Why Railway accidents will keep on happening

Land of Guns
July 5, 2020
Fighting a losing battle
July 13, 2020

 Seventy six people died in a single train accident in Pakistan on October 31, 2019. This is about the same number of fatalities that occurred in the UK in train accidents in the last 20 years. Can Pakistan Railways be made safer by using the same principles, techniques and technologies that have been used by other safety-conscious countries?   Should the Railways and the people of Pakistan not question as to why must we continue to suffer hundreds of train fatalities every year and what can be done about it?

It may be best for Pakistan Railways to study how other countries have brought revolutionary improvements in their train safety systems. UK has not had a train accident involving fatalities for the last 11 years. It has also reduced its accident fatality rate from 0.43 to 0.06 per billion kilometres travelled. Consider this recent report from the Taiwanese High Speed Rail administration. It says, ​”The Taiwan High Speed Rail provided services for more than 365 million passengers from 2007 to 2017, without a single accident leading to injuries or fatalities. However, a few incidents causing train delays have indeed happened during the past three years. The average time delay for a train is 0.21 minutes.”

There are countries that now consider even a 5-10 minute time delay as an incident. If we were to apply this rule to Pakistan Railways, we would run into thousands of incidents every year – perhaps each time a train stops at a station. Clearly, Pakistan Railways is out of time and out of tune with the rest of the world. It is imperative that the Railway leaves behind its 19th century mindset and adopts the safety processes, systems and technologies of the 21st century. Sadly almost not a single senior officer in Pakistan Railways can even open or respond to his own e mail, a fact confirmed by practical verification. This should provide some idea of the Railway’s current communication capability.

Back to the real issue. Every developed country’s railway, has a system called an Occupational Health and Safety Management System based on National or International Standards such as ISO 45001. Pakistan Railway does not have any such system. Its voluminous pre-partition railway laws may be akin to a penal code, but do not constitute or define a modern management system.    Unless our Railway understands this fact, its only option would be to continue suffering numerous repeated accidents, which are bound to keep happening.

It is absolutely critical and mandatory for Pak Railways to develop and implement an Occupational Health and Safety Management System of its own. Not doing so would be a criminal negligence on the part of Railway’s top management. Sadly and mistakenly, the Railway still attributes most accidents to its linemen, signalmen, train drivers, electricians, passengers or pressure-cookers.

It may be best for the Pakistan Railways to begin by appointing a team of experts, from within, to study what is an occupational health and safety system and how it is established in an organisation. Once a basic understanding has been developed, the management could determine the best course of action for establishing and implementing such a system in Pakistan Railways.

Pakistan neither has a Federal Act nor an Authority to oversee  Health and Safety, set standards or act as a watchdog. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have no provincial health and safety Acts. Punjab and Sindh have these laws but are still struggling to make them effective.

Our legislative vacuum, however acute, can in no way absolve the senior management of the Railways from its foremost obligation – safety of its passengers and employees. It is indeed the direct responsibility of the top management of Pakistan Railways to establish a safety management system and create mechanisms to control and prevent physical, chemical, biological, ergonomic or any other hazards that reside in its equipment and operations.

Naeem Sadiq