It was one of the worst train disasters in recent memory. The head-on collision of the Brahmaputra Mail and the Awadh-Assam Express near Jalpaiguri, north Bengal, which killed over 288 people and injured more than 400, wouldn't have happened if someone was simply doing his job. At the Kishangunj station, no one had cared to manually lock the changeover point where one track crosses over the other. This needed to be done to prevent the Mail from changing tracks until the signal was clear. As a result, the Awadh-Assam Express strayed onto the down line. And even when it passed the next station, Panjipara, 19 km away, nobody, not even those at the level crossings, noticed it was on the wrong track. It finally hurtled towards disaster near Gaisal. "The automatic alarm monitor was off and nobody was there to revert it manually. Only a colossal multi-level failure could be responsible," admits a railway official, sheepishly.
The result: a mangled heap, with six carriages of the Brahmaputra Mail literally entrenched within seven of the Awadh Express. Bodies trapped inside this wreckage, requiring three days of rescue operations. Gore and grief. And at the end of it all, the political spinoff: Union railways minister Nitish Kumar's resignation, accepted by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on August 5 after it hung fire for three days.
Before Black Monday, more than 600 people have been killed in rail accidents during Nitish Kumar's 16-month-long tenure as the railway minister. On November 26 last year, over 200 people had died when the Jammu-Sealdah Express rammed into the derailed Golden Temple Frontier Mail at Khanna in Punjab. The usual laments and recriminations followed but little came of it. 'Rail fracture' was found to be the main cause but those indicted went scot-free. More recently, on July 16, at least 18 people died near Mathura when the Grand Trunk Express collided with a stationary train.
The only other head-on collision in known rail history-between the Madras-Kanyakumari Express and a goods train in the Palakkad division in May '95-which left 54 dead and 50 injured, happened due to the station master's wrong despatch. "There have been cases of rear-end and side collisions but those have been caused only by extreme carelessness," admits an official.
Notwithstanding the final toll at Gaisal, public sentiment has almost been blunted by the numbing repetitiveness of such mishaps. Almost every smashup brings with it the endless cycle of agony-disfigured bodies, twisted metal, mourning relatives-until the next horror. Like earlier incidents, the commissioner for railway safety (CRS) has been asked to hold an inquiry into the Gaisal accident.
But, says an official, gloomily, "We can predict the findings of the inquiry. It will either be human error, mechanical failure or a combination of both. It will then be consigned to the shelves". Railway officials themselves admit that at least four inquiry reports are available from past tragedies, though, predictably, not even one has been acted upon. "Scarce resources have been diverted for populist measures rather than upgrade safety standards," complains a railway board member.
There is a grain of truth in this charge. A white paper brought out for the first time by Nitish Kumar in July last year states that the country's largest public sector undertaking was "reeling under pressure from declining finances, increasing pressure from pending projects and competition from roads." Such circumstances would, to a great extent, explain the compromising of safety requirements. Some of the highlights in the paper are telling:
The railway projects on hand have an accumulated financial requirement of Rs 19,330 crore for their completion and with the current level of funding-annual budgetary outlays are of Rs 500 crore-the projects can be reasonably expected to take over 40 years to be completed.
In the case of ongoing gauge conversion projects, the government finds itself severely cramped by the finance requirement of Rs 9,100 crore. With an annual outlay of a mere Rs 800 crore, these will take at least another decade to be completed.
On top of this are projects which essentially serve a political purpose rather than a social or commercial one.
Former railway board member N. Venkatesan puts his finger on the problem, "The indiscriminate sanctioning of projects without studying their feasibility is because of the liberty given to politicians. This free hand given to them to play with the nation's future has to be stopped."
With all the mega projects in the pipeline, safety is the biggest casualty. The outgoing railway minister agrees. "Safety and technological advancement is the priority," says Nitish Kumar. But that has mostly remained on paper. In his tenure, 12 new projects had been sanctioned, including new lines, electrification and gauge conversion costing Rs 2,529 crore. Fourteen new trains were also announced in the 1999-2000 Budget.
Officials argue in favour of installing a centralised traffic control which requires track circuiting of the entire length of 64,000 km of railway lines. This central traffic control (CTC), by defining each train's position, will help monitor the nationwide rail network. "It costs just Rs 3,200 crore and the railways is still deciding whether it's a valid price to pay for passenger safety!" says a senior official.
Another device, called the automatic train control system which forces the train to an immediate halt if an obstacle appears on the tracks and the driver fails to press the lever for brakes, is also being considered.
The Gaisal tragedy has demonstrated that even basic signalling systems which alert rail crew on the course of moving trains were dysfunctional. Flasher lights attached to trains and siren systems, which will go a long way in avoiding mishaps, have yet to be implemented.
Numerous suggestions have been made in the past to implement these safety parameters but precious little has been done by the political establishment, more keen on dishing out new trains to curry favour to its constituency. The ongoing inquiry will undoubtedly fix responsibility on those who caused the death of 288 people. But more importantly, nothing will be done to avert future accidents. It will only be a question of time before the tracks see terror, death, doom and destruction again