The tragedy involving the Tamil Nadu Express on Monday has yet again highlighted the lack of safety equipment and related paraphernalia in the Railways. Although the timely response by the Railway Police helped quell the fire before it could spread to other compartments, it must be realised that the loss of life could have been certainly minimised had the emergency exits not been jammed and other safety measures been firmly in place. The largest employer in the world is far from being the safest.
In the early 1980s, the Tamil Nadu Express was a prestigious train. But in three decades, the quality and amenities on it have deteriorated so much that it now looks like a passenger train. A probe is ordered every time an accident occurs. It is not known what evidence the Commissioner of Railway Safety will find. The Railways should concentrate on the maintenance of its coaches.
One major concern, often overlooked in sleeper coaches, is the obstruction of one or two of the four exits. They are invariably blocked by luggage piled up near them, more often by defence personnel and waitlisted passengers. As a result, passengers are left with very few exits during emergencies. The railway authorities and passengers ignore vital doorways, which are life-savers during contingencies.
Whether a train accident is caused by a fire, derailment or collision, proper emergency exits in coaches can reduce the death toll significantly. Till three decades ago, windows had no grilles or bars. Now we find all windows, including the emergency exit, fitted with grilles. They may be meant to avoid the entry or exit of people travelling without tickets, theft or accidents. But it is important to go for a design which facilitates swift exit from windows.
I am a frequent traveller on the Chennai-Howrah route in sleeper class. I invariably see unreserved ticket holders thronging reserved compartments. The authorities turn a blind eye to this regular nuisance, which puts genuine passengers in great pain while moving in the compartments, especially near the toilets/doors. Just imagine a fire accident in such packed compartments. What we need are more ordinary coaches and strict observance of rules by coach attendants.