The lives of 36 men, women and children are a high price to pay for breaking basic safety rules. The fire which broke out in a few coaches of the Amritsar-bound Frontier Mail could have been caused by a stove or even a cigarette. But an accident of such proportions brings out a whole web of negligent behaviour which implicates both the railway authorities and the people using their services. Bringing inflammable substances and equipment into the train, together with smoking, are criminal offences. The impunity with which these laws are broken regularly in trains is the result of a profound callousness on the part of the various railway personnel who patrol the train on various tasks. Nor can the passengers be absolved from responsibility. Vendors selling tea and coffee, for instance, regularly carry lighted stoves up and down the train, and this has now become a norm, condoned by everybody on the train. Second, a number of survivors have mentioned that the doors of the coaches were blocked with luggage, allegedly belonging to security personnel, which prevented people from escaping from the burning compartments. Third, there was massive overcrowding in the unreserved compartment, which is always a security hazard that could be actively prevented by the authorities. All this points to a two-way failure of compliance and enforcement, and it is certainly the responsibility of the railways to ensure that coaches are not overcrowded, stoves are not brought in and doors remain free of obstructions. These are simple things, but it is at this level that discipline fails, fatally.
This time the commissioner for railway safety has announced in advance that the inquiry will take longer than usual. This attempts to pre-empt criticism of a kind of callous delay which has now become a matter of routine. The Sengupta commission report on 1999 train collision has been submitted in Parliament only a few days ago, revealing staff failure and faulty signalling on a massive scale as the causes of the accident. The inquiry on a 1998 accident, killing 212 people, is yet to be published. Moreover, the railways seem to have vetoed the two principal suggestions of the Sengupta commission report. Installing black boxes in locomotive cabins and section control lines may be financially difficult (although there is a Rs 17,000 crore safety fund), but dismissing, as impossible to execute, the idea of publishing rulebooks in the vernaculars for every person involved in running the trains reduces such inquiries to a meaningless ritual. The irresponsibility is perhaps more profound than one might feel ready to imagine.