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Analysis

Overworked tracks are what make train travel unsafe

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railway track

On January 21, 2017, nine coaches and the engine of the 18448 Hirakhand (Jagdalpur-Bhubaneswar) Express derailed near Kuneru in Vizianagram district, Andhra Pradesh, killing 39 passengers and injuring 60, according to this report.

On December 28, 2016, 15 coaches of the 12987 Sealdah-Ajmer Express derailed near Rura, 70 km from Kanpur, on the Kanpur-Tundla rail stretch. Two passengers died and 65 sustained injuries, according to this report.

On November 20, 2016, 14 coaches of the 19321 Indore-Patna Express derailed near Pukhrayan, 60 km from Kanpur, in the Jhansi rail division. The mishap led to the death of 149 passengers, 182 were injured, according to this report.

Each of these derailments over the last four months occurred on over-utilised sections of the Indian Railways. These stretches were used to run trains beyond their line capacity, according to the following map.

map1

Source: Indian Railways, Lifeline of the nation; Click here for the high-resolution image.

As much as 40% of Indian Railways’ 1,219 line sections are utilised beyond 100%, according to Indian Railways, Lifeline of the Nation, a February 2015 white paper. Technically, a section using more than 90% of its capacity is considered saturated.

Source: Indian Railways, Lifeline of the nation

The congestion rate is even higher: It is 65% on 247 high density line sections of the Indian Railways network. “The optimal utilisation should be about 80%,” said Mukut Mithi, member of the Standing Committee on Railways and a Rajya Sabha member.

Source: Indian Railways, Lifeline of the nation

Track failures and subsequent derailments are caused by twin factors–excessive traffic and underinvestment in rail infrastructure–an IndiaSpend analysis of available data shows. Consider this: There has been a 56% increase in the daily tally of passenger trains over 15 years–from 8,520 in 2000-01 to 13,313 in 2015-16. The number of freight trains increased by 59% in the same period. But the running track length for all these trains increased by only 12% in 15 years–from 81,865 km to 92,081 km.

If you consider the period from 1950 to 2016, the underinvestment in rail infrastructure appears all the more acute. Against 23% railways’ route kilometre expansion, passenger and freight traffic increased 1,344% and 1,642% respectively, the Standing Committee on Railways concluded in a December 2016 report on Safety and Security in Railways.

Fatigue of railway tracks”, not explosives, is also the reason given by Gopal Gupta, director general, railways, Uttar Pradesh Police, to explain the derailment of 14 coaches of the Indore-Patna Express near Kanpur. This had contradicted Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sabotage claim.

Gangetic plain rail network: The most risk prone

Most of India’s high-traffic rail routes lie in the Gangetic plains, according to ‘Some insights on the recent spate of accidents in Indian Railways’, a 2012 Physica A journal paper on traffic flow along India’s express train routes. Of the 11 major accidents due to derailment or collision in 2010, eight occurred in this region, according to the paper.

The Delhi-Tundla-Kanpur segment has been identified as India’s most risk-prone express train trunk route. Of the three recent mishaps cited above, one occurred on this segment.

Rail traffic, especially in the Gangetic plains, is so excessive that “if all trains were to travel in accordance with their [Indian Railways] schedule, then the present infrastructure would not be able to handle the resultant traffic-flow”, the paper added.

Indian Railways authorities manage this situation “by making trains wait at signals”, explained the paper. This practice results in “frequent delays” and also “increases the possibility of collisions in the event of human errors such as failure of the driver to react to signals”.

Budget bonanzas add to the congestion every year

The congestion on India’s tracks grows every year with the announcement of new trains and no parallel promise of track expansion. Every new train—“typically announced during the rail budget in response to demands of the people”, said Mithi—accentuates congestion on the Indian Railways network.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley this year, for instance, announced new dedicated trains to pilgrimage and tourist centres.

Stop such practice of introduction of new trains without commensurate inputs to the infrastructure, reads the February 2012 report of the Ministry of Railways-appointed High Level Safety Review Committee, a committee appointed under the chairmanship of Anil Kakodkar to review the safety of the Indian Railways and recommend improvements.

But no one heeds this counsel. The result is that over the last 15 years, passenger kilometres, a representation of both the number of passengers and the distance they travelled, increased by 150%. And net tonne kilometres, a measure of freight hauled and the distance it has been transported, doubled.

