The danger signals have been flashing for at least a decade now but inexplicably, no one in the railway ministry seems to have taken them seriously. Had they done so, perhaps the mishap on Monday when the Uttar Banga Express crashed into the Vananchal Express in West Bengal could have been averted. As always, no time has been lost in calling for Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee's resignation along with allegations of her cavalier attitude to her portfolio. And much of the criticism is warranted. But, for the moment, given that at least 63 people have died, the focus should be on getting the green signal for the long-awaited modernisation of the antiquated equipment and systems in the railways.
The most important of these is to install anti-collision devices (ACDs) in trains. This has been done with good effect in the Konkan railway network and the Northeast Frontier railways. But for reasons of bureaucratic and political apathy, these have not been installed in all trains. In the latest accident it is yet to be ascertained whether the driver of the Uttar Banga disregarded the warning signal or the signal failed. Either way, better technology could have minimised the casualties if not avoided them altogether. Where ministerial culpability can be seen is in the manner in which at least 90,000 safety-related posts have been lying vacant for want of official sanction. Apart for the ACDs, experts have long sought the installation of auxiliary warning systems in trains that prevents them from jumping red signals. This drastically eliminates the margin of human error. With the railways having grown at a rapid pace, the skills of its employees too should have been upgraded so as to keep them on track. In addition, safety equipment should be refitted as also railway tracks.
Our decision makers often go on tours to examine how the railways are run in other countries. Should we conclude that this has not enabled them to bring anything fruitful to the table? Of the four major train accidents this year, the latest included, three appear to have been caused by systems' failure. One was sabotage. At a time when connectivity is the buzzword, it is passing strange that efforts are not being made to improve an existing lifeline like the railways. It would be a pity if this disaster too becomes mired in political mudslinging and the real issues put off till another occurs. Four accidents in six months make it inexcusable for officials to misread the signals once again.