Railway probes

12 May 2020

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TRAIN accidents are a common feature in Pakistan — and for the railway bureaucracy they are just another routine matter in their daily work. Statistically, at least one train accident takes place in the country every three days and an increase in their frequency can be noticed in recent years. For the most part, the accidents are caused by derailments and involve the loss of railway or private property. But in other instances, such as the horrific Tezgam fire accident in October last year, we have seen scores of people losing their lives for no fault of their own. Normally, the railway authorities carry out a departmental probe into every accident for the sake of meeting legal requirements. However, most such probes are usually left incomplete because no one — not the politicians, bureaucracy or the public — is interested in the reasons. It is only when there is significant loss of life that a serious investigation is ordered under public pressure. It is another matter that the findings of such probes are also swept under the carpet on completion because most of those who travel in trains come from the middle- to low-income groups. Moreover, to pacify the public and to protect the higher railway bureaucracy, the inquiries are generally a way to find scapegoats and put the blame on junior operation staffers such as drivers. It is difficult to recall the railway management ever initiating administrative action against higher officers after an accident. Even when a railway officer or junior staffer is suspended on the recommendation of a probe, the orders are revoked in a few weeks if not within days.

A recent inquiry into a couple of incidents of train derailments carried out by the intelligence unit of the railway police has identified four main factors responsible for accidents: poor railway infrastructure and fractured tracks, overloading of freight trains, over-speeding by drivers, and indifference and negligence on the part of the higher railway bureaucracy towards the current state of affairs. The report clearly shows that a number of accidents could have been prevented had the senior railway management/bureaucracy performed their jobs honestly and were more vigilant. The inquiry shows the necessity for holding the top rail bureaucracy to account for their acts of omission and commission. But will the authorities be able to carry out the accountability of the senior railway bureaucracy? The jury is out.

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2020