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No trains to safety

12 Jul. 2011 11:26 PM IST

The Kalka Mail’s tragedy holds sharp personal anguish for someone who was brought up on the railways in another age of travelling in comfort and security. Sunday afternoon’s derailment in Uttar Pradesh might possibly be due to sabotage (like that of the Guwahati-Puri Express the same day) but my instincts say this is yet another consequence of the mismanagement that marks an India that is trundling to the moon in a creaking bullock cart packed with diseased and undernourished people.
Great things are being done for India but not for Indians. The impermanence to which the permanent way-nearly 65,000 km of track-is being reduced matters more than 2G and Commonwealth Games scams or the fuss over a Lokpal.
It was with a stab of pain that I read amidst harrowing tales of death and suffering that the derailed train has fallen to fourth place in the pecking order. Time was when no train in Kolkata was grander than the Delhi Mail which went on to Kalka. As a child, I looked on it with awe for a very personal reason — my father’s saloon couldn’t be attached to it; he wasn’t an important enough railway official to add to the length and weight of a train that had sped the viceroy to Shimla. The main platform at Howrah used to be ablaze with the movers and shakers of the world when the Kalka Mail with its smart dining car run by Kellner (Spencer handled catering on southern routes) set out for Delhi each evening.
That august train now follows humbly in the wake of upstarts of the railroad like the Rajdhani and Duronto and Poorva Expresses. The Rajdhani certainly isn’t half as splendid as the Kalka Mail used to be. Its downfall probably began unnoticed when the original sitting room was lopped off. Recently, I had to take it from Patna, and noticed how my first class airconditioned coupe was only a stark box of splintering plywood without many of the fittings (wash basin, wardrobe, etc.) that had been there only a few years ago. One might argue that a stark wooden box can move just as smoothly and safely on the rails as the viceregal saloon used to, but if trains have been so downgraded, it’s likely that so have the rails and supporting infrastructure.
Each new political adventurer who bags the railway portfolio only seeks personal fame and a place in posterity by adding a new train. That is all that public life in India is about nowadays. It’s the same in the professions, even in my own trade of stringing words together. Everyone is selling something and that something is himself (or herself). Only, railway ministers do it at the cost of public life and safety. Lal Bahadur Shastri was the only incumbent to have had the decency to acknowledge that. The others are out for what they can get.
“I am the minister of state, not the railway minister,” Mukul Roy is quoted as saying after Sunday’s calamity. “I will go to the spot if the PM tells me.” The remark betrayed his discontent at not being given Cabinet rank and his anxiety for an opportunity to push himself to the notice of Manmohan Singh and, even better, Sonia Gandhi. Why else should he bother with loss of life and property? It’s not his life or his property! Perhaps Mr Roy had already got wind of the rumour — now reported as fact — that like a medieval empress rewarding subservient courtiers, Mamata Banerjee has decided to bestow the portfolio not on him but on Dinesh Trivedi.
Trains were always on time in a childhood spent in railway colonies when we were not romping in a saloon shunted in the sidings in some distant station or in retiring rooms with the knowledge that a good restaurant with khansamas in crisply beplumed turbans and gleaming brass medallions was available just down the stairs. The last time I had to spend a night in a retiring room was in Arrah because I was visiting the Sonepur fair in the 1970s. The bed linen was so filthy that I reclined all night in a long cane planter’s chair. I should imagine that handsome piece of teak has either been chopped up for firewood or graces some official’s residence.
Trains were on time because engines were well maintained, the tracks perfectly in order with sleepers and fish plates so spaced as to cause the minimum bumps, and no signalman was ever caught napping on his watch. It would offend his izzat and there was no greater insult than that. It was fascinating to watch the signalman at the end of the platform deftly fling the wire ring to the engine driver who caught and flung it back with equal adroitness. The exchange signalled the all-clear.
The inspector in his sola topee on a trolley wheeling along the track under blazing skies or in torrential rain was another indicator of the importance attached to safety. Four bearers pushed and pulled the platform for a while and then jumped on it to remain seated while the momentum lasted. The trolley’s smooth passage ensured that the train following had nothing to fear from missing segments of track, worn-out sleepers, loose fishplate screws or other dangers. The sola-hatted inspector and his bearers literally put their lives on the line for passengers.
Maoism has come as a tremendous boon. The consequences of substandard material (everyone takes a cut on every purchase), shoddy workmanship, poor maintenance and negligent inspection can be blamed on saboteurs. What would all our public services do without those armed rebels? It recalls the principality of Monaco cabling Paris after the end of the Second World War asking for some Communists. Monaco didn’t qualify for Marshall Aid otherwise.
It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad, as the old American saying goes. It’s also a hell of a way to run a country.

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Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
Sunanda K. Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.