Both railway officials and commuters are terming the ministry's decision to do away with curtains in air-conditioned coaches of long-distance trains—starting with 3AC and subsequently the upper categories—a knee-jerk reaction.
Speaking to dna, Anil Saxena, chief spokesperson of the ministry, said the decision had been taken in mid-March based on the recommendations of the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS), which went into the fire on the Bangalore-Nanded Express. Twenty-six people were killed in the fire that broke out on this train near Kothacheru railway station in Anantapur district (Andhra Pradesh) on December 28.
According to railway officials in the city, the real reason for the decision is the failure of the ministry's apex technical authority, the Research Design Standards Organisation (RDSO), to build a state-of-the-art fire test laboratory.
The fire lab has been in its planning stage since January 2006 when it was first proposed, and railway board and RDSO experts held several rounds of technical discussions with officials from SCNF, the French national railways, then. As per RDSO records, the project was to be completed by December 2008.
The project was revived with vigour in 2011-12, and again at a meeting on March 12, 2013. Two firms, one from South Korea and the other from Chennai, expressed interest in building the fire lab. However, nothing came of it.
The latest tender to build the fire lab was floated this February with September 2014 as the deadline. However, some officials say this deadline might too pass. But according to them the spate of fires on trains in the past few months has actually galvanized the ministry into speeding up projects connected to fire safety on trains.
The lab is crucial, say officials, because railways, for a long time, has unsuccessfully been trying to raise the oxygen index of the materials used for train interiors—from the current 28% to a robust 35%. The higher the oxygen index, the more fire resistant an object would be.
For commuter Manish Chaturvedi, the no-curtain diktat sounds absurd. "Curtains in AC coaches tend to give one privacy. This reminds me of the decision to remove luggage racks from local trains after the July 11, 2006 serial blasts. That had to be reversed, and I'm sure this rule too would be dumped," said Chaturvedi.