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Experts Recommend India Rail Overhaul

Railway workers remove a damaged slab from the track after a passenger train derailed in Bangapara village near the northeastern city of Guwahati, India, February 3, 2012.

In India, experts are asking for billions of dollars to overhaul rail safety and help prevent more than 15,000 from dying each year while trying to cross the country's railway tracks. India has one of the world’s most extensive and crowded rail networks, carrying 20 million passengers a day.

The government-appointed panel to review rail safety has turned the spotlight on a problem that has seldom received attention.

The experts say the deaths of 15,000 people every year while crossing railway tracks is a “massacre” which no civilized society can accept. Some people also die when they fall off crammed coaches. The panel says although these deaths are not from train collisions, they cannot be ignored by the railway authorities.

The problem arises in areas where railway tracks cut through densely populated areas, and where slums and settlements have mushroomed in their vicinity. Mumbai’s suburban rail network accounts for as many as 6,000 deaths a year.

Transport and infrastructure expert G. Raghuram says rail authorities could take several measures to address the issue.

“The important thing is to provide people convenient alternatives so that they don’t just dart across tracks," Raghuram noted. "There are various solutions possible -- better fencing, more opportunities to cross the tracks through overpass bridges. In suburban areas, at least, there is no reason why Indian Railways cannot just floodlight the entire railway track. It is just that Indian Railways have not viewed this as part of their agenda because they do not view themselves as directly responsible for those accidents.”

The rail safety panel was appointed in the wake of a spate of train accidents last year. Besides the deaths from crossing rail tracks, collisions and derailments of passenger trains take 1,000 lives every year.

The panel has called on the government to invest $20 billion over the next five years to upgrade technology and infrastructure. This includes safe coaches, anti-collision devices, advance warning systems and the strengthening of aging tracks and rail bridges.

Several experts say the Indian railways are stuck in a time warp. Professor Raghuram says that modernizing the network will help reduce train accidents.

“In terms of international benching, and given the technologies and systems that are available, the Indian railways can do a lot more… Railways have just to move, take a quantum jump in terms of the systems and technologies they need to adopt,” Raghuram said.

Critics say over the years the priority has been to expand the network to meet the needs of a growing population rather than address safety concerns.

In the wake of the report, Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi has called on the government to provide more funds to help address safety issues.