Sunday February 05, 2023

Train disaster

By Editorial Board
June 08, 2021

The train accident that has killed at least 38 people and injured over 100 others at the time of writing this editorial is not new to Pakistan. There have been multiple train accidents in the country over the past few years, the last one coming in October 2019 when 75 people were killed after a train leaving from Karachi caught fire. Apart from this, there have been at least six other accidents involving fatalities and serious injuries to passengers. Overall, nearly 200 people have been killed in the last three years with around nearly 300 injured. Despite this, the authorities in charge of Pakistan Railways, a huge enterprise which was once known for its outreach across the country and for its efficiency, has failed to change ageing tracks, signals, and other parts of the infrastructure which make up the railways network. In this case, the Millat Express travelling from Karachi to Sargodha, overturned near Daharki, a town in Ghotki district, and fell atop the ‘Down’ railway track. The incident occurred early Monday morning. Soon after this, the Sir Sayed Express travelling from Rawalpindi came along the same track and the driver was unable to pull the brakes in time crashing into the collapsed carriages of the Millet Express. Passengers in the Millet Express remained trapped in the wreckage for hours and even four hours after the accident heavy machinery had not reached them. The story is one of negligence and incompetence. The Pakistan Railways, run by Minister Azam Swati, have said they are unable to make a statement until investigation is complete. This is understandable. But what is less easy to comprehend is why nothing has been done to make people's lives safer, even after a series of accidents that occur at periodic intervals and have already claimed hundreds of lives over the recent years.

Pakistan Railways has been in a mess for many years now. This mess has many dimensions that need attention and remedial actions. First, there is an apparent dilapidation of the railway management system. The tracks are old and in severe need of repairs. The signaling system is outmoded and obsolete. The carriages and locomotives (engines) are falling apart. The staff is negligent and needs properly qualified and trained personnel. And most of all, it does not have an effective and efficient rescue mechanism. All these factors have made Pakistan Railways one of the most accident-prone systems in the world. It is guzzling resources as it is overstaffed and underperforming. The government needs to work at multiple fronts at the same time.

Pakistan Railways needs some major overhaul with an up-to-date management system which should be computerized with real-time monitoring and evaluation of all train movements across the country. The tracks from Karachi to Peshawar need replacement and enhancement to stronger gauge. Around the world there are latest systems in locomotives that enable the driver to stop the train if the track is not clear or is approaching an obstacle. Such systems need to be installed and then signaling needs upgradation and improvements. The condition of trains is pitiable with decades-old carriages and locomotives being used without proper maintenance. If the government wants to run a railway system that has been in use for nearly 150 years now, it must take it seriously. Nearly all new railway ministers have been more interested in launching new trains and making tall claims rather than doing something concrete to improve the system. Pakistan needs to invest in its railways and introduce reforms in its management and maintenance, failing which the lives of passengers will remain at the mercy of a dangerous railway system. In theory, railways, across the world, provide the cheapest and most convenient travel to commuters across countries. In our nation, they also bring periodic death. The government needs to finally stop blaming past governments for what has become a regular horror story in the Pakistan Railways. The minister in charge has to take responsibility, along with any others from his department involved in supervising safety and ensuring that people who board a train are able to arrive at their destination safely.