Fourteen railway accidents in ten months, the second in West Bengal in two months. But this time the Railways cannot blame the Maoists, who were behind the blast in the track that resulted in a serious derailment and the death of 146 passengers on May 28. In the wee hours of Monday, about 190 km from Kolkata, a speeding Uttar Banga Express rammed into the Vananchal Express that was just leaving the Sainthia station. The fundamental safety procedure in the Railways is that when a track is occupied, the signalling system will not let in another train. There have been no reports of any sabotage. So there can be only two possible reasons for the latest tragedy on the tracks that claimed at least 60 lives: the driver of the Uttar Banga Express, who died in the collision, either disregarded the signal; or the signal failed. For all that, the Uttar Banga Express was supposed to stop at that station. So what could explain the speed at which it entered the very same platform from which the other Express train was just about to leave? The impact of the crash was such that one of the Vananchal Express coaches mounted the pedestrian overbridge ahead of it. As the tragedy occurred some time between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m., the passengers must have been fast asleep and rescue operations also took some time to get under way. Two of the Vananchal Express coaches that took the impact were unreserved compartments; so even the number of passengers in them, not to mention the identity of the dead, took some time to establish. In addition to the Railway relief teams, the Army sent a special contingent to help with the rescue effort, which involved the use of cutters to extricate bodies.
Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee is clearly not up to the job of ensuring safety on the tracks. Against the backdrop of tragedy, her modus has been to use the Maoist-caused railway accidents in West Bengal to blame the Left Front government. Her predecessors at the Rail Bhavan lost no time in accusing her of neglect and asking her to choose between Bengal politics and the Railway Ministry. The stream of accidents in recent months is a stark reminder that the Indian Railways needs to do substantially more to ensure safety and security on the tracks. Whether it was a signal failure or a human error this time, the Railway administration must urgently address the key issues — the modernisation of safety equipment, the maintenance of track and signals, the failure of top management to put in place state-of-the-art ‘fail-safe mechanisms,' and the re-training and fitness of the staff, especially drivers, their assistants, guards, and those at the stations — to prevent the recurrence of such mishaps.