Playing with lives

The collision of two trains at Sitheri near Arakonnam in Tamil Nadu draws attention once again to the failure of the Indian Railways to put in place robust safety systems.

Preliminary investigations indicate that the driver of the train that rammed into the stationary one was overspeeding and had jumped several signals. There is technology to prevent such overspeeding that could result in collisions.

Yet the Railways has been dragging its feet on the issue. Had such a system been put in place in the train that collided at Sitheri, an alarm would have alerted the driver. Had he not paid heed to the alarm, the train would have come to a halt on its own. The driver’s recklessness would have been checked in time and the 10 people who died in the train collision need not have lost their lives.

Officials often complain that the Railways cannot afford the expensive technology to improve rail safety. This is an absurd claim. It is well known that a substantial amount is allocated towards the rail safety fund.

An internal assessment is reported to have admitted that much of this fund remains unutilised. It is not budgetary constraints but sheer lethargy and low priority accorded to passenger safety that is responsible for the high frequency of train accidents. It is said too that vested interests are trying to push for import of European made anti-collision devices that are many times more expensive than Indian-made equipment that is more suited to our conditions.

The latter is reported to have worked well on the Konkan Railway. Yet, authorities prefer to wait for the arrival of costly foreign equipment. This delay is proving costly in terms of human lives too.

The lackadaisical approach to passenger safety is evident from the continued reluctance to fill around 126,044 vacancies in jobs in areas related to rail safety. It is well-known that most train accidents in India happen at level crossings. Yet less than half the country’s 32,694 level crossings are manned. What a difference it would make to passengers if the Railways hired people to man these crossings.

The Railways also need to look into the performance of its train drivers, whether they are physically and mentally fit to do the arduous job. After all, it is in the hands of these drivers that the lives of thousands of passengers lie. Passenger safety must be prioritised by the Railways immediately.

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