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India to replace coaches on crash-hit rail network


India will replace its existing fleet of old railway coaches with high-tech German-built ones after nearly 200 people were killed in disasters on the network in the last two months.

Thirty-nine people died when a train derailed on Saturday night in southern Andhra Pradesh state, exactly two months after 146 people died in a similar disaster near the northern city of Kanpur in November.

The state-run network, one of the world's largest, has been hit by several smaller incidents in the same period, including another crash near Kanpur on December 28 when two people were killed.

The deadly crashes have renewed concerns about the creaking colonial-era system, which experts say is suffering from chronic underinvestment and poor safety standards despite being a lifeline for millions.

Speaking to AFP on Monday, a spokesman for Indian Railways said that the government was now looking to phase out the old and conventional coaches designed by the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in Chennai by 2018-19.

"There will be zero production of the old ICF-designed coaches. They will be replaced by Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches by 2018-19," Anil Kumar Saxena said.

"The problem is not in replacing but about what to do with the existing fleet. We are looking at ways, we will find a solution soon."

The German-made LHB coaches are equipped with "anti-telescopic" technology which prevents coaches from crumpling and piling on top of each other in case of accidents, thereby cutting down on the number of fatalities.

Cash crunch

R. N. Malhotra, a former administrative head of Indian Railways, said an overhaul was long overdue but warned that just relying on new coaches would not solve the myriad issues dogging the network.

"The railways ministry had sent a proposal last year to the government for release of safety funds but the finance ministry has not approved it as yet," Malhotra told AFP.

"All these assets — the railway lines, signalling system, coaches and all — have a life. After a certain time they need to be replaced with new ones but that needs funds."

Sanjay Padhi, president of one of the railway unions, said a multi-pronged strategy was needed to boost safety standards while calling for a psychological analysis of drivers and gangmen.

"A simple mistake can cause a big accident. We must find out what state of mind the driver was in, was he tired, overworked or under the influence of alcohol," Padhi told AFP.

"Even the track inspectors work 8-12 hours every day. They have to check the tracks manually, while carrying equipment that weighs nearly 30-40 kilos.

"Even if you bring German coaches that is not going to serve the purpose because the staff is not qualified enough to understand and operate all this high-tech stuff."

The Indian railways is the world's fourth largest network which carries about 23 million people every day.

The Indian government is due to announce its budget next week which is likely to include details of its investment plans for the network.