Congestion eats into track maintenance time

Congestion reduces the headway—the time-interval between two consecutive trains running on the same route—thus increasing the chances of collisions on very busy stretches. This also eats into the time available for maintenance.

“We found a correlation between the low headway during the busiest time of the day and collision accidents,” said Niloy Ganguly, co-author of the Physica A paper and professor, department of computer science & engineering, at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.

Take the example of the overbusy Delhi-Kanpur segment. Between midnight and 7 am, the busiest rail traffic hours, railway staff got just 13 minutes to check the tracks, according to the Physica A paper. The rest of the day, the headway would increase to an average of 19 minutes.

It is not as though there has been no technology upgrade in the field of maintenance. Indian Railways plies track-recording cars and uses portable oscillation monitoring systems to detect defects in track geometry, which includes parameters such as track gauge, alignment, elevation, curvature and surface, said Anil Kumar Saxena, additional director general, public relations, Railway Board. To test rails and welds, Indian Railways uses the ultrasonic flaw detection testing method. Since 2016, it has been testing the ultrasonic broken rail detection system used by the South African Railway on tracks maintained by Northern Railway and North Central Railway.

To reduce weld failures compromising safety–the most likely reason for the May 4, 2014, Diva-Sawantwadi train derailment near Nidi village, Maharashtra, on the Konkan Railways, that killed 22 and injured over 150–Indian Railways has adopted improved welding methods. It has also been switching over to long rail panels on 83% of the track to minimise the need for welding.

“Indian Railways has introduced better technology of late, which speeds up work,” agreed Kulmeet Singh Chhabra, director, Projects, ISC Projects, a railways construction and maintenance company with more than 40 years of experience. “But what use is even good technology when there is insufficient time to apply it?”

Maintenance typically happens by re-jigging schedules. “To work around time shortages, we would close lines to traffic when goods trains were scheduled to pass,” recalled Sainath Naidu, former commissioner of railway safety, Bengaluru, and former chief engineer (co-ordination), South Western Railway, Indian Railways.

Why the mishaps: Slow track expansion and renewal and coach upgrades

New tracks are vital for reducing traffic bottlenecks. Two key projects launched in 2005 are the 1504 km-long western dedicated freight corridor (DFC) and the 1318 km-long eastern DFC, roughly corresponding to the overworked Mumbai-Delhi and Howrah-Delhi lines where the utilisation varies between 115% and 150%.

When commissioned, the new freight corridors will absorb 70% of the existing freight traffic on those routes, thus significantly freeing up line capacity. They will also boost the speed of freight trains from 25 kmph–where it has stood over the last three decades–to 70 kmph.

But it is unlikely that the corridors will be finished by 2019 as targeted, and here is why: The Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India, the special-purpose body created to implement the projects, is expecting to fully award the civil and system contracts for the Eastern DFC only by June this year and all but one stretch awarded by the former United Progressive Alliance government are less than 50% complete, according to this update.

There is also a lag in addressing “defects in the track or rolling stock”, a cause of derailment–the most common type of rail accident–according to the Standing Committee’s December 2016 report.

In July 2014, around the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, 5,300 km of track length was due for renewal, according to Indian Railways, Lifeline of the nation, a February 2015 white paper. Additionally, 4,500 km of track length comes up for renewal every year.

But track renewal targets for the last three years have been roughly half of what is needed–2,200 km, 2,500 km and 2,668 km in 2014, 2015 and 2016 respectively. The first two were achieved. This shortfall will result in “disproportionately high maintenance effort”, to quote the 2015 white paper, and possibly curtailed speeds.

Source: Indian Railways, Lifeline of the nation

“Track renewal is an ongoing process, stretches are renewed when their age and condition demand it,” said the Railways Board’s Saxena. “When stretches are not renewed in time due to the scarcity of funds or material, speed restrictions are imposed to ensure safe running.”

Old coaches made by the Integral Coach Factory, the country’s oldest coach-maker, also impose speed restrictions–a top speed of roughly 100 km per hour (kmph). Coaches from Alstom-Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) of Germany, on the other hand, are designed for speeds upwards of 130 kmph with anti-climbing features to curtail fatalities in the eventuality of an accident.

So far, LHB coaches have been inducted only in premier services such as the Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto. A policy decision to use only LHB coaches from 2018-19 will ensure other trains get them too. But the full replacement of the entire existing fleet will take longer, possibly up to 2040, this November 2016 India Today report suggested.

