Indian Railways says deaths, injuries from accidents fall amid safety crackdown

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Deaths and injuries from train collisions or derailment in India more than halved to 254 people last fiscal year from a year ago, railways data showed, amid attempts to improve its shoddy safety record through mega investments and recruitments.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

The state-run Indian Railways shared the data with Reuters days after an incident in which the brakes on a 22-coach train carrying hundreds of passengers failed, letting it run freely in reverse for about 13 km (eight miles).

The railways has suspended several officials since the incident, and its chairman acknowledged that turning around the culture and image of a government behemoth that employed 1.3 million and ran around 22,000 trains daily was going to take time, despite the safety success seen in 2017/18.

The number of deaths and injuries last fiscal year ending March 31 was the lowest in at least 18 years for which data was provided. The worst was in 2002/03, when 1,400 people were killed or injured. The figure in 2016/17 was 607, the data show.

“Safety is an end result. We need to focus on maintenance, and that also includes looking after the people,” Ashwani Lohani, who was brought in to helm the department last August after a spate of accidents led to a top-level shake-up, told Reuters in his office on Monday.

“We have a tremendous inherent strength of our people ... But I don’t have a magic wand.”

The railways is in the midst of a $130 billion, five-year modernisation plan and is hiring nearly 90,000 people over the next few months to mainly fill positions left vacant by retirees.

Lohani said the world’s fourth-biggest rail network was trying to make it easier for all levels of employees to approach top officials via WhatsApp or other media so that grievances can be addressed immediately and human error can be minimised.

“It is essential that the focus on safety must not be lost,” Lohani said in a recent posting on a railways WhatsApp group. “We are a 24x7 organisation and must be alert all the times.”

He also said the railways was considering bringing in local private companies to run new tourist trains and be involved in overhauling of some stations.

The railways has joint ventures with Alstom of France and U.S.-based General Electric for locomotive supply and maintenance.

Editing by Michael Perry