It is time for the Indian Railways to tear up old tracks
The derailment of 13 coaches of the Patna-bound Vasco Da Gama Express near Manikpur railway station, Uttar Pradesh, on November 24 that killed three and injured at least 12 people reinforces one thesis: over a long time, the railway system in India has accumulated a massive infrastructural deficit that is behind most Indian Railways (IR) accidents
The rapid increase in the number of trains and passengers has far outpaced the small strides that IR has been making towards improving and developing infrastructure. As a result, we now have reached a stage where finding a balance between train operations and maintenance of infrastructure — especially those directly related to the running of trains, such as tracks, signalling systems, stations and yards — is becoming increasingly difficult.
The horrific incident of the rushhour stampede at the overbridge at Mumbai’s Elphinstone railway station on September 29 that killed 29 people is a classic case in point. Most stations and associated infrastructure are creaking under the load of far more traffic than they were originally designed to safely and efficiently handle.
Yet, the fact remains that the railways handles almost 23 million passengers and over three million tonnes of freight every day. This is possible only due to the commitment of its employees and the sturdiness of its operational processes. IR can, however, do far better if it is not hampered by the complexity of its administrative processes and management structures, both of which are proving to be major hurdles in consolidation as well as growth.
Regularly bowing to populist demands for introducing new trains without commensurate inputs towards creation and maintenance of infrastructure has led to a scenario where the state of the fixed infrastructure, including tracks, at many places, is cause for serious concern.
Tracks at many places, especially in yards and stations, are in a caked condition, the result of years of not being deep-screened (cleaned). The condition of the rolling stock also is abysmal with the infrastructure and automation at maintenance units not having kept pace with the rapid increase in workload. A stage has now arrived when the accumulation of such conditions can’t be merely wished away.
Directed corrective action is needed and has been initiated. For some time, however, a price may have to be paid by way of delays in train schedules, drastically reduced number of new trains, cancelling some trains, etc. At many places where accidents have taken place due to rail fractures, corrosion at the foot of the rail has been found to have been the cause.
This also leads to the premature destruction of rails and increases the cost of overall maintenance. Tracks in platform areas are especially vulnerable due to accumulation of dirt and muck from water and human faeces from passenger trains.
Ideally, these tracks should be on a washable concrete apron. This, however, hasn’t happened even in the New Delhi Railway Station thanks to divergent opinions of the IR’s departmental silos. In the absence of boundary walls, rampant encroachments and settlements — especially adjoining railway tracks in urban areas — also contribute to this malaise.
At the root of the rot lie the archaic processes and outdated structures of the administrative machinery. Complex rules have dampened efficiency and restricted growth. They have also blurred the distinction between delivery and processes, bringing with it attendant consequences.
IR’s focus on human resources (HR) has been rather dim. Petty corruption has also come to rule the roost, and motivation levels are low. Decisionmaking has also generally been conspicuous by its absence.
That a government institution, the Indian Railways, has to manage corporate-style delivery, operations and structure while remaining within the confines of codes, procedures and general financial rules (GFRs) makes the working much more difficult than any other service organisation. So, in the long run, simplification of processes and greater empowerment will need to be looked at seriously.
The magnitude of the problem is as massive as it is real. Sustained focused efforts supported by political will and bureaucratic commitment over a considerable period to transform the system and bring about organisational reforms is the only way out of the mess. After all, we are talking about neglect accumulated over decades.
Reforms will have to remain the keyword for the railways. Cultural, process and structural reforms shall have to be taken to their logical conclusion. A direction that this monolith has already taken.