EDITORIAL: Surely, someone in Pakistan Railways would have realised by now that repeated accidents at unmanned level crossings across the country are taking a rather heavy toll on the people. Yet despite all the inquiries ordered after every accident and middle and lower level officers suspended every time, nothing is done about these dangerous crossings where far too many incidents of trains colliding with road vehicles have taken place. True, it is the responsibility of road users, especially in case of unmanned crossings, to check the track carefully before proceeding. But considering the high number of accidents, and the fact that they would simply stop happening if the crossings were improved, perhaps the Railways department should finally put barriers at all such points and make sure they are manned at all times. It should not be too expensive, considering how much money the department eats up every year with nothing worthwhile to show even if something like 50,000 crossings have to be upgraded. And it would cut down on all the condoling, explaining, and investigating that must happen every time a bus driver in a hurry gets in the way of a fast moving locomotive.
The terrible accident near Sheikhupura on Friday that killed 20 Sikh pilgrims plus the driver and conductor on their way back from Nankana Sahib to Peshawar when their bus collided with a Lahore-bound train from Karachi, took place at just such an unmanned level crossing. And, true to script, authorities have ordered inquiries, and committees are forming sub-committees, to find out just who to lay all the blame on this time. And the prime minister, too, has promised as usual that Railways' "operational safety SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) will be reviewed immediately," as if this is the first time that something like this has happened. It says something that the performance of Pakistan Railways, at least in terms of number of accidents, has worsened considerably in PTI's two years in power so far. Last year, especially, was one of the worst on record with more than 100 train-related incidents, including fatal accidents, on top of 111 reported cases of engine failure in just the first half of the year. It also included the terrible Tezgam fire incident that killed 74 passengers, 90 percent of them burnt alive, and critically injured more than 40 passengers. Yet despite all the inquiries, tweets and promises, nothing seems to have improved at all. The Sikh pilgrims tragedy, for example, comes just four months after another bus crossing another unmanned crossing, this time in Rohri in Sindh, was mauled by the Lahore-bound Pakistan Express train, killing about 20 people and injuring 30.
The main problem in most accidents seems to be the state of unmanned crossings. Even if, quite clearly, not much can be done to change the attitude of people driving on roads, something can still be done to make all the level crossings much safer. It is strange, to say the least, that there are so many different kinds of crossings. Some are gated, others have barriers which are manually operated, some have just ropes and then there are those with nothing at all. And one doesn't even require much data to figure out which of these would be the sites for the most accidents. And if the government really values human life, then it would accord this matter the highest priority. No doubt the PM's urgent review of safety SOPs will reveal the same thing, as it would have so many times before, so the longer the government delays upgrading and streamlining safety mechanisms at all crossings everywhere in the country, the more it will be responsible for keeping a lot of people's lives in danger.
Sadly, the government is wasting precious time by getting into a point-scoring fight with the opposition; about whose handling of the department was worse and when more people were killed instead of doing what it can to be able to take credit for making things better. It is also understandable why the opposition is now calling for the resignation of the Railways minister so loudly. It was PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf), after all, that always made such a fuss about such things when it was in the opposition, reminding everybody about how ministers resigned after accidents in proper democracies. But now the boot is on the other foot; it does not like what it sees and hears. If it wants the criticism to end, though, it will have to take steps that are necessary to stop most of the accidents; and it will have to start with making the crossings safer.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2020