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India seeks lessons from tragedy

Aug. 2 train collision - one of the worst in Indian history - highlights the need for safety improvements.

More passengers, more tracks, more miles traveled: One of the world's largest rail systems is pressured by the demands of more than 12 million travelers every day. But "more" isn't necessarily better.

Observers say the system hasn't kept pace technologically. And as rescuers continued to work on wreckage from the Aug. 2 train collision in eastern India that may have killed 400 people, the consequences of inadequate safeguards and the lack of long-range planning are once again in the spotlight.

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Train accidents are a daily occurrence in India, but the collision of two trains carrying 2,500 passengers in the state of West Bengal was the country's worst since 1995, when a collision killed 340 people.

The government immediately dispatched a team of investigators to the wreck, 300 miles north of Calcutta, while police searched for a signal operator who had fled the scene.

But safety experts say the government tends to conduct narrow investigations without applying lessons learned afterward.

"We have to stop asking who or what is to blame and start realizing why things always go wrong," says Dinesh Mohan, a transportation safety expert at the Indian Institute of Technology. Rather than look at which combination of problems may have triggered a wreck and then address them all, railway officials tend to single out a culprit, he says.

Critics blame inadequately maintained infrastructure - including tracks, engines, coaches, and bridges and signaling systems - for India's 400 train accidents per year. Electronic signaling that automatically stops runaway or carelessly driven trains, as well as better performance from personnel, could reduce accidents.

Railway officials say they have made major strides in improving safety since the 1960s, when thousands were killed in train crashes each year. In 1996-97, only a fifth as many collisions occurred compared with 1960-61, when 130 were recorded. Similar reductions have been made in the number of derailments.

An advanced warning system is in place in about two-thirds of a targeted 60,000 miles of track, railway officials say, and the crash site near the town of Gaisal was equipped with the system. Signal failure has not been ruled out as the cause of the crash, but officials also acknowledge that 60 to 70 percent of all train mishaps are due to human error.

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They argue fatalities are unavoidable considering the size of the train network. "The accident was indefensible, but that does not mean that the system is not responding" to safety concerns, says railway spokesman M.G. Arora.

Critics counter that the fatalities are avoidable, even in a country as poor as India.

"To say ... that the number of rail deaths is perfectly acceptable given the volume of traffic that uses the trains is unconscionable. Scant resources have been diverted to fund populist measures rather than upgrade the rail system," the Times of India newspaper said. It accused the government of failing to implement a string of safety recommendations compiled after recent wrecks.

Others argue the safety record had more to do with India's caste system than with a lack of funds. Despite major improvements in rail travel - including cars with air conditioning and uniformed waiters serving piping hot tea - trains remain primarily the transportation of the poor.

"The people in the general compartments are from the other India," said The Indian Express in an editorial.

Indeed. The vast majority of the 5.5 million passengers crammed each day into Bombay's commuter trains, for example, are daily wage laborers. Most come from the lowest castes, the hierarchical occupational groups that are constitutionally unrecognized but still divide Indian society.

Those who cannot squeeze into the jampacked cars spill out of windows and cling to side rails in a show of human density that makes Tokyo's trains appear roomy. And while long-distance trains offer far more comfort for those who can pay, most people still travel second class.

Long-distance train travel costs 25 percent less than the same journey by bus, and 1/100th the cost of air travel, according to railway figures. As long as most Indians earn $1 a day, they will have little choice but to climb on board.

The recent spate of major train crashes has caught the attention of India's president, K.R. Narayanan, the only ceremonial head of state to come from the former "untouchables" caste. In an impassioned speech, he spoke Aug. 2 of the "crying need to improve safety measures for India's traveling public."

He was not referring to government ministers. Most VIPs stopped using trains in the early 1970s, when airplane travel became a viable option.

Today, the only trains most wealthy Indians ride are the wood-paneled, vintage rail cars that rumble through the Rajasthani desert, or the toy train to Darjeeling, the former British hill station near the scene of the Aug. 2 crash.

*Wire service reports contributed to this article.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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