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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

Trump’s decision to cut troops in Afghanistan creates policy vacuum

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New York: President Donald Trump’s decision at his administration’s sunset to pull back US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq is among his final attempts to keep his original campaign promise, but creates a policy vacuum and complicates the transition to Democrat Joe Biden in January.

Acting Defence Secretary Christopher Miller’s announcement that the US troop strengths in those two countries would be reduced to 2,500 each by January 15 – just five days before Biden takes over – creates a policy vacuum there.

Miller said on Wednesday, “In the coming year, we will finish this generational war and bring our men and women home.”

The war that began in 2001 to root out the Al-Qaeda that carried out the 9/11 attack on the US, and the Taliban than allowed to operate from Afghanistan, has claimed about 2,350 US lives and left more than 20,000 wounded.

Trump had promised in his 2016 campaign to bring all US troops home.

The troops remaining in Afghanistan and Iraq are to defend the US diplomatic and other facilities there.

There was a confluence of views between Trump and some Democratic leaders and opposition from Republicans and the NATO.

The House of Representatives Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith, a Democrat, said, “Reducing our forward deployed footprint in Afghanistan down to 2,500 troops is the right policy decision. At the same time, this reduction must be responsibly and carefully executed to ensure stability in the region.”

But the committee’s Republican leader Mac Thornberry warned Trump, “These additional reductions of American troops from terrorist areas are a mistake.”

“Further reductions in Afghanistan will also undercut negotiations there; the Taliban has done nothing – met no condition – that would justify this cut,” he added.

The peace agreement with the Taliban, which was seen as a precondition for troop withdrawal, has yet to materialise and the terrorist group has continued attacks in Afghanistan.

“The price for leaving too soon or in an uncoordinated way could be very high,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels.

He warned that Afghanistan risks becoming again the centre of international terror with the Islamic State (ISIS) moving there to rebuild “the terror caliphate it lost in Syria and Iraq.”

While Biden has committed to end the “forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East” and to “narrowly focus our mission on Al-Qaeda and ISIS,” neither he nor his transition team has reacted to the preemptive move by Trump.

Trump’s action would make policy-making and implementation difficult as soon as he takes over. It is compounded by him and his transition team being cut out of briefings and denied access to officials and information.

As vice president, Biden had been sceptical of his President Barack Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, when the force-strength was increased from about 30,000 when he assumed office in 2009 to nearly 100,000 in about a year as he attempted to decisively crush the terrorists in hope of a pull out.

Pakistan has been a key figure in the region, playing all sides. It has benefited from the US invasion of Afghanistan after the 2001 attacks on the US the Al-Qaeda, which was protected by the Taliban and Islamabad, which gave that group’s leader Osama Bin Laden asylum.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Kabul for the first time on Thursday, a day after the US announced the troop cutback, but according to reports did not say anything about it.

The US-backed Kabul government has been suspicious of and critical of Pakistan for its backing of the Taliban.

But now President Ashraf Ghani will have to come to terms with Islamabad, which had facilitated the peace between the Taliban and the US, with nominal participation of the Kabul government in the process.

As the patron of the Taliban, Khan will wield more direct influence over Afghanistan as Washington winds down its involvement.

But on the other hand, when the US involvement is minimised and troops are no longer active beyond the protection of US resources, Islamabad’s leverage is also reduced because US troops would no longer be vulnerable to cross-border terrorism and terror attacks by Pakistan’s proxies and therefore will not have to be deferential to it.

Nor would Islamabad be able to exert influence by manipulating Taliban diplomacy.

The danger for Pakistan and the world will be the rise of the ISIS in an Afghan vacuum. Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) group has been a threat to both Afghanistan and Pakistan and Islamabad will have to contain it and similar groups for its own protection – and not make a deal with them lest it face a backlash from the US.

There has been no signs of opposition in the Pentagon to the troop withdrawal.

After Miller took over the defence portfolio when Trump fired Secretary Mark Esper days after the November 3 election there has been a change in personnel at the top level to douse dissent.

(Arul Louis can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)

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Analysis

American democracy loses when most popular candidate is kept from race twice

Sanders’ popularity is now recognized, but after he spelt out the scenario on October 23 in a talk show on how the drama will unfold when votes are counted in these elections, he is well on his way to being prophetic.

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Bernie Sanders

It was nice to receive mails from friends who had assembled at Lucknow boy Nusrat Durrani’s Dumbo apartment under the Brooklyn Bridge on November 3, 2016, election night, armed with champagne bottles to be uncorked as soon as Hillary Clinton pipped the post.

In the event, the champagne bottles stood in one straight line on the dining table like a row of brooding bishops. Trump had shocked all the guests. A submarine sandwich hurled as a missile by a despairing guest knocked the lamp over.

I have repeated the above story because that is what history is supposed to be — a continuous repetition of facts. So indelibly etched on my mind is that party in Brooklyn that every US election will bring alive that episode.

There is another reason for that episode to be so etched on my mind. I did not wish to be the only one out of sync with the general mood that evening, but I was in a minority of one who expected Hillary to lose. Having arrived in New York a fortnight ago for a discussion in the various campuses of my book, ‘Being the Other: The Muslim in India’, kept me away from a 24X7 bombardment of punditry on elections.

A cluttering of detail tends to push out of focus the simple, plausible outline conditioning of electoral behaviour. Experience from most electoral theatres had taught me a simple lesson: people were tired of two parties, one indistinguishable from the other.

This was happening at local levels too, even in India. The Aam Aadmi Party’s record 67 out of 70 seats in 2015 was one such wave, smothered by the media which is controlled by the corporates whose key projects in New Delhi were threatened by the untried party. It did not have the ideological spine to withstand the assault from the main political parties and the corporate media. Therefore, the bubble burst. AAP is now an ordinary party circling around power.

There are comparisons between Joe Biden scraping through and Hillary Clinton losing in 2016: neither were popular candidates. They were candidates that the Democratic Party “manoeuvred” as front-runners because on both occasions Bernie Sanders was the most popular candidate, but his democratic socialism was anathema to the establishment.

As soon as it became clear that Sanders was leading the field, the establishment came out, all guns blazing. Thomas Friedman, whom the New York Times values as its star columnist, forgot all decencies of independent journalism and wrote two full columns rooting for former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg and a billionaire several times over, as one of the Democratic front-runners. There was no hope in hell that Bloomberg would win (buy) the nomination but, by spending a billion on TV, he would disrupt the game sufficiently for Sanders to advance. “This is a capitalist country,” thundered Bloomberg. To protect his credibility, Friedman admitted in his column, that his wife worked for one of Bloomberg’s charities. This was just one of the umpteen tricks employed to obstruct Sanders.

There was a straightforward reason why Clinton was the wrong candidate. The velocity given to globalization after the Soviet collapse gave a fillip to rampaging capitalism. Inequalities broke all barriers. It did not require Thomas Piketty to enlighten as that even in India barely one per cent of the rich had cornered 51.53 per cent of the wealth. The picture in the US was worse. Occupy Wall Street became a popular movement. It invited a capitalist riposte — the Tea Party. People were disgusted with Washington, which symbolized the US establishment. A quest began for an anti establishment candidate. Just one such candidate appeared to be Bernie Sanders. People were looking for social welfare, universal healthcare, education — exactly what the Bloombergs of the US thought would kill the initiative which made America great. Quite unabashedly, the Democratic Party gave the impression that it was preferable to lose the White House than lose corporate support.

One hoped the shock reversal of 2016 would have taught the Democrats a lesson. Across the Atlantic, Jeremy Corbyn was being likewise thwarted by New Labour. One of their leading lights, Lord Peter Mandelson, had sworn to “undermine” Corbyn. The other day they suspended him. Corbyn was to Mandelson what Sanders was to Bloomberg. This in June 2017 when the latest opinion polls projected Corbyn as the possible Prime Minister. Another example that the establishment trumps the popular will. Whither democracy, then?

At this very time, another reality was allowed to go unnoticed. A Fox News poll showed that Sanders has a +28 rating above politicians on both sides of the political spectrum. At that time, the Guardian’s Trevor Timm wrote, “One would think with numbers like that, Democratic politicians would be falling over themselves to be associated with Sanders, especially considering the Party as a whole is more unpopular than the Republicans and even Donald Trump right now. Yet, instead of embracing his message, the establishment of the party continues to resist him at almost every turn, and they seem insistent they don’t have to change their ways to gain back the support of huge swathes of the country.”

Sanders’ popularity is now recognized, but after he spelt out the scenario on October 23 in a talk show on how the drama will unfold when votes are counted in these elections, he is well on his way to being prophetic.

“In states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and elsewhere, Republicans are likely to go to the polling booths to cast their votes. Democrats, are likely to mail in their votes. When counting begins, the votes counted first will be Republican votes for that reason. So, by 10 pm on counting day, Trump will thank his voters and announce victory. But next morning when millions of mails will be counted, the trend will change. That is when Trump will scream murder: I told you they’ll cheat.” Mayor Rudi Giuliani has already elaborated the case in Philadelphia.

