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EDITORIAL: It was an appalling tragedy waiting to happen. At least 55 people lost their lives and more than 150 were injured, many of them critically, when eight carriages of Sargodha-bound Millat Express derailed in the wee hours of Monday morning in Ghotki district and fell onto the other track where a train coming from the opposite direction rammed into them. The death toll is likely to rise further as by late evening police, Rangers and Army personnel were still busy pulling passengers out of the wreckage. This harrowing incident cannot be called an accident, for accidents happen unexpectedly. It was bound to occur sooner or later because of the poorly maintained tracks as well as faulty interlocking and signal systems. In fact, scores of train crashes have taken place during the recent years, claiming hundreds of lives. During the last three years alone, on this government’s watch, there have been seven incidents of train derailment, at least two collisions and several ‘accidents’ involving road traffic at railway crossings.

Yet no serious effort has been made to upgrade the system. Instead of fixing the dilapidated infrastructure, more passenger trains have been introduced to new routes, further burdening the decaying tracks. Going by what Railways Minister Azam Swati had to say on the issue, repair and maintenance work is not even on his agenda. Speaking in Lahore after the latest tragedy, he took responsibility for it, but then resorted to the usual blame shifting to those, he said, did nothing for the railways during the last 25-30 years. A press report, however, points out that the section of the track where the latest crash occurred was repaired in 2014, easing train traffic to some extent but its conditions worsened during 2018-19 due to drastic reduction by the government in the railways budget. Clearly, the root cause of recurring train tragedies is the low priority that passenger safety gets in the relevant authorities’ scheme of things.

Although the minister acknowledged that the safety of passengers on this track is compromised, he did not seem to give the issue the priority it deserves. As he explained “if we start this process [of track rehabilitation] and in the meanwhile the CPEC’s ML-1 project starts, Rs 15-20 billion will go down the drain. We have decided to take up the ML-1 issue with our Chinese counterparts to know if they want to launch this project. In case of delay we will start rehabilitation of this track on our own.” To say the least, this is as insensitive a decision as can be. Nothing should be more important than ensuring the well-being of ordinary citizens. Even if work is on the ML-1 is to commence shortly it will be quite a while before the project is up and running. In the meantime, safety of train travel cannot, must not, be left to chance. The loss of Rs 15-20 billion can be recovered from other sources, not the lives lost.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021