Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Awakening A Sleeping Giant

A long line of people snaked down the length of the Coromandel Express at Howrah, waiting to board the general compartments for the much-anticipated journey home, or perhaps an emergency visit. Policemen made sure the people were in queue, not pushing and shoving, a lesson thankfully learnt from stampedes that have had some terrible results in the past. Comfortably ensconced in our compartment, we had the luxury to look around and watch the crowds milling on the platform; what of those, then, who have to camp out at the station for days and nights, waiting for an elusive ticket to go home to their loved ones? The chaos that descends on a platform when a long-distance train pulls into the station is almost maddening. We have a railway system that needs to muster all possible resources to carry to and fro the uncountable number of people who use its services everyday. A large number of lives, mostly those of families’ breadwinners, are in the hands of those at the helm; but responsibility is a bitter pill. Since the departure of Mamata Banerjee from the post of Railway Minister to take charge as the Chief Minister of West Bengal, the Prime Minister has assumed additional charge of the Railway Ministry. It was only yesterday, when the Cabinet reshuffle was announced, that the TMC’s Dinesh Trivedi was named Railway Minister.

While we prepared to board our train at Howrah, the arrival of the Howrah-Kalka-Delhi Mail was announced. Did a shudder run through the crowds thronging the station? Did their minds linger on the photographs of mangled compartments and the stories of the search for survivors of the accident that befell the Kalka Mail on Sunday? The papers in West Bengal are full of quotes from the Bengal-based relatives of those on board that ill-fated train, people trying frantically to ascertain if their friends/families were aboard it, which compartments they were travelling in, searching desperately for any information at all. Two Swedish nationals were among the 67 people killed in the accident, and a third was seriously injured. Reparation will be offered, of course, in the form of the usual monetary packages. What makes this accident a matter of immediate concern is that it wasn’t a one-off mishap; a bomb blast on the tracks caused the Guwahati-Puri Express to derail on Sunday, injuring over a hundred people, and a collision between a train and a bus on July 7 at an unmanned crossing in Kanshiram Nagar, Uttar Pradesh killed 38 people and injured 31. However, life goes on as the trains continue to make mammoth journeys across the country, caution and safety left resting in the hands of the powers that be, because not everyone has the means to choose an alternative mode of travel. For the people coming from the rural hinterlands of the country, travelling far and wide for work, trains, specifically the lower-priced classes, provide about the only means of transport.

The cause of the Kalka Mail accident is still not clear, responsibility isn’t being pinned on any one party yet. The MoS for Railways, Mukul Roy, expected to make a visit to the site of the Assam incident, chose to go to Jangalmahal with Mamata Banerjee instead, claiming that the situation there was under control and his presence wasn’t needed. Dinesh Trivedi, on his first day as Railway Minister, is going through perhaps one of his toughest challenges. How do you answer the families of the deceased, what explanation do you give for three accidents in a row, all of which could possibly have been averted? Safety has to come first on any list; admittedly, there are endless kilometres of tracks stretching out all over the country, but that is why we also have a body committed to maintaining it and ensuring that people reach their destinations safely.

The blueprint for the High-Speed railway system to be in place in China by 2015 presents a study in contrast. The new Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway, equipped to deal with the snowstorms that play havoc with the system during the peak festival periods, which is also when large numbers of people travel home, covers the distance of 1318 km at 300 kmph, making a round trip possible in a single day. Empty trains travel in the morning from each direction to ensure the safety of the line, a task made imperative by the fact that these trains reach a top speed of 350 kmph. Proper and fast connectivity seems to be the top priorities of Chinese railway authorities, but in no way do they compromise on safety. They handle massive amounts of traffic, just like the Indian railways; but were a major accident to take place, would it take this long to find out the root cause of the problem and make sure it doesn’t repeat itself? Lessons aren’t learnt easily in India, though: a fault was detected in the axle of the pantry car of the Bhubaneswar- New Delhi Rajdhani Express, and a major accident was averted, but this inspection took place only at Tatanagar. The blame for the lapse was laid on the East Coast Railway.

That the different zones of the railways should work in conjunction with one another shouldn’t be too much to ask. The horrific casualties of three different accidents in one week should serve as a massive jolt to the slumber that seems to have set in. Importantly, the people concerned should accept responsibility for their areas and work towards enforcing the necessary regulations. It isn’t difficult; it just requires systematic and honest work.

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