This is an open letter, could be high on emotion, but deserving an honest version that any of the review statement churned from bureaucratic masturbation after responsibly dissecting the causes of train accidents in India. My version is neither populist nor propagandist rather heartfelt.
To the best of my memory, the last time I ever had lost any of my relatives in a train accident dated back to 1940s. Those were the time; when travelling by train was nothing short than a ritualistic practice with passengers tucked into a holdel (an un-fashioned military bedroll) and carry a personal porter too. Train journeys were considered as stress-filled and often sinfulicious. Interestingly, the concept of coal engines and waiting rooms add glamour to the journey. During one of those journeys, my distant maternal grandmother met with an accident and left abode. I was unborn then.
Generations of childhood, in our family, have been told the story and the harrowing experiences about how the family members’ strugglefest to trace her body lying under a heap of corpse. She was in her teens and newly married – petite, beautiful and young. Her body when handed over was charred, disfigured and partially decomposed. She was gone but her ordeal remains a talk-point during many of the train accidents we have witnessed, over the years.
Since then, my family has made many a train journeys. Some did it frequently while other occasionally but, we did enjoyably. We travelled alone, we travelled with families; we travelled during the happy summer vacations and (yes) when critical emergencies struck household. In fact, many from my generations and generation preceding us, has spend most of their memorable moments with Indian railways and still cherish them lifelong.
Indian railway, during my generation and ones preceding, is the lifeline to us. The mud-cup filled with sweetened milky tea was the favorite drink with unmatchable taste. The stretched acres of land with rows of palm trees, or the large banyan groves where men resting in a sunny day, or the changing land from red-to-brown-to-black; seen through the window of a moving train, brought us close to a realization about the vastness of our country called ‘India’. Indian railway contributed to our learning when we were child.
For me, the Indian railways always had a special connection thus it pains to witness it Erod. The proponents might misguide it as ‘advances’ but amidst of yearly up-gradations the system falters to meet the basic and fundamental requiries.
Dear Ministers, there are many a thing that the commission report never register except of number of casualties or the tariff rates or the new introductions in rail route; is how a commoner like me, feel when travelling around. If you pay notice:
- I don’t feel secure about the iron tracks anymore. They no more shine like they do when I was a child. In fact, the last time when I walked by the train tracks I noticed scratches and the screws are being rusted. Can you polish the tracks once again and spare few crones to buy new ones?
- My hometown is in Delhi while my relatives stay eastwards. Thankfully, we got ample of trains – so many that often we end up not reaching the destination on-time due to traffic congestion. On the other hand, when I settled in southern part of the country, due to professional compulsion, I almost lost being in touch with them. We got only few trains to connect and all of them remain over-booked (seasonal or unseasonal) so my mother can’t visit me often. She is sixty and diagnosed of having acrophobia. Can you make more frequent trains connect the north to south than north to east ways?
- Ah! Interestingly, when India became an IT-hub and almost all my relatives or friends start doing something or other with computers – we become the most technologically developed country. Yet, none of us have a full-fledged and flawless online railway system to build – neither the nation nor department. What a shame?
- My paternal house is located in distant suburbs of Kolkata where there was an unmanned check post. When I was child, we used to cross the tracks to reach the platform. It was 20-years back but 20-years later, during one of my Konkan vacation I have crossed multiple unmanned check posts and faulting signal systems to reach destinations. Life returns to a circle but with where we have the ‘proclaimed advancements’.
- Hospitality! A distant word that loses its definition either airways or railways. I’m sure we don’t mind spending few extra bucks while reserving a berth; provided the washrooms are cleans, water is safe and free-flowing, environment is hygienic, and food is hot and tasty.
- While writing the above comment, I stumbled upon the word ‘reservation’, which we need but rarely gets. Three-month advances, multiple changing of dates still ‘no tickets’ unless a tout is religiously followed.
- The arrival and departure of trains coined the term Indian Standard Time (or IST), which invariably means we don’t mind being late or never be on time. An efficient traffic system and all of the above could definitely change the meaning, if acted with diligence.
The moral: While the Indian Railways seems to have perfected rescue and relief operations following accidents, it has not met with much success when it comes to accident prevention. The safety drive needs a review to identify the grey areas — be it signalling, track replacement, or the status of the rolling stock. It is time the political class stopped viewing the Railways as a plum platform for patronage disbursal and saw the Railways for what they are: a vital, but failing component of India's transport infrastructure that has the capacity to make or break the nation's competitiveness.
Ministries must work now lest it could get too late.