Level crossing accidents–the second most common type of mishaps, as Mithi noted–will continue to pose a risk till they are fully phased out, at least on the broad gauge, according to a 2016-17 railways budget decision. This year, 15% of the 9,340 level crossings have been targeted for elimination.

It means little that India has fewer accidents per million train km than Germany

In this year’s budget, following three disastrous rail accidents, safety attracted a hefty allocation. It went towards the creation of a Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh (national rail safety fund) with a five-year corpus of Rs 100,000 crore.

The government has conceded that investments in safety have been insufficient, but it has also claimed that India’s accidents per million train kilometres, a safety index, compares favourably with Europe’s. In India, this index has more or less declined over the last decade, reducing from 0.23 in 2006-07 to 0.10 in 2015-16. This figure is lower than that of France or Germany (both 0.17).

However, this does not mean that Indian Railways is as safe as European railway networks because their trains run at speeds upwards of 250 km per hour, said experts.

“Accidents per million train kilometres depends on the number of trains, which is huge in India vis-à-vis developed nations. It also depends on speed, another measure of infrastructure usage, prevailing law and order conditions, and temperature variation,” said Sukesh Kumar Sharma, a Hyderabad-based project management expert formerly with the Indian Railways.

“A direct comparison between the railway systems of India and developed nations is not possible. Our average speed is of 60-70 km per hour–only few Indian trains reach a top speed of 130 kmph that is less than half the 300-kmph top speed of trains in developed nations. India’s low index paints a misleadingly rosy picture,” Sharma added.

(Bahri is a freelance writer and editor based in Mount Abu, Rajasthan.)

Analysis

Modi’s momentum under attack as opposition gears up for offensive

Congress President Rahul Gandhi is also now a more formidable opponent of Modi than he was in 2014 and his attacks are sharper and unrelenting.

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Vishwashghaat

New Delhi, May 26 (IANS) With his party ‘stopped’ in Karnataka and bracing to face crucial Assembly elections in three major states in the north this year end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes his government into the last year in office with the political momentum slightly shaken against the mounting burden of fulfilling expectations on numerous election promises.

Political analysts say that many of the promises of the Modi government have been rhetoric and it needs course correction by being more accommodative over the next year if BJP’s prospects are to improve.

They said the outcome of 2019 elections will largely depend on opposition parties coming together to pose a common challenge to the BJP.

Kumaraswamy's swearing-in ceremony

The BJP’s inability to form the government in Karnataka, despite being the single largest party, has come as a damper to the party. It had suffered jolts earlier this year in defeats in prestigious parliamentary by-elections in Gorakhpur and Phulpur as also Ajmer and Alwar.

“Intolerance has been a major drawback in the last four years,” says political analyst and senior journalist H.K. Dua adding that the idea of India as a plural polity had suffered due to incidents like ‘love jihad’ and lynchings.

“Every incident fouls the atmosphere. India is a composite society and Prime Minister himself said ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikas’ which did not happen. That’s why Dalits have been very angry, tribals have been very angry, farmers have been very angry. Caste divisions are sharper than before. That does not speak well,” he said.

Dua said constitutional institutions “have not been shown the respect they deserve.” He said consensus between the ruling and opposition parties for running parliamentary democracy has been ignored. “The initiative had to come from Prime Minister but that has not come,” he said, adding there is doubt how deep is the faith of government in democratic practices.

“I don’t think in 2019 there will be Modi wave. Opposition will be able to present a formidable challenge if they unite. So the unity is very, very important.

Kumaraswamy swearing-in ceremony

But even as efforts to forge understanding among opposition parties continue at various levels, Modi continues to have a cross-country appeal as the prime vote-catcher of the BJP.

As Prime Minister, he has sought to bring speed to decision-making by cutting red tape, set ambitious targets, launched some imaginative schemes, focused on delivery, simplified norms and shaken off lethargy in the official machinery.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government is seen to be more focused and target-oriented but there is little visible impact of some of its initiatives such as the Swachh Bharat Campaign.

Subrata Mukherjee, a political analyst who taught at Delhi University, said there have been more promises than delivery in the past four years and projects like Start Up India and Make in India have not progressed the way they were made out to.

“The economic record of the government is not very good and they are now postponing everything to 2022. That is beyond their mandate. So it is politics of postponement,” he said.

He said most of the schemes are a rehash of Congress schemes.

Mukherjee said Modi government needs to practice a more “accommodative politics.”

