Derail deaths: Can we avert future tragedies?

The systemic faults of an ageing network, where trains invariably carry passengers far beyond capacity in ill-maintained coaches.

The cause of the worst rail disaster in several years must first be established so that the Indian Railways, with a very patchy safety record, may learn something from it. The rising death toll in the derailment of the Patna-Indore Express — where an accurate body count may not even be possible due to telescoping of compartments — is a cruel reminder of how vulnerable rail travellers are. The systemic faults of an ageing network, where trains invariably carry passengers far beyond capacity in ill-maintained coaches, needs a lot more attention. The standard response to major accidents, besides passing the buck, has been proforma announcements on inquiries ordered (after which the guilty will be punished), and ex-gratia sums given to the kin of the deceased. The only difference is that now the railway minister tweets the amount of compensation, as do others, including the PM and chief ministers.

Early reports suggesting a rail “fracture” may have caused the mishap are being discounted as the Sabarmati Express crossed the same section just nine minutes earlier. Now questions arise on why the loco pilot didn’t halt the train after having checked unusual noises he heard to, upon which he is said to have run engine checks and satisfied himself that things were normal. Passengers on board had even expressed their misgivings to rail officials on board about strange noises and the jolting progress of the train. Answering an intrusive electronic media, the driver simply said he couldn’t say anything as he was bound to answer only at the formal inquiry. However, the need to establish why this mishap occurred is very important as human error through overspeeding is also a possible cause, as the crash was said to be of unusually high intensity. Some of the injured have showed to the cameras demonetised notes thrust into their hands by visiting VIPs. There couldn’t be a crasser example of adding insult to injury.

The Indian Railways hasn’t endeared itself to passengers in recent times with steep increases in passenger fares and even a clever dynamic pricing system as in the airlines to squeeze more money out of travellers, or perhaps push them into flying as an alternative as the Railways can’t meet the demand. The system is not short of safety funds as over Rs 1,20,00 crores have been earmarked for this. How much of this goes regularly into track renewal and replacement of old rolling stock is anybody’s guess. It can’t be an easy task to monitor over 1.15 lakh km track, over 66,000 carriages and more than 10,000 locomotives, which one of the world’s biggest networks is supposed to maintain and ensure safety of over 23 million passengers who travel every day on the national system.

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