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Train tragedy

Updated July 12, 2019

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ACCIDENTS happen.

But many, like the one in which a passenger train crashed into a stationary cargo train near Sadiqabad early Thursday morning, resulting in a number of deaths, could have been avoided if the authorities had paid more attention to improving passenger safety protocols and investing money in the decaying railway infrastructure, including the replacement of weak tracks and an erratic signal system.

Read: 21 killed, 85 injured in train tragedy

Instead, they prefer to launch new routes for political gains.

The fact that the latest tragedy has occurred in less than one month of a similar accident in which three people lost their lives in a collision between a passenger train and a freight car near Hyderabad should be enough to awaken the railway authorities from their deep slumber.

But will it?

Train accidents are common in Pakistan and rarely shock the authorities. Apart from major incidents, the railways suffer hundreds of minor accidents every year that are either not reported at all or find very little space in prime-time news bulletins. Take the example of a locomotive ramming into a car at an unmanned level crossing and killing two in Rajanpur or the seven coaches of a running express train getting detached from the other rakes near Khanewal the same day, that is, Wednesday. Even major accidents make headlines only for a day or two; cash compensation is announced for the injured or the family of the deceased, and inquiries that never see the light of day are ordered. The accident is then forgotten until there is another similar event.

The government and the railway authorities know very well why accidents take place and what needs to be done. However, they have never bothered to fix the problem.

Governments often succumb to populism and spend the little money available on new train projects and on-board services, instead of maintaining and revamping the aging overused infrastructure or training railway personnel. This approach costs human lives.

Prime Minister Imran Khan too, who took to Twitter shortly after Thursday’s accident, blames “ageing, poorly maintained rail infrastructure that has fallen into disrepair due to chronic underinvestment and poor maintenance”. He has also asked the railway minister to take emergency steps to counter decades of neglect and to ensure safety standards.

The question is: will his government walk the talk and allocate enough funds for proper maintenance of railway infrastructure, and hold to account the officials responsible for neglecting the safety of passengers?

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2019