“They will have to work out accommodative politics, bring new segments. The scheduled castes, Muslims are angry. If they want to retain power, they will have to go for drastic course correction,” he said.

He said opposition unity was important for good politics and the proposed federal front cannot do without congress. “BJP will also have to understand that 2019 will be coalition government whether led by it or the Congress,” he said.

Unlike the 2014 elections, when he was the challenger, Modi will be the incumbent in 2019 and the opposition has a plethora of issues to queer the pitch including jobs, price rise, problems of farmers, multi-crore banking frauds, non-performing assets of banks, “write-offs” of corporate houses, and “atrocities” against weaker sections including Dalits.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi is also now a more formidable opponent of Modi than he was in 2014 and his attacks are sharper and unrelenting.

Congress General Secretary Ashok Gehlot said people had trusted Modi but he “betrayed” them. As a member of the opposition, he sees an all-round failure in the government.

“Farmers, youth, traders, women, everyone now feels betrayed. There is sense of fear and mistrust among people. Fuel prices are sky-rocketing. This is a loot. The situation in the country is such and all sections of society are so unhappy that the people will force every party in the country to come together to defeat Modi and the BJP,” he said.

BJP Spokesperson G.V.L. Narsimha Rao, however, as expected, termed the last four years as “epoch-making.”

“These will be best remembered for ushering in a New India Era with corruption-free governance, inclusive economic growth with special focus on farmers, women and marginalised sections,” Rao told IANS.

He said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has fulfilled long neglected basic needs of the common citizens with innovative schemes like Ujjwala.

The Ayushman Bharat scheme, announced in this year’s budget which aims to provide health insurance cover of Rs 5 lakh to around 10 crore families is an ambitious move to connect with the poor and, if successful, can help BJP earn goodwill in run up to 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh later this year are expected to set the tempo for the Lok Sabha polls and the BJP is the incumbent in all three states facing tough contests.

(Prashant Sood can be contacted at [email protected])

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Analysis

Four years of Modi failed to deliver crore of jobs: Swaraj India

Prime Minister Modi had promised to deliver one crore jobs every year but the number of jobs have decreased in reality.

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Yogendra Yadav

New Delhi, May 26 (IANS) As the Narendra Modi-led NDA government completed four years on Saturday, Swaraj India alleged although it has provided some evocative slogans like ‘Make in India’, ‘Skill India’, ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’, but scored a near zero score in performance, especially in its promise to deliver one crore jobs every year.

“The Modi government only made an onslaught on the Constitution and democracy, and saw jobless growth, increasing communal tension, rural distress and overarching insecurity among Dalits, minorities and women in country. All the key promises of the BJP government have turned out to be hollow.

“Prime Minister Modi had promised to deliver one crore jobs every year but the number of jobs have decreased in reality,” said Swaraj India national spokesperson Anupam.

Swaraj India chief Yogendra Yadav said that the violence against religious minorities, especially Muslims, is spreading openly.

“The country is unsafe because despite the claims of surgical strike, incidents of encroachment and terror attack from Pakistan have increased. Relations with neighbouring countries and even old friends are seeing a challenging phase and China’s movements have become more aggressive,” he said.

Senior party leader Prashant Bhushan meanwhile decried the rise of corruption, eroding authority of anti-corruption bodies, shielding of corrupt officers are being shielded, the “disaster” of demonetization, no change in the black money situation and putting of the Lokpal issue in cold storage.

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Analysis

After 1,460 days of Modi rule, ‘achhe din’ yet to come

I do not blame this government for not being able to deliver ‘achhe din’. Which government since Independence has?

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Narendra-Modi

New Delhi: There’s only one year more to go for the BJP-led regime before another test at the hustings. But is the country any nearer to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promised ‘acche din‘ (good days)? Four years ago, the country had voted the present regime to power on hopes of better days in all socio-economic-political spheres. But despite some strong structural reforms like GST, and gut-wrenching changes like demonetisation, the jury may still be out on how good it has been, according to economists and others experts.

Despite India’s GDP growth of 7.2 per cent in the third quarter (October-December) of 2017-18, some economists feel that the demonetisation drive, avowedly taken to “cleanse the system” of black money, had ended up damaging the country’s economy instead.

