THERE are two basic issues when it comes to inquiries into train accidents in Pakistan. One, these probes are carried out by the federal government inspector of the railways, and therefore amount to little more than an internal investigation. Two, hardly any remedial measures follow these exercises. The same fate could befall the inquiry that Pakistan Railways has launched into Thursday’s deadly Tezgam blaze. The difference is that while in earlier instances ‘human error’ by railways staff was routinely cited as the cause of an accident, this time investigators are almost inclined to put the entire blame for the fire that devoured 75 lives on the passengers. They already have it on the authority of the railways bosses that the fire was caused by a group of Tableeghi Jamaat members who were allegedly using a gas cylinder to cook food on the moving train. A preliminary report by the federal inspector hints as much, saying, “there was no evidence of a short circuit as claimed by some witnesses”. A detailed inquiry report is to be submitted by Nov 20, amid promises of action against any official found guilty of negligence.
This could likely be a threat to junior officials since PR doesn’t have a tradition of holding the senior ranks accountable for any accident under their watch. When a senior official was removed from his post in July, many thought that was punishment for a recent train crash involving the Akbar Express in which 25 people were killed. But this view proved erroneous when the officer was immediately appointed to a very important post at the railways headquarters in Lahore, while fingers were pointed at the driver and his assistant. Earlier, in June this year, a driver and his deputy were held responsible for an accident between Hyderabad and Kotri. Both men died in the crash. Many justifiably called the subsequent intra-departmental inquiry an unfair trial of the dead. By habitually pointing out the ‘human errors’ behind these accidents, the worthy investigating inspectors would have us believe that human resource at the railways’ disposal is of a terrible quality. But why then has there been no indication of a scheme to improve the quality of manpower? There is logic to demands for an independent, transparent and fair probe of accidents — without any role for the railways officials. Indeed, the calls for a judicial investigation of PR’s most serious accidents are not misplaced either.
Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2019