Indian rail out of steam as minister says safety is in hands of Hindu god

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Indian Rail, one of the world's largest networks, is grinding slowly to a halt following the communist-supported government's resistance to import wheels for about 40,000 wagons, writes Rahul Bedi in New Delhi.

Railway minister Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav is opposed to importing the wheels, preferring to make them locally instead.

The file to provide clearance for importing the wheels "has been put up to him five times, but each time it has been sent back without perusal," a rail official said.

Mr Prasad intends to establish a rail wheel-making unit in his home state of Bihar but officials said that would take years to become operational, by which time thousands of additional wagons would have become inoperable.

Rail officials, meanwhile, desperate to figure out a way to meet the mounting demand for wheels to transport freight, said their indigenous manufacture was not a viable option.

"Our fear is that we will have to stable 40,000 wagons by the year end because of a wheel shortage adversely affecting the transport of freight," a senior officer said, who declined to be named.

He said Indian Rail, which has one of the world's highest accident rates, had been running about 5,000 wagons with wheels which needed replacing. "We are prolonging their \ life by one year in order to run the wagons. It is a calculated risk we are taking," he said ominously.

In an ironic twist to the problem, 20,000 new wagons were ready, but awaited wheels. "It's a catch-22 situation as the wagons cannot be supplied without wheels," a bemused official said.

Operating about 12,000 trains daily connecting 7,100 stations, Indian Rail ferries more than 13 million passengers and tens of thousands of tonnes of freight daily. Its monthly timetable is possibly one of the world's thickest and highly complex while its massive budget is separately presented to parliament each year.

Officials however concede there is little, if any, emphasis on safety, despite nearly 300 rail accidents and mishaps each year.

"All major accident inquiries are forgotten within days of being ordered," admitted a senior railway official. Little, he added, was ever done to implement any change.

Over the last five years, there had been at least two instances of goods trains travelling about 30 km in northern India without an engine driver, who had either fallen out or had jumped out en route.

Fortunately neither train was involved in an accident as they ran out of steam.

Mr Yadav has blamed Vishwakarma, the Hindu god of machines, for the spiralling rate of rail accidents.

"Indian Railways are the responsibility of Lord Vishwakarma," said Mr Prasad, "so is the safety of passengers. It is his duty [to ensure safety\], not mine," he said earlier this year.

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