The cover story Outlook carried in its October 16, 2017, edition reflects only a one-sided picture. While to some extent it is true that the unfortunate accidents in recent days have led to an environment of concern about safety on the railway system, the fact remains that Indian Railways is easily one of the safest modes of public transport in the country. This is also substantiated by the ground reality of a continuous reduction in the number of accidents over the last three years. In fact, the first half of the current financial year clocked marginally over half the figure of that in the corresponding period of the last fiscal. And it also needs to be stressed that the entire railway realises the necessity of evolving into an almost accident-free system and the efforts of this government are very much in this direction.
That the new railway minister convened a meeting of the full board and all major officials of the Central and Western Railways the very next day after the September 29 Elphinstone tragedy says it all about the intent and commitment of the present government. The meeting took many landmark decisions, both systemic and executive, all of which are poised to make a tremendous positive impact in enhancing a safe working environment within the railway system in the foreseeable future.
Outlook ran a story on how railway employees go scot-free after major accidents on the tracks, listing cases since 1988.
Indian Railways is indeed the lifeline of the nation. With almost 12,500 trains a day carrying over 22 million passengers, besides 9,000 goods trains carrying almost 3 million tonnes of freight a day, a disciplined and committed workforce of almost 1.3 million and over 8,000 stations in its network, the work done by this monolith is almost gigantic in proportion compared to what most of the other organisations do.
Before passing a value judgement on the performance of the railways, one needs to look at the ground realities with a discerning eye. Even a cursory look at the railway infrastructure that is already bursting at its seams would reveal the glaring shortcomings that have accumulated over decades. The penchant to pander to popular demands without commensurate inputs has over the years led to a scenario where unsafe conditions have been created unmindfully, albeit in pockets of course. We need to ponder over a few points. Are our stations actually designed or equipped to handle the dense load of passengers they witness everyday? Are Elphinstone and similar railway stations with narrow platforms and equally narrow foot overbridges capable of handling on a day-to-day basis the massive footfalls they encounter? Is the system indeed running more trains than what the infrastructure or the processes are really designed for? The tremendous infrastructural constraints that the national carrier is challenged with and is now trying to address; shortcomings accumulated over decades to be addressed in matter of months and years is indeed a tall order! This reality, however, does not alter our avowed responsibility towards our constituents, a reality that all railwaymen are aware of and committed to address. After all, the acceptance of a problem is indeed the first step towards its resolution.
An HR-centric organisation like the Indian Railways with over 1.3 million employees has to have its fundamentals firmly rooted in the welfare of its men, men who are contented, committed and alert. Unfortunately, as has happened in many organisations including the flying national carrier, the focus of the railways has with passage of time shifted from the core concern to peripherals. It is not without a deep understanding of this universal reality that Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin airlines, coined the well-known slogan ‘Employees First’. We at the national carrier also remain committed to restoring in the workmen a feeling of pride and motivation and in the process extract the best out of them, as a continuing measure leading to improvement in passenger services.
There are also major structural and process-related issues that have plagued the organisation for far too long. Deeply rooted in very strong and complex processes, the organisation has not been able to itself quickly adapt to the needs of a rapidly emerging nation. Decision-making has been slow and contractual mechanisms a bit tardy and these have had a major impact on our ability to keep up with the times. To meet the demands and expectations placed on the railway system, it is necessary to bring about a quantum change in all our structures and processes and a beginning has already been made in this direction. The need is also to overhaul and modernise the administrative machinery and that too at a rapid pace.
The travelling public should rest assured that safe and comfortable travel is and shall always remain the highest priority of the national carrier. A headline like To Kill a Passenger, as part of your cover story, unfortunately portrays a very wrong picture of the organisation. The death of even a single passenger is deeply saddening for all the men (and women) who run the national carrier. And it is also not true that staff have not been punished for their follies in cases of accidents, in fact railways stands heads and shoulders above others, unfortunately so, in so far as punishing its own men is concerned.
Rooted in archaic processes that still deliver 21,500 trains a day, the HR policies and associated processes have been crying for attention for a very long time now. Now that the government is seriously at it, I have no qualms in admitting that system failure is at the core of most of the unfortunate incidents that we have witnessed and we are not shying away; the entire railway machinery would not rest till these systemic issues are well addressed.
There is great emphasis on maintenance now, reflected in the fact that as many maintenance blocks as called for have been given over for attention to fixed infrastructure. This has temporarily affected punctuality, but would be highly beneficial in the long run. We are also moving ahead with simplification of our infrastructure creating mechanism. An example: classifying foot overbridges, platforms and pathways as necessities, not as amenities—as they were earlier classified. Delegation of powers to field-level officials has already begun in right earnest and should be completed very shortly. Ultimately, this would make it simple for them to take and execute decisions. And resolving staff-related issues is being given highest priority, for there is no substitute to a motivated and charged-up staff. Removal of frills and instilling integrity and value systems in the system has also been put centrestage.
How can we really hold our men responsible when we have failed over the years in addressing the gaps in infrastructure, primarily caused due to the complexity of processes and the archaic structures? Making heads roll in bulk, though some heads still roll, is grossly unjust besides being counter-productive as it creates disenchantment and leads to further issues. In most of the large organisations around the world, cultural issues are regarded as the single factor that have the highest impact on work, yet they remain the most complicated of the issues to handle. Really successful organisations are ones who are able to address cultural issues, are able to enthuse and instil pride in their men, have a clear focus and place overriding priority on delivery. The full railway machinery is geared up to move on this path.
Consolidation and expansion is the name of the game. Therefore, while we remain committed to discipline, reforms, overhauling of structures (including breaking the silos), improving safety and giving better passenger amenities, we remain aware that the growing aspirations of the nation including its burgeoning middle class also need to be met. Therefore, while temporarily the growth in terms of track kilometres has been given precedence over mere track renewals, railways is also moving forward with creating dedicated freight corridors to meet the ever-growing requirements of goods and also creating a high-speed corridor connecting Ahmedabad with Mumbai. A brand-new high-speed railway that would emerge as a game-changer would indeed be symbolic of a nation aspiring to position itself at its rightful place in the comity of nations. Rapid electrification and planned commercial development of many railway stations will also lead to improved passenger experience. Simultaneously the universal introduction of bio toilets in trains, an exercise targeted to be completed in December 2018 is also indicative of our resolve to further the patriotic Swachh Bharat mission of the government. Besides a slew of measures, elimination of unmanned level crossings and improvement in passenger amenity items like catering and linen shall also continue unabated in our quest towards providing safe and comfortable travel to our esteemed passengers.
The recent flurry of railway accidents has indeed jolted the collective psyche of this great organisation. That the entire railway machinery is treating this as a wake-up call for moving towards a complete transformation needs to be viewed in the right perspective. After all, we are the wheels on which the nation moves!
(The writer is chairman of the Railway Board.)