Even by the standards of Indian Railways, the tragedy in Bihar in which nearly 30 pilgrims were mowed down by an express train is especially shocking. Collisions, derailment, fire and human failure cause railway accidents every year, taking a heavy toll of life. But what happened at the Dhamara Ghat station in Khagaria district on Monday morning was beyond imagination. There are cases reported every day of trains running over an odd jaywalker, or even elephants crossing the track. But when dozens of people, a majority of whom were women and children, are stranded on a track at a station that does not even have a proper platform, the picture changes vastly. The tragedy happened around 7.45 a.m. and visibility was apparently not an issue. The Patna-bound Rajyarani superfast express was crossing the station at about 80 kmph, something it apparently regularly does. The pilgrims, who were trying to cross the tracks to participate in a temple festival nearby, were trapped. They could not climb to a platform for safety and another train was standing on a parallel track. The engine driver had a green signal and was running through. On seeing the track full of people, he jammed the emergency brakes. But it was too late.

Though the agitated locals assaulted the engine drivers, it is wrong to fault the latter for a tragedy in which they arguably played just one part. The Railways claims complete right of way for a running train, and any person, animal or object on the track is, by definition, held to be at fault for being there. But the responsibility of the Railways does not end with technical adherence to right of way rules. Given the fact that Dhamara Ghat is not even a middling station, trains hardly ever stop there. Presumably, that is why a proper platform was never built. But shouldn’t the Railways have at least made provision for the safe passage of people wanting to cross from one side of the tracks to the other? At the very least, a pedestrian overbridge ought to be provided. If the Railways can maintain a small station and staff for the place, surely they have to ensure that the safety of local residents is also taken care of. Obviously, like unmanned level crossings across the country, Dhamara Ghat cannot be the only such station without basic safety provisions. Railway tracks have been a part of the Indian landscape for more than 150 years and that familiarity has bred a certain indifference to the danger involved in stepping across them. While inquiring into this terrible accident, the Railways must identify all such vulnerable places where people gather in large numbers for one reason or another and make provision for the orderly and safe crossing of tracks.

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