What Will It Take For Us to Avoid Train Tragedies Like the Bihar Derailment?

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What Will It Take For Us to Avoid Train Tragedies Like the Bihar Derailment?

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

I

ndia woke up to the news of yet another trail derailment this morning. On Sunday, at least seven people were killed and 24 injured after 11 coaches of the Delhi-bound Seemanchal Express derailed in Bihar’s Vaishali district. Three coaches of the super-fast train have been completely destroyed. Ghastly indeed, yet there’s a grisly sense of familiarity to this. After all, India, with its vast network of railways (the fourth largest in the world), sees a worrying number of accidents on the track each year.

Statistically, the number of railway accidents is decreasing. As data published last year shows, the number of accidents dropped from 325 in 2003-04 to 106 in 2015-16. It’s an improving safety record, but needless to say it is also far from perfect. Administrative negligence and a disregard for public safety led to heavy losses, both for the victims and the Indian Railways, who pay out ₹303 lakh on average as compensation per year.

This is the reality of Indian Railways – a house of cards, where minute errors and lapses in judgements can have catastrophic consequences. However, the railways and the central government have a much more optimistic vision for the future. In their minds, the pervasive, deep-seated issues that lead to tragedies like the one that unfolded in Bihar today are beasts that can be slain by the silver bullet of modernisation. Never mind that a regular passenger train just led to 60 deaths in Amritsar last October where people standing on the tracks watching the burning of Ravana’s effigy were run over, or that stampedes at railway stations like the one in Kolkata or Mumbai claim dozens of lives with alarming regularity. Yet what India needs are bullet trains and hyperloops!

Public awareness about safety measures and stricter accountability for authorities is required, unless we want to remain trapped in this tragic cycle.

Last September, the central government announced plans to acquire 18 bullet trains from Japan, with the first bullet train running between Mumbai and Ahmedabad by 2022. The Indian Railways are also going to set up assembling facilities for bullet trains in the country on a public-private participation basis. Before that, in February, Virgin Hyperloop One announced their intentions to connect Mumbai and Pune with a hyperloop, cutting down travel time between the two cities to just 25 minutes.

For a country that aspires to build Smart Cities everywhere, turn its financial capital into Shanghai, and wishes to be at the forefront of global innovation and technology, incidents like the Bihar and Amritsar train tragedies are inconvenient reminders of just how far we have to go. The blame-game over these accidents begin, on cue. 

There will be consequences, and the investigations held in the wake of the accident will certainly find someone to take the fall for the tragedy, but the blame for the pitiable state of India’s railway safety isn’t to be laid solely at the door of the authorities. As observed by the NHRC after the Amritsar accident, it cannot to be a “sane act” to sit on railway tracks to watch a fireworks show.

Inexplicably, there are many people across the country who feel like simple rules devised for their safety are optional. We saw this taken to its gruesome extreme in Amritsar, but it’s also visible when we see people crossing the railway tracks during rush hour at Dadar Station. It’s also visible in how two-wheeler riders in Mumbai decide the mandatory helmet law becomes optional after sunset. YouTube is full of videos of teenage boys monkeying around on moving trains and railway tracks with not a single passerby bothering to even tell them to stop, a testimony to our foolhardiness as citizens.

While futuristic transportation and infrastructure projects might make for good headlines – especially for a government desperately in need of fulfilling their promises of development – they are going to be mere distractions as long as the environment that led to Bihar remains undisturbed. Public awareness about safety measures and stricter accountability for authorities is required, unless we want to remain trapped in this tragic cycle. In looking to a future of full of bullet trains and hyperloops, we must not allow ourselves to forget the stark reality of our present.

This is an updated version of a story published earlier.

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