What is it about railway accidents that bring out the worst in our political leaders? Eight years ago, it was the de facto Chief Minister of Bihar ( later to become the Railway Minister himself) castigating on TV the incumbent Railway Minister, his arch-political foe, on his sins of omission and commission against the backdrop of the derailed coaches of a Rajdhani Express, even as bodies of victims lay nearby.

The recent accident to the Howrah-Kurla Jnaneswari Express between Khemashuli and Sardiha, near Kharagpur, must rank as one of the most tragic in recent times not only because of the heavy loss of lives and the number of injured but also for the shameful and naked display of political partisanship. Even as rotting, maimed bodies lay unclaimed in conditions that would shame a butcher's shop, amidst all the political grandstanding, there seemed little realisation that for the kith and kin of the dead and the injured it made no difference whether the accident was caused by an explosion, Maoist elements, sabotage by miscreants, a political conspiracy or sheer incompetence.

Double whammy

The misfortune that befell the Jnaneswari Express was in fact a double whammy — first a derailment, which by itself would not have resulted in such heavy casualties had it not been followed by the collision of a goods train travelling on the adjacent track with the derailed coaches of the express train. It is not as though the Railways do not have systems in place to guard against exactly such tricky, but fortunately very infrequent, situations. Every locomotive is equipped with a flasher light which is supposed to be put on by the driver (or his assistant) of a train involved in an accident in a double/multiple track section to warn the driver of an approaching train of a possible infringement on the other track. And all drivers are expected to watch out for such indications particularly during night time and take appropriate action, well ahead of approaching the affected train.

What should, therefore, have been the prime concern of the Railways is why, in spite of all the systems that have been put in place over the years to prevent exactly such collisions, this terrible crash occurred. Was it due to lack of adequate and timely response from the goods train crew? Was the flasher light not put on by the express driver after his train derailed? Was it functional? Was there insufficient time for the goods train driver to take preventive action? And, what about the Railways' time-tested system of patrolling vulnerable sections of track? All elementary questions that any railway man with minimum experience will seek answers for. In other words, why in spite of all the procedures and training and accident drills, did this crash take place? In short, HOW DID THIS HAPPEN? Instead, the entire focus seems to be on WHO DID IT?

If the accident was indeed a “conspiracy” of some sort, it needs a computer-controlled precision operation to ensure that the express train derailed just in time for the goods train to crash into it. It is next to impossible to deliberately coordinate the events so exactly. Any such attempt would involve the collusion of at least some railway staff. Is it then implied that some railway staff were involved in this conspiracy? Is that something to be proud of or satisfied with?

What is there for the State government to crow about if the sabotage was by Maoists or elements sympathetic to them? In the final analysis, to repeat a cliché, law and order is the State government's responsibility. How is it that such elements are able to operate in an area that is known to be extremely vulnerable?

The fact is: there are no winners in this diabolical political blame game. All are losers.

The biggest losers, of course, are the unfortunate railway passengers who paid with their lives and limbs, and their hapless kith and kin. In memory of the dead of the Jnaneswari Express, is it not time to stop playing political football with the Railways?

(The writer is a former Member Staff/Railway Board. e-mail: balakesari_k@ hotmail.com)

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