Rail passenger safety in India is not negotiable

Trains are the only affordable means of transport for millions of Indians. Custodians of those lives must ensure their safe passage

The site of a three-train collision near Balasore, in India's eastern state of Odisha, on June 3. AFP.
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For a large percentage of India's 1.42 billion people, trains are often the only viable means to journey across the vast country. All railway passengers have one thing in common – which is not the degree of comfort they can withstand on often arduous train journeys, but the expectation that they will reach their destination safely.

On Friday, in India’s eastern state of Odisha, that expectation came to an end for the almost 300 people who were killed and more than 900 people who were injured when a dozen coaches of the Coromandel Express derailed after it hit a stationary freight train and the Howrah Superfast Express on an adjoining track.

Detailing scenes of the wreckage, a train passenger Suleiman Sheikh who survived, told The National: "There were some women on the top berth who got crushed." It was the country's worst train disaster in decades. In the hours following the accident, world leaders, including President Sheikh Mohamed, expressed their condolences.

Official explanations are as yet scant, but Indian Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has said an inquiry has been set up “to understand the root cause of the accident”. The results are expected by Wednesday and questions are rightfully being asked, not least of all by the millions of Indians, on how it came to be that three trains got mangled in this way.

Train tragedies are not exclusive to any one country. An accident in Greece in February, which left at least 57 people dead, was an issue that played on voters’ minds in last month’s election. The cause for lives lost in train tragedies in India, or elsewhere, bear not just thorough investigation but subsequent remedying of the cause. A train journey cannot become synonymous with high risk in the minds of travellers.

Authorities in India could even examine the findings of inquiries in other train accidents, for it is possible that results of other incidents can provide an insight into problems with railways in general, which can make it a safer mode of transport for millions every day.

In recent years, the Indian government has invested heavily in the country's train network. It allocated $29 billion in its annual budget this year, to invest in new trains and amenities, and to spruce up stations and improve passenger comfort. It had earmarked $32.7 billion in last year’s budget. Every few months, a new semi-high-speed train, known as the Vande Bharat Express, is inaugurated, connecting millions across India's 28 states. Odisha, where this tragedy occurred, got its first Vande Bharat Express on May 20.

While these are all good initiatives, passenger safety has to be the number one priority. And if more regulatory supervision and resource allocation are needed, these should be looked into.

To not fix the cause of this disaster could also interrupt growth: in 2022-23, Indian Railways recorded a revenue of $29.2 billion, 25 per cent more than the previous year. Both passenger and freight earnings have been impressively high.

Ironically, even as India has seen one too many train tragedies, the increase in the sheer number of people opting for rail travel should offer further impetus to authorities to address the root cause, whether it was with signalling or derailment or a different lapse, so that there is no scope for such accidents to recur.

Published: June 05, 2023, 2:00 AM