The timing could not have been more inauspicious. The dayRatan Tata was invited to head the Kaya Kalp council, set up by Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu to suggest innovations, a train accident killed 39 people. The next day this newspaper carried a report outlining the recommendations of a committee, headed by the economist Bibek Debroy, meant to help the railways get back on track.
Rajiv Gandhi had made Ratan Tata chairman of Air India andRahul Bajaj chairman of Indian Airlines to bring in new ideas and quick decisions to turn the two entities around. Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership did not last very long, and we know what has happened thereafter to the two organisations. Ratan Tata was not a success at running Empress mills and Nelco, but performed a historic role in taking forward the Tata group. It is probably an oversimplification but nevertheless true that Ratan Tata is not good at the nitty-gritty of managing a company’s turnaround, but exceptional when it comes to giving an organisation a vision.
The issue is: what kind of management inputs do the railways need foremost right now? How immediately relevant will be the ideas, as good as they may well be, to be thrown up by the two committees? My sense is, emergency action is needed to clean up an Augean stable. What is wrong with it at the most fundamental and basic level is visible in its accident record, which is getting worse over time.
Over the last 10 years, there has been a fourfold rise in the rate of passenger casualties, from 0.03 per million passengers in 2002-03 to 0.126 in 2011-12, according to a fact sheet prepared in March 2013 by the Lok Sabha secretariat for members. An even more telling picture emerges when we look at fatalities (deaths). For the three decades of 1965-96, the number of deaths in accidents remained mostly under 100, except for the occasional bad year. During the last decade things have turned grim. In nine out of the 10 years since 2003-04, there have been over 100 deaths due to accidents; in six of these years it has been over 200, and in three over 300. In the last couple years, there have been as many devastating fires on trains. Was the material used to build the coaches actually non-inflammable, as mandated?
The fact sheet says that most accidents have been caused by procedural failures. Technical systems like signalling and route relay interlocking are outdated and malfunctioning, and need urgent attention. The railways have won plaudits for bringing down the number of employees from 1.6 million in 1990-91 to 1.3-1.4 million in the last three years – but at what cost? One hundred thousand positions of safety employees are vacant.
A lot of accidents involve derailments, collisions between trains and mishaps at level crossings. Many of these happen because of aging railway tracks and malfunctioning rolling stock. Cutting corners, not following well-laid-down drills and poor maintenance are endemic. The latest accident has produced a torrent of allegations from within the railways themselves. The train in question was not properly maintained and the authorities did not listen to the driver’s complaint of poor brake power at two stations, allege union leaders. The overt cause of accident was overshooting a signal, but this could have happened because of poor brake power. Maintenance certification is given for a round trip when it should be done for every trip after inspection. Union members aside, many railwaymen privately agree that cutting costs and trying to avoid delay by jettisoning procedures are the main reasons for accidents.
The Bibek Debroy committee is likely to suggest privatisation of the running of passenger and freight trains as also the production of rolling stock, without going in for overall privatisation or corporatisation. This could come with an independent regulator to oversee track access by private trains. Infrastructure, including tracks, should be managed by an independent entity under a holding company.
A look at how the British handled things can be instructive. British Rail was privatised in 1994 but Network Rail, which owns most of the railway infrastructure, was brought back under public ownership last year. Rail travel has risen sharply, enabled by many more trains, and more jobs have been created. There is no clear improvement in customer service, reliability, profitability and efficiency, but the safety record has clearly improved. Along with privatisation, government control has actually increased, resulting in a complex structure. The main lesson is not that privatisation has failed, but that there is a system of learning from experience and changing to discover what works.
To use a medical metaphor, what the Debroy committee will recommend is changes in secondary care, and Ratan Tata will create a vision of tertiary care – but what the railways need right now is primary care. It is imperative to get back to basics, replace aging hardware, stick religiously to maintenance schedules and procedural drills evolved over the years to ensure safety, and improve staff commitment and morale. A new leadership is needed to replace the present culture of indifference and corruption with one of loyalty and commitment.