The passengers of the Howrah-Guwahati Kamrup Express were lucky. The train jumped rails a more or less routine affair for the Indian Railways but no one got hurt. This is the not the first accident this new year. There have already been 14 deaths, when the Secunderabad-Manmad Express slammed into a goods train on January 3, and two more bloodless accidents, with the Secunderabad-Parli passenger train being derailed on new years day and a goods train jumping rails in the same zone the same day. The story of train accidents in India continues in a sombre monotone as the years spin past the January 3 accident occurred a fortnight after the Hyderabad-Bangalore Express derailed near Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh, killing 30 people. In spite of the promising start 2003 has made in the matter of railway accidents, it is still 2002 that will be remembered in recent railway history as the year of accidents, with three major ones. The most spectacular was the accident of the Howrah-Delhi Rajdhani Express in September, after which all the usual reasons and promises were trotted out by both the railway ministry and the government with routine passion and ire.
The railway ministry apparently feels quite comfortable that the annual number of accidents has come down to 400 now from 2,000 in the Sixties. Unfortunately, the knowledge that at least 652 people had been killed in 298 accidents in three years and three months till June 2002, of whom 165 had died in 88 accidents in 2001-02 and 95 in 33 accidents between April and June 2002, will not be able to persuade the bewildered public paying for safe journeys that things have really got so much better. People have been told repeatedly of the Rs 17,000 crore railway safety fund, instituted a couple of years ago. A highly developed anti-collision device, geared to block trains on a collision track three kilometres from each other, was supposed to have been introduced, gaps in tracks caused by fractures and removed fishplates are supposed to be traced through another hi-tech method, bridges repaired and reinforced, and something anything done about unmanned level crossings. These means would eliminate the chief causes of accidents. Longer rails were to be manufactured in order to lessen the number of weldings and the interiors of coaches improved to minimize damage at crucial moments. No doubt these are not empty promises, but whatever infrastructural improvement is being made is obviously too slow and lackadaisical for the essential matter of greater safety. If 2002 and the beginning of 2003 are anything to go by, the railways and the railways ministry are still an immeasurable distance away from attaining their target.