Putting rail safety on the right track

K Balakesari | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 08, 2017

Move ahead The Railways should not get stuck in an Industrial Age-mindset NISSAR AHMAD

An organisational culture that cuts across hierarchies to exchange information will work better than theatrics and big money

Almost three years into an eventful tenure, a Railway Minister offers to resign in the wake of two accidents in quick succession, owning ‘moral responsibility’, though the second accident did not (thankfully) lead to any loss of life. With a cabinet reshuffle in the offing, he is asked to wait. Meanwhile the Rail Board Chief, into the second year of his extended tenure, calls it a day. Sundry officials are placed under suspension, or asked to proceed on leave. The ‘resigned’ railway minister is later moved to an equally crucial ministry. A slick political manoeuvre is crowned with a halo of moral rectitude. How does all this serve the cause of railway safety?

No dearth of ideas

It needs to be stated that there has been tangible progress in many areas under the watch of the former minister. Many key policy decisions were taken. A minister, who by his own admission had ‘given his blood and sweat’ to tone up the system, would have been expected to stay and show results for the innumerable initiatives launched over the past few years, rather than be allowed to throw in the towel midway for specious reasons. The move seems all the more inexplicable considering that his successor has promised to faithfully follow in his footsteps.

The main focus of the new minister will undoubtedly be on improving the image of Indian Railways (IR) on the safety front. The time available is short. Hopefully, he will resist the temptation to appoint yet another committee to study railway safety. All the necessary knowledge and wisdom is available in the voluminous reports of various committees appointed over the last two decades and more. Further, his predecessor had vigorously tapped the potential of IT to get suggestions from all quarters to improve IR’s overall performance, including a brainstorming retreat called Vikas Shivir about 10 months ago to ‘meditate and ideate’ and improve railway working in all spheres. There should, therefore, be no dearth of ideas.

Exchange of information

Emphasis in the past has generally been on investments in physical infrastructure to improve safety. There is a simplistic assumption that more investment leads to better safety. This has been reinforced by the recent statement of the Minister that “ in my working, there is no budget for safety” . What has been neglected is an attitudinal change towards safety related information: a shift away from the tendency of each department to zealously guard its own weaknesses, to one of frank sharing of information within the organisation about safety related issues to enable corrective action.

The concept is not new. A system based on this principle, initially developed by a University in the UK for the British Railways, called Confidential Incident Reporting & Analysis System (CIRAS), has been functioning on British Rail for about two decades now, enabling railway staff to relay details of any situation that threatens safety directly to the designated authorities, cutting across bureaucratic and hierarchical red tape.

This culture of transparency and openness has to be cultivated, overcoming decades of secrecy and finger-pointing. Wrong information leads to wrong investment priorities. The Minister can play a leadership role in driving this change. To ensure that the allotted funds are invested productively, it is necessary to evolve a comprehensive safety plan covering the next five to 10 years, on the lines of the 10-year Corporate Safety Plan of 2003, with clearly defined targets for reduction of accidents of different types. An open ended target like “ reducing accidents to zero” is meaningless.

Two other areas that need the Minister’s urgent attention are somewhat interlinked. While it is too early to pronounce a final verdict on the benefits or otherwise of doing away with the Railway Budget, a certain opacity has crept in regarding the actual state of the finances of the Railways and the liabilities of the Railways vis a vis the Centre. This assumes importance in the light of the unprecedented level of borrowings to fund infrastructure projects such as the ₹1.5 lakh crore loan from the LIC, albeit on very favourable terms, on the one hand and an operating ratio of 0.96 registered during 2016-17 and freight earnings falling behind the target during the current year, on the other.

The financial health of IR is too important a matter to be allowed to fade into anonymity amidst the mass of data in the General Budget, lest IR sleep walk into an Air India type of situation. An annual performance report could be tabled in Parliament every year (call it the Indian Railways Report) covering the physical and financial performance of IR, including a review of the safety performance.

No road vs rail

Generation of adequate revenues is the other area of concern. A recent news report expressing concern at the declining trend in coal loading also pointed out the happy circumstance of the same minister being in charge of the railways and coal portfolios. While the importance of coal as the main source of freight earnings cannot be minimised at least in the near to medium term, there has to be a long-term plan for a life after coal.

The traditional thinking of ‘weaning away traffic from the road’ should give way to recognising the relative strengths of both and using them to complement each other: faster transit over long distances with less environmental impact for rail compared to flexibility and last mile connectivity for road. The commissioning of the Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFCs) in the next few years offers an opportunity to marry the strengths of the two modes: large-scale transport by rail of loaded trucks over DFCs (Roll-on Roll-off or Ro-Ro concept), avoiding wasteful competition. The Railways and the surface transport ministries have to jointly come up with creative solutions.

The new minister will do well to remember that timely information, not fear of punishment and tokenism, holds the key to improving rail safety. A system that aspires to leapfrog into the Bullet Train-era cannot be managed by a pre-millennium, Industrial Age mindset.

The writer is former member staff of the Railway Board

Published on October 08, 2017
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