In yet another fatal accident at a railway crossing, this time in a small village near Lodhran, eight young people were killed, six of them children on their way to school, when the rickshaw they were riding rammed into a train at a level crossing.
According to Rescue 1122 officials, the gate at the Jalalpur crossing was open and the signal red when the rickshaw driver tried to go across.
Minister for Railways Khawaja Saad Rafique’s response to the appalling tragedy was to call a press conference in Lahore to declare – without waiting for a proper inquiry to establish the facts – that the train driver and the gatekeeper at the crossing were responsible for the accident, and that they had been arrested by the Lodhran police. Considering that trains need a long breaking distance to come to a stop, it seems rather unfair to blame the driver.
The minister also made the customary announcement of monetary help, Rs 1.5 million for the families of each diseased and Rs 300,000 for each injured person by way of what is obscenely described as ‘compensation’ which would be better called assistance money. Needless to say, though, no amount of money can compensate the loss of a near and dear one.
That something is very wrong with the way Pakistan Railways (PR) affairs are managed is obvious from the fact that during the last six months there have been more than three dozen accidents at level crossings. Sadly, the minister would take no part of the responsibility. In fact, he said Pakistan is no China or America, and that PR cannot have signal-free corridors to avoid level crossing accident at least for the next 20 years, thereby suggesting accidents like the present one should be expected to keep recurring.
The remarks reflect a callous disrespect for ordinary lives. Of course no one expects PR to compete with those countries in terms of service efficiency or physical comforts, although China’s railways system too had been marred by frequent accidents until it was revamped in minimum possible time through steely determination by Chairman Mao’s successor Hua Guofeng. It is, therefore, needless to say that there can be no compromise on safety. Resource constraints are an unacceptable excuse for poor maintenance of level crossings.
The present tragedy, for instance, could have been averted if only the assigned gatekeeper had done his duty. According reports, he was present to close the gate when a freight train passed, but afterwards left it open. He may not be the only one accountable for this unforgivable negligence.
As noted above, such accidents have been happening with a frightening regularity during recent months – three in as many months. Things would be much better if the people working in the railways ministry performed their duties efficiently and effectively. Since the issue is one of public safety the federal and provincial governments also need to offer help where level crossings are located in population centres.
It is pertinent to recall here that when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited Lodhran in November 2015 before a by-election to win support for a PML-N candidate, he had announced construction of a flyover or an underpass at the Jalalpur crossing, only to be forgotten. Those affected by the accident are not to blame if they thought it could have helped prevent the loss of life as they shouted slogans against the Prime Minister for not fulfilling his promise.