Lessons from the rail tragedy
The recent tragic incident whereby a youth fell on to the railway
tracks after the train steps apparently gave way has raised concerns
about the safety of our public transport systems. There are many
versions of the terrible accident and the youth too may have been
careless if he tried to alight from a moving train as some media
accounts suggest. But the truth is that there was also a
mechanical/structural deficiency in the train that contributed to the
This is not the first time that such incidents have occurred. A
couple of years ago a schoolgirl died in Kegalle when the floorboard of
the bus she was travelling in gave way, dragging her under the wheels of
the bus. All too often we hear of brake failures and other mechanical
defects of private and public buses that lead to fatal accidents. It
goes without saