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Lessons from a disaster

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A railway network that caters to about seven billion passenger trips a year poses extraordinary management challenges, the most important of which is to ensure that all journeys end safely. The derailment (train leaving the rails along which it runs)  of the Indore-Patna Express in Kanpur Dehat, with the death toll at least 146, is a stark (hard ; vigorous) reminder that India’s strained railway system can be unpredictably risky. The distress of the families of passengers who died and those left injured can never be fully compensated by the announcement of ex-gratia (as a favour ; given as a gift)  compensation by the Railway Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and State governments; at the same time, confidence in the system has suffered a severe blow.

The Ministry, which has recorded an average of 50 derailments a year over the past four years and a peak of 63, needs to engage in a sustained (to maintain ; keep in existence)  effort to win back public confidence. There are several elements to safety, of which the integrity of the tracks, signalling, engines and coaches need to be rigorously (strict ; severe) audited. Internal investigations by the Commissioners of Railway Safety have found human error to be responsible for 70 per cent of serious rail accidents, which underscores the importance of training and adherence to strict operational discipline. In the Patna Express accident, the focus is on whether there were flaws (a gap ; a fault)  in the track, the speed at which the late-running train was being driven, and the role played by coach design in leading to high fatalities (death ; destruction) .

Millions of people board a train in India every day. They need an assurance from the Ministry that it is learning from its mistakes. Specialist committees headed by Anil Kakodkar on safety and Bibek Debroy on restructuring ( to change the organization of) have recommended major reforms, such as the creation of a statutory (regulated by a written law)  safety authority, speedy replacement of ageing (the process of becoming older) coaches with modern LHB design, and revamped (to improve ; to renew) management that keeps its focus on core train operations. In his budget this year, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu promised that all zonal railways would have ultrasound flaw detection machines by March 2017 to test track quality.

 It is important to know whether such a test was done on the Indore-Kanpur-Patna route. After an accident it is the quality of medical facilities that determines a victim’s chances of survival. Many terrible mishaps ( an accident ; mistake)  occur in rural areas that have no hospital facilities worth the name, no trauma specialists or intensive care. Upgrading district hospitals should be a priority. More immediately, the Railway Ministry should ensure that bureaucratic procedures do not come in the way of victims getting the best treatment and aid.