidents on average every month. The multiple train collision in Balasore in June last year was followed by two more train accidents in quick succession; the North East Express derailed in Bihar in early October leaving four dead and by the month’s end a train collision in Andhra Pradesh in southern India killed 14 people.

Derailment followed by rail collisions are the main reasons for train accidents. Train collisions have spiked in the past year. In the accident in Bengal early this week too, a freight train collided with a stationary passenger train.

Under fire from all quarters, the Railway Ministry initially blamed the dead loco-pilot (locomotive driver) of the goods train. Subsequently, it backtracked and admitted that the automatic signaling system was not working along the route. Moreover, the injured passenger who the Railways alleged had lodged the complaint incriminating the driver, denied having done so.

Investigations after every accident have repeatedly raised red flags about rail safety. They have highlighted the need for modernizing the signaling system and upgrading railway safety measures.

Railway Minister Aswani Vaishnaw has often made big claims about the Railways installing state-of-the-art, anti-collision “Kavach” devices. However, the reality is that to date, only about 1 percent of the total rail track length of over 104,000 kilometers has been covered.

The anti-collision device enables the automatic application of brakes in case the loco-pilot fails to do so. No such device was installed in the ill-fated Kanchenjunga Express.

What angered many was the utter insensitivity of Vaishnaw, a technocrat-turned-politician. Hours after the collision, even as people were mourning the dead, Vaishnaw seemed more interested in making video reels of himself riding pillion on a motorbike, without a helmet, to the accident site, charged Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate.

“He is not the rail minister, he is the reels minister of India,” she mocked.

Expectedly, the opposition demanded the resignation of the “incompetent minister.” Shockingly, despite humongous tragedies like the Balasore accident under his watch, Vaishnaw has been retained as rail minister in Modi’s new cabinet in his third term.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee lashed out at the Modi government, saying that while “a lot of big talk and beautification was happening,” “passenger amenities were compromised.” She accused the government of negligence and being preoccupied with doing publicity for the Vande Bharat trains.

It is not just opposition leaders that are targeting the Modi government for incompetence. Technical experts like former Railways Chief Engineer Alok Kumar Verma lambasted the “misplaced priorities” of the government. While the “existing network [of Indian Railways] was caught in a downward spiral,” it is being “inundated with big plans for costly projects with seriously questionable financial viability,” he wrote in Indian Express. He cited the bullet trains and “‘semi high speed’ Vande Bharat trains which are more about luxury and cosmetics than speed.”

Recent reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) have highlighted that the special fund for rail safety was misused to buy foot massagers, crockery, electrical appliances, furniture, winter jackets, computers and escalators, and to develop gardens and build toilets. The report drew attention to the poorly funded rail safety fund. Critical lacunae in the maintenance of tracks and renewal of tracks as well as human factors such as overworked loco drivers and staff had led to derailments and accidents, the CAG report stated.

The Indian rail network is one of the largest in the world and transports 24 million people daily. It is also 163 years old. Therefore, rail infrastructure maintenance is vital to the health of the railways.

Accusing the Modi government of “destroying the Railways,” Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge asked, “Narendra Modi ji, tell us who should be held accountable, the Railway minister or you?” He asked why 300,000 posts in the Railways have not been filled.

Of late, social media has been flooded with visuals of overcrowded passenger trains. Kharge asked why the number of Sleeper Class (non-air conditioned) coaches in trains, most commonly availed by the poor, had been reduced and train fares hiked. He wondered whether the Modi government had merged the Rail budget with the general budget since 2017 to avoid accountability.

Sudhanshu Mani, the designing brain behind the “super-fast” Vande Bharat trains, slammed the government for its “mistake” of not focusing on the common man’s travel needs. Calling on the government to increase the number of non-airconditioned coaches in trains to meet the travel needs of the poor, he pointed out that the Vande Bharat trains cater to high-end travelers who could afford to pay more for comfort. But the common man’s interests should not be neglected, he said. Incidentally these high-speed trains average 83 km per hour instead of their highest speed of 130 km per hour due to poor track conditions.

Undoubtedly, rail travel continues to be the only means of mass transportation for the common man in India, with the upwardly mobile middle class opting for the luxury of air travel. The Modi government’s dreams of high-speed and bullet trains could come a cropper if it is oblivious to focusing scarce resources on rail safety and the interests of the common rail passenger as well.