“Demonetisation was a terrible mistake by the government, for which the common people paid the price. It has reduced people’s trust in the banking system, as they were denied their own money during the period of cash crunch. It takes so much time and work to build institutions and policies — it is so much easier and faster to break things,” Jayati Ghosh, Economics Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), told IANS.

The government decided to ban 1,000 rupee and 500-rupee notes on November 8, 2016, taking away 86 per cent of the total currency in circulation. “May be this move had served the government’s purpose politically, but economically it was a bad one,” Ghosh added.

Echoing similar views, Arun Kumar, former professor of economics at the JNU, told IANS that when the NDA government came in, the Indian economy was already on an upward trajectory. The quarter, in which the government took over, the growth climbed to eight per cent. In October 2016, India was the fastest growing economy in the world when China slowed down a bit.

“But then the government administered a shock to the system with demonetisation. It had a negative impact on the unorganised sector that comprise 45 per cent of production and 93 per cent of employment in the country. According to some estimation, 50-80 per cent of that got damaged,” he said.

Kumar, who is now Chair-Professor with the Institute of Social Sciences, added: “Government did no survey at that time and hence no data is available. Even data from International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which rely on government data, do not show any estimates (on impact).”

After demonetisation, credit off-take in the country declined sharply. “Between November-December 2016, it was at historic low of 60 years. Investment into the country also took a big hit,” he said. However, Ranen Banerjee, Partner & Leader, Public Finance and Economics, at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) has a different take on some of the benefits flowing from the action.

“Demonetisation had positive impact as far as digital payments were concerned. It shot up sharply during that period but came down subsequently. The level is still higher earlier. But demonetisation as a measure did not deliver all the results that it was supposed to deliver,” Banerjee said.

The government’s other major thrust, though, on Goods and Services Tax (GST) — rolled out on July 1 last year, got better billing. Economists are hopeful that it will bring in beneficial changes once the hiccups are over. Banerjee says GST would change the entire landscape of tax compliance in the country by creating a multiplier effect. “GST was a bold move which is showing positive results,” he added.

Ghosh, though, thinks GST goes against the grain of federalism. “A unified system is not so necessary in a federal structure — for example, the US does not have it and still has a very modern economy. In a federal structure you have to allow states to have some money raising power. Further, GST implementation has been really bad.”

Kumar said: “Introduction of GST has hit the unorganised sector badly. Even in Malaysia where GST was introduced in 2015-16 at 26 per cent, government decided to scrap it. The organised sector is rising at the expense of unorganised sector. Disparity is rising.”

Industry chambers have by and large welcomed government initiatives, especially the decision on GST. “The overall economy is strong with GST having settled down and reforms firmly on the right path,” Chandrajit Banerjee, Director-General of Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), told IANS.

Over the last four years, according to him, the government had systematically addressed major “pain points” for the economy such as ease of doing business, non-performing assets of banks, foreign direct investment rules, infrastructure construction and exit of failing enterprises.

“The government’s mission-mode development campaigns have delivered notable results, adding to overall growth multipliers. The firm level and sectoral level numbers look promising for the next year in terms of orders booked and capacity utilisation,” said CII’s Banerjee.

Former economics professor at Indian Statistical Institute, Dipankar Dasgupta, who holds that the economy was yet to recover from the hit it took because of demonetisation, says that on GST he was hopeful that with time it will stabilise. “In the other countries where it was introduced there were teething problems too,” he said.

The government also took up the job to cleanse bad loans of banks. It is pumping in Rs 2.11 lakh crore as capitalisation, spread over two years. But a number of banking scandals and rising non-performing assets (NPA) may have reduced the faith of people in the bank system, after the shock of demonetisation. “We have declining deposits in the banking system due to people’s rising mistrust,” says Ghosh. Dasgupta says recapitalisation should be followed with caution so that it does not widen the fiscal deficit.

The government, though, has got support in its effort to tackle the issue of NPAs. The bankruptcy law has put everyone on notice. “People are taking the issue of NPAs seriously trying to resolve it. Companies are opting for out of court settlement. Propensity to comply has increased as borrowers know that there will be consequences on not servicing a loan,” Banerjee of PriceWaterhouseCoopers said.

Yet, overall the promise of the golden pot at the end of the five-year rainbow, as promised by Modi in his of speeches — where he had painted the BJP rule in attractive hues — has not materialised in four years. BJP’s best salesman may have oversold the hope. “I do not blame this government for not being able to deliver ‘achhe din’. Which government since Independence has?” asks Dasgupta rhetorically.

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