(Saeed Naqvi is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic issues. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on [email protected])

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Analysis

The US presidential elections and future of India-US relations

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Donald Trump Joe Biden

As the coronavirus pandemic dominates global news in the United States, progress toward the next presidential election scheduled to be held on November 3 moves slowly forward. President Donald Trump had no real opposition in the Republican party and is running for re-election. And it has now become apparent that former Vice President Joe Biden will be his opponent as the Democratic candidate for president.

What would a Trump victory bode for the future of US-India relations? What would a Biden victory bode? Let me answer each of those questions in turn.

Given the love fests of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, Texas, in which Trump participated in September of 2019, and Trump’s ‘Namaste Trump’ event hosted by Modi in India in February of this year, it might be assumed that the future for US-India relations is a splendid one. This would be an incorrect assumption.

Both of these events were more symbolic than substantive. Trump’s participation in them undoubtedly helped to persuade some — perhaps many — Indian American Modi supporters who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to cast their ballots for Trump in 2020. Trump’s campaign team took steps to ensure this by holding an event at his Mar-a-Lago resort in which a group of prominent Indian Americans announced their plans to work for his re-election and to mobilize Indian Americans on his behalf.

To understand the future potential of India’s relations with the US. with Trump as president, however, it is necessary to look beyond these political moves and to examine the present state of those relations and Trump’s personal style.

In a word, the best way to characterize the current relations between the US and India is “functional”. The relationship was relatively good for the first two years of Trump’s presidency. In fact, near the end of 2018, Alice Wells, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, was quoted in the media s saying: “This has been a landmark year for US-India ties as we build out stronger relationships across the board.”

Then, in 2019, the relations went off the track in the first half of the year after the US and India got into a tit-for-tat tariff war after the US terminated India’s Generalized System of Preferences which allowed India to send certain goods to the US duty-free. There have been continuing efforts to structure a “modest” trade deal since then. It was thought there might be some type of deal done in September of 2019 while Modi was in the US by year’s end, and then during Trump’s India visit. But, as of today, there is still no deal.

This inability to get any meaningful trade agreement in place speaks volumes about India’s potential future relations with India with Trump as president. So, too does Trump’s style.

Trump’s campaign slogans this time around are “Keep America Great” and “Promises Made, Promises Kept.” Trump is not a policy wonk and most of his effort will go toward “America First”. This involves making the US more isolated by withdrawing from international agreements, restructuring trade agreements, emphasizing building walls to stop immigrants at the border, using tariffs to block trade with countries who are taking away American jobs, and confronting businesses who are allegedlly stealing American trade secrets.

This perspective suggests what India can expect for its relations with the US if it has to deal with Trump for a second term as president. The relations will stay functional at best. As I have said before, that’s because the words partnership, cooperation and collaboration are not in Trump’s vocabulary. Nationalism, isolationism and protectionism are.

Joe Biden stands in stark contrast to President Trump both professionally and personally. Biden is a strategic thinker and doer with a solid eight-year track record of leadership experience as Vice-President in forging alliances that have made a difference around the world and he has also been a long-standing friend of India.

He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading advocate for the Congressional passage of the Indo-US civic nuclear deal in 2005. At a dinner convened 10 years later in 2015 by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vice President Biden discussed the tremendous joint progress that had been made by the two countries in the past and declared “We are on the cusp of a sea change decade.”

Early in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in July of 2019, in laying out his foreign policy vision, Biden stated that the US had to reach out to India and other Asian partners to strengthen ties with them. The items on Biden’s foreign policy agenda for strengthening which are of importance for India include climate change, nuclear proliferation and cyberwarfare.

During his vice presidency, Biden worked side by side with President Barack Obama to do things that would contribute to achieving Obama’s vision stated in 2010 of India and America being “indispensable partners in meeting the challenges of our time.” In 2020, those challenges are even greater than they were a decade ago.

That is why it is so essential that India and the US develop a strategic relationship that enables them to become those indispensable partners. That can happen if Biden assumes the presidency on January 20, 2021. It cannot happen if Donald Trump remains as president for a second term.

The results of this upcoming election in the US matter greatly for the future of the United States. They matter greatly for the future of India-US relations as well. Time and the American electorate will tell what that future will be.

(Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, civic and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed here are personal)

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