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Learning from the Coromandel express accident

In a tragic incident that took place near the Bahanaga railway station in Odisha's Balasore district, a collision between the Coromandel Express and a goods train resulted in the deaths of 207 people, with over 900 others injured. The Bengaluru-Howrah superfast express was also involved in the accident. This devastating event serves as a stark reminder of the safety challenges faced by the Indian Railways. 

While statistics may show a relatively low accident ratio per kilometer, it is crucial to consider the context: lower speeds, inadequate facilities, and a significantly higher passenger load compared to other parts of the world. Trains in India enjoy the same status as Airlines given the long distance travel is routinely popular. Given this scenario it is important that safety in rail travel is also given the same level of importance as in the airlines sector.

The specifics of why this Accident happened such as technology or human failure may provide certain tactical cues but the Institutional Framework which runs the Indian Railways is definitely something that needs be questioned and reengineered. This article delves into the need for institutional reforms to enhance safety measures and establish accountability within the Indian Railways system.

The Complexity of Accountability: The Indian Railways, as a gargantuan institution, comprises numerous layers of bureaucracy, making it challenging to assign responsibility to specific individuals or groups in the event of accidents or underperformance. Unlike the aviation industry, where detailed investigations involve international experts and black box recordings, there is no similar process for railway incidents. Identifying the cause of accidents or even delay in train arrivals becomes a daunting task due to the absence of a streamlined investigation framework.

Not just train underperformance, but Railway projects such as construction of Railway bridges and management of Train station infrastructure (Foot over bridges, Toilets or other peripheral systems) is chronic. Railway bridges are the slowest to construct and often lead to bottlenecking traffic in several Indian cities in spite of efforts to resolve other traffic bottlenecks. Notably, local bodies do not have any authority to construct any bridges or flyovers cutting over train tracks - which makes Railways a single largest bottleneck which can cripple projects across the nation.

Reengineering the Institutional Framework: To address the shortcomings in safety and accountability, a comprehensive reengineering of the Indian Railways is necessary. The train operations, signaling and rail infrastructure, and ancillary services (such as catering or merchandizing) should be divided into multiple companies, including a separate entity responsible for governing privately operated corporations. The rail infrastructure entity shall lease the rail infrastructure to train operators and ancillary service operators - just like an Airport leases its terminals, hangers and other infrastructure to Airlines, while the Airlines operate as separate entities. A model similar to the aviation sector, would promote competition and efficiency while ensuring safety remains a top priority.

Breaking up railways along operational lines (rather than the current regional breakup of divisions and zones), will also make it easier to divest certain portions of the Railway corporations and spin them off as Privately held corporations. This can not only help modernize and professionalize the Railway, it can also help in unlocking the value of government investment into Railways over the last two centuries. 

Autonomy from Government Intervention: To facilitate effective reforms, all entities, including regulators and private companies, should operate with minimal intervention from government ministries or entities. By granting autonomy, these entities can make decisions based on industry expertise, innovation, and customer needs, leading to improved performance and service quality.

Establishing Regulatory Oversight: A regulator, akin to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for airlines, should be entrusted with overseeing safety infrastructure and conducting regular audits of all entities involved in the railway system's operation. This regulatory body would enhance safety standards and hold various corporations accountable for their performance. Furthermore, ancillary services such as catering and merchandising should also fall under the purview of specialized regulators, ensuring quality and customer satisfaction.

The train collision in Odisha highlights the urgent need for a system-wide reform of the Indian Railways. While statistical comparisons might suggest a relatively low accident ratio, the unique challenges faced by the railway system demand a more comprehensive evaluation.

By breaking up the infrastructure into multiple companies, and granting autonomy to entities, while at the same time establishing strong regulatory oversight, we can enhance safety, ensure accountability, and ultimately improve the overall performance of the Indian Railways. Implementing these reforms will pave the way for a modernized and efficient railway system that caters to the needs of its passengers while prioritizing their safety.


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