Don't blame floods for MP rail mishaps

Two train tragedies in Madhya Pradesh have again exposed the gaping holes in the Indian Railways’ extremely poor safety systems. They also showed up again the railway authorities’ refusal to accept responsibility for mishaps and their penchant to find scapegoats or strange and unconvincing reasons for them. Thirty people were killed when two trains, the Kamayani Express bound for Varanasi and the Janata Express en route to Mumbai, derailed at the same spot within minutes of each other. Some coaches crashed into a river swollen with rain and water released from a dam. The reflex response of the authorities was to shift the cause of the accident to matters beyond their control. The Railway Board said that it was the ‘’freakiest of freaky’’ accidents. Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu said it was a natural calamity. But nature had only as much to do with the accident as it has when a bus hits an uprooted tree lying across the road.

It is said that the tracks had subsided due to flash floods or water from the dam, and the coaches that moved over them derailed and collapsed. This is not a natural calamity. It only shows that the tracks were not being properly watched and maintained when there was a threat to them. Such maintenance should be a 24-hour job but there should be special vigil when there is a chance of rain or floods. The release of water from the dam should have been anticipated. When it happened, steps should have been taken to ensure that the tracks held, or traffic should have been cancelled or diverted. Floods are common in the monsoon season and to blame them for train accidents is to evade responsibility. The railways had even invented a tornado to explain the 1988 Bangalore-Trivandrum Island Express tragedy in which over 100 people were killed.

The Indian Railways’ safety record is the worst in the world. While safety should be the first priority of the railways, it does not receive the attention it needs. Tracks are not well maintained, coaches are old, signal system needs improvement, unmanned crossings should not be there, and all safety systems need upgradation. Importantly, accountability should be fixed for accidents. It has been pointed out that responsibility for 40 per cent of railway accidents can be directly traced to the staff. Yet, punishment of guilty staff is rare. The need for better management of and more investment in the railways is often underlined. Bullet trains are being planned. But the most important item in the agenda should be ensuring the safety of passengers.

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