The rear-end train collision at Penukonda of the Bangalore-bound Hampi Express at 3 a.m. on Tuesday cannot certainly be dismissed as “yet another tragedy” on the tracks. The fact that over 25 precious lives were lost when the express train rammed into a stationary goods train raises several serious questions that the Indian Railways needs to answer. Of course, Railway Minister Mukul Roy has ordered the statutory inquiry and the usual compensation. But preliminary reports point to a problem with the signal. Was there a technical problem with the signal — a failure, in other words — or did the driver jump it? This needs to be probed properly and the Railways should not jump the gun to blame the accident on “human failure.” Even if “human failure” was involved in jumping the signal, why could the driver not see a stationary goods train in front? The Railways needs to ask searching questions about actual operating conditions at the time — such as night visibility from the driver's cab, especially if the engine was running in ‘long hood forward' mode — and see whether any system-wide changes are indicated.

What appears unfortunate is that an unreserved women's compartment bore the brunt of the collision, even catching fire. Most of the dead were women and children. The first and third coaches were badly damaged, while the second coach had a miraculous escape. Gas cutters had to be used to take out the injured as well as the bodies, some of which were charred beyond recognition. Apart from the signal issue, there is another point to ponder over. The Railways has for long been talking about the use of non-combustible or non-inflammable material in its coaches, at least to prevent a fire. How much progress has been made on this front, and when can the coach factories really roll out fire-proof coaches? Existing specifications mandate the use of fire-retardant material in coaches but this hasn't prevented devastating fires such as the one which killed 59 passengers on board the Sabarmati Express in Godhra in 2002. The Indian Railways has always mastered the art of rescue and relief operations at the site of mishaps. The Penukonda tragedy was no exception to the emergency relief operations exercise perfected over the years. But it is perhaps time for the Railways to focus more closely on accident prevention, especially of this kind — collisions — which are clearly a failing of the system. So much has also been spoken and written about anti-collision devices, which have taken a painfully long time to develop and install in all trains.

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