Almost a year into his tenure as railway minister, Suresh Prabhu, has done what he should have done right after taking charge: called a meeting of the most senior railway officials and told them he will not have any more excuses on safety. The meeting took place in the wake of several railway accidents causing deaths and raising serious safety concerns all around. The glamourous new idea of the government has been creating a diamond quadrilateral of high-speed train links, and Mr Prabhu's public pronouncements till date have mostly dealt with the need to find fresh big-ticket investments. There has been no commensurate public concern over too many rail accidents - although introducing bullet trains and the like without improving safety can only lead to more serious accidents. Yes, the railways does need to modernise, which does not come cheap; and investment and safety are conceptually linked if new technology is considered as a route to greater safety. But whenever there is talk of addressing the poor safety record of the Indian Railways, all that the leadership can think of by way of a solution is big-ticket investment. Even as Mr Prabhu expressed his exasperation over the continuing spate of accidents, the railway board chairman spoke of a Rs 1-lakh-crore safety plan to be put before the Union Cabinet. Of course there is a need to invest for creating necessary infrastructure to eliminate level crossings and renew ageing tracks and rolling stock. But the railway establishment should know that safety can be improved also without spending a paisa more - by toning up the way the organisation functions.
The need of the hour is to ensure that well-established safety practices and drills which have been allowed to be run down are again followed with alacrity. The drill of inspecting tracks before trains are allowed to go through has become lax. This drill helps detect breaches in tracks caused through ageing, sabotage, or when flash floods wash them away. If there are sections where the traffic is too heavy for this kind of inspection to be undertaken with the necessary periodicity, Mr Prabhu must cancel some passenger trains on the ground that the present traffic density is unsustainable. Several accidents take place because of human error. The only way this can be undone is by motivating the staff better - which cannot happen unless they see the minister and top officials leading from the front. The minister has reminded top railway officials that he has already delegated substantial autonomy to them and it is high time they were held accountable. He has given them six months to act and underlined the need for safety audits by neighbouring zones (not a zone auditing itself) - but he should have done this six months ago.
The reality is that there is no sign that the railways today is a more toned up organisation. For the past several months, it has not been able to appoint a full-time member on its board to oversee traffic operations - a responsibility that includes overseeing safety as well. An additional member is looking after this crucial portfolio. A certain amount of outsourcing of passenger services is being done with immediate improvement in delivery - but subsequent backsliding. The performance of outsourced agencies needs monitoring; but in a business-as-usual scenario, that does not take place. More than anything else, railway safety today needs to be a greater priority.