Every few years, we witness one of the grimmest accidents in railway history.
The newspapers come out with dramatic pictures. The toll of those killed and wounded is updated on every news bulletin. Websites come out with timelines and statistics, recapping the deadliest accidents in the history of the Indian railways.
Just over a week ago, fourteen coaches of the Indore-Rajendranagar Patna Express derailed in Kanpur. 150 people have been killed, and at least as many wounded.
The inquiry into the accident was completed within four days, with nearly 40 employees of the Railways, including the ticket examiner and the train’s driver, as well as survivors, engineers and technicians questioned. Written statements have been recorded from more than 100 people. The report is due to be submitted within a month, but the media has already found “sources”, who are willing to leak information as long as they remain anonymous.
According to these sources, the reasons for the accident are the same as they usually are – overcrowding of the train; corroded tracks with fractures and missing fittings from poor maintenance; coaches from the mediaeval times.
Invariably, most of these accidents happen in the wee hours of the day.
Invariably, strict action is promised against those responsible.
Invariably, it happens again.
Every time, the government absolves itself of responsibility and doles out money to the wounded and the families of the dead. Those who survived without injury are deemed too lucky to deserve compensation.
How do we trace the responsibility for an accident?
There are accidents of various kinds with the Railways.
People crossing the tracks are run over.
Elephants crossing the tracks are run over.
Tracks are sabotaged by “miscreants” or “Maoists”.
Isn’t it an embarrassment that the Civil Aviation ministry, which is in charge of safety for the Railways, cannot in the twenty first century come up with ways to prevent people from approaching the tracks, or at least alert the train drivers when they do? Can motion sensors not be fitted to detect when elephants are on the tracks? Can we not elevate parts of the tracks, so that the train does not have to pass through the ground on elephant corridors? Can we not establish security systems to find out when tracks are being sabotaged?
No one is allowed on the runway of an airport without having cause to be there. There is no way to cross from one platform to another on the metro except by using the escalators or lifts. Yet, our Railways seem to belong to the same century in which they were first laid.
The toilets in the compartments are still holes in the ground.
The coaches have no safety features such as shock absorbers.
There are no seatbelts.
The recommendations of the Anil Kakodkar committee have not been implemented. The committee warned that the coaches were obsolete, not made to withstand the current speeds of 100-120 kilometres an hour. But funds were not allocated to replace the coaches, and the speeds did not reduce.
The committee had planned the elimination of all level crossings – manned and unmanned – in 5 years. It will be 5 years since it was submitted in three months. How many level crossings have been eliminated?
There is a perennial shortage of staff.
Coaches are perennially overcrowded.
New trains are perennially introduced, to run on tracks that have seen their best days.
India is tremendously proud of the length of track that networks the country. But isn’t that pride misplaced when this network is about as flimsy as a spider web?
Who is responsible for the failure of the Railways to modernise?
How can we claim to be a thriving economy, and aim to be among global superpowers in the next few decades when our Railways are, by definition, a leviathan that cannot be controlled?
If we want to change our label from third world country to developed nation, we need to change our definition of safety.
The Railways cannot remind us of the era in which they were built in their very functioning. The romanticism of train rides cannot be couched in nostalgia for a period when safety features were a distant dream.
For all the thumping of our chests at the progress we have made in other departments, we have left our Railways in a different century.
Against whom will “strict action” be taken for that crime?
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