The deadly tracks
Train tragedies have become common incidents in our country. The Monday’s deadly train accident that took place near District Sheikhupura is a case in point. Indeed it exposes the safety of rail passengers who are at increasing risk from the deadly tracks. As per details, the Karachi-bound Shalimar Express hit an oil tanker that was stuck on the track leaving two persons dead and six passengers injured. The official reason for the tragedy claims malfunctioning of the oil tanker is to blame. However, a detailed enquiry will lead to the exact causes of the accidents. Whatever the cause of this accident may have been, Pakistan Railways has an awful safety record with a major accident taking place nearly every month. In November last, disaster struck when two passenger trains collided near the Landhi Railway Station in Karachi. The collision led to the death of at least 21 people, while more than 65 were injured. The train tragedies usually share the familiar common problem of insufficient safety procedures directly leading to massive loss of life. In October, a freight train collided with a passenger bus in Pattoki killing four people after the railway crossing line was left open. The month before that six people were killed and 150 injured when two trains collided in Multan when both were using the same track. In July, a train derailed and overturned in Khanewal, injuring 20 people. The list of accidents is endless and unacceptable. Pakistan Railways has been all but destroyed by a culture of corruption and inefficiency. Both the resources and the will to adopt standard safety measures are not in place because the railways have been run into the ground. Various accidents could have been prevented had Pakistan Railways abandoned the outdated analogue signal system and switched all trains to the digital model railway control system which can detect crossings and approaching trains and control speed. Most train accidents in Pakistan take place because the signal has not been properly transmitted to the drivers or they have not picked it up. A digital system would significantly reduce the risk of that happening and allow for real-time interaction between the driver and the control centre. The other major cause of accidents is dangerous crossing points, with one recent report alleging that over 2400 crossing points in the country have been deemed dangerous. Fixing these will require expenditure that Pakistan Railways is just not willing to make because it is in financial dire straits. As the Karachi accident has shown, money should not be an issue when people’s lives are at stake. As for the Minister of Railways, it usually comes up with routine statements. In the latest case, it once again expressed grief, ordered an inquiry and the government announced a compensation package. The situation on the ground, however, told a different story. Reports have suggested that passengers were left on their own after the trauma. Many ended up waiting for hours to resume travel, including that which were taken to the hospital for urgent medical aid. This is the usual display of callous behaviour on the part of the concerned authorities. Since 2013, reportedly over 300 rail accidents have taken place leading to at least 112 deaths. The British built the elaborate railway system in the Indian subcontinent. While India has expanded the network, we have in effect decreased its total size. The infrastructure is outdated and the Railway is mired by overstaffing, corruption, broken systems and overall lack of internal accountability. Now that we are on the CPEC bandwagon and repeat it every day as the harbinger of long-term prosperity, it is time to overhaul the rail infrastructure. The ministry has to avert disasters. There can be no escape from this responsibility. Millions use the railways network as it connects people in far-flung areas and remains a relatively cheaper mode of travel. Its cargo potential is tremendous. Economic benefits aside, the safety of passengers needs be the top priority. Had there been accountability for earlier accidents; and systems fixed, we may have prevented this tragedy. It is time for the government to show that it respects the lives of its citizens and is capable of protecting them. As a matter of fact, Khawaja Saad Rafique’s journey as railways minister has been replete with sweet, satisfying runs that are invariably followed by bad news. The railways under the talkative minister is said to have come out of its moribund state and moving towards a stage where a transformation can at least be hoped for. It is very ironic that the minister in charge says security involves many more than just the railways. But the Minister should know that it is the government responsibility to secure the train routes of dangers bred by too much activity and too lax security around the rail tracks, which are on the verge of being abandoned in recent years.