A year of safety lapses with introduction of new services in railways (2016 In Retrospect)

New Delhi, Dec 31 (IANS) The Indian Railways — one of the world’s largest networks –had a difficult year in 2016 as it grappled with a string of accidents that cast a shadow on safety measures notwithstanding the government’s bid to revamp the ageing national carrier.

The colonial-era railway system, which carries millions of passengers daily, hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons as early as February when the Kanyakumari-Bangalore Island Express derailed near in Vellore district of Tamil Nadu leaving several people injured.

In yet another tragic accident in July, at least seven children were killed in July when a speeding train plough into a school van at an unmanned railway crossing in Uttar Pradesh.

But the worst came on November 20, when the Patna-Indore Express jumped the tracks near Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh leaving as many as 149 passengers dead beside maiming many others.

One of the worst railways disasters, it raised questiones yet again about the safety of the railways especially after the government announced investmenting Rs 1.27 lakh crore over five years on safety measures.

The creaky railway system has long been a safety concern for the over eight billion passengers it carries annually. The network runs around 12,000 trains daily of which 7,000 are passenger carriers.

Apart from accidents, 2016 will also be remembered for the historic decision of doing away with the Rail Budget. The decision was taken on September 21 after the cabinet gave its nod for merging it with the general budget, putting an end to a practice that started in 1924.

The year also witnessed the introduction of new class of services like Mahamana Express, Gatimaan Express and Humsafar Express. Through the launch of these trains the government said it redefined the travel experience of passengers in trains.

The change started with the launch of the swanky new superfast ‘Mahamana Express’ connecting Delhi and Varanasi on January 25.

The features in the Mahamana Express include ergonomically designed ladders for climbing to upper berths, snack tables for side berths, windows with powered venetian blinds and roller blinds, LED lights as berth indicators, LED reading lights, fire extinguishers in all coaches and an electrically operated chimney in the pantry car.

The toilets of the Mahamana Express have platform washbasins, bigger mirrors, an odour control system, exhaust fans and dustbins.

The railways also introduced India’s fastest train, the Gatimaan Express, on September 20 that runs between Delhi and Agra at a maximum speed of 160 km/h.

Similarly, the railways also launched Humsafar Express on December 16, the first of a series of fully air-conditioned 3rd A/C services, between Anand Vihar and Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh.

The Humsafar Express also boasts latest technology like vinyl wrapping, high quality curtains and passenger information system to enhance the user experience of travelling by train.

The train also has fire and smoke detection systems and most of the parts are made of fire-resistant materials.

Humsafar coaches have pleasing and comfortable interiors and attractive exteriors with GPS-based public information system, deodoriser, fire suppression system, and hygienic lavatories.

The coaches of the Humsafar Express are also equipped with a mini-pantry with oven/fridge, convenient berth identification, distinctive furnishing board and welcome boards.

Apart from all this, the railways came up with the biggest surprise of flexi fare for premier trains – Rajdhani, Duronto and Shatabdi from September 9.

Under this, the base fare increases by 10 per cent with every 10 per cent of berths sold subject to a prescribed limit. There was no change in the existing fare for 1AC and EC class of travel.

But on December 19 Railways said started to provide 10 per cent rebate on any seat left vacant after the preparation of the chart.

(This is part of a series of articles by IANS that look back at the year that was. Anand Singh can be contacted atanand.s@ians.in)