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Blood on the tracks

 | January 10, 2014

In the past two years, 65 men, women and children have lost their lives in train fires, reflecting an abysmal safety record.

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Trains in India have become fire traps. Thirty-five people died during the past two weeks when coaches in two different trains caught fire.

On Wednesday, nine men and women were charred to death when three non-air-conditioned bogies of the Bandra (Mumbai)-Dehra Dun Express went up in flames near Thane on the outskirts of Mumbai.

On Dec 28, an air-conditioned coach of the Bangalore-Nanded Express caught fire after a possible electrical short circuit, killing 26 sleeping people. Many suffocated to death in the thick smoke that quickly spread through the bogie, and it took a while to stop the train, because the emergency brakes were not working.

In the past two years, 65 men, women and children have lost their lives in train fires, reflecting an abysmal safety record.

It seemed like a joke, a cruel one at that, when Arunendra Kumar, chairman of the Railway Board said: “We have not been able to check fire incidents. The fire issue must be addressed professionally”.

But of course it must be. And of course the danger has not been tackled professionally – like much else in this country where callousness and greed kill people.

Trains do not have modern fire and smoke alarms, and this was promised in the last Railway Budget.

Many of the materials used in coaches – like curtains, upholstery and plywood – are not fire resistant. If these materials are to be fire resistant, it will cost more, and in India with a huge percentage of budgeted funds reportedly going into private coffers, little is left for passenger safety or for any other welfare schemes for citizens.

So if there is a fire on a moving train, the options are clear. One either jumps off the coach or stays in to be smoked out of existence!

There are other aspects of safety that have been seriously compromised.

Many of the trains are yet to be fitted with anti-collision devices, and the absences of these have led to horrific accidents and deaths.

Track maintenance is also low.

India’s worst rail accident was in 1981, when a train plunged into a river in the eastern state of Bihar, killing an estimated 800 people.

There are still hundreds of railway crossings which are not manned: there have been cases of men and vehicles being run over by speeding trains at these spots.

An official report in 2012 found that 15,000 people are killed every year as they cross rail tracks — a figure the government termed “massacre”.

What is more, many vacancies in Indian Railway have not been filled for a long time, with the result that the staff tends to be overworked.

The cabins of railway locomotives are not air-conditioned, and there are many places in India that are excruciatingly hot and humid. Obviously, work efficiency takes a beating.

And hence passenger safety.

But who cares?

Gautaman Bhaskaran is India Editor of FMT, and Chennai-based author, columnist and movie critic. He may be emailed at[email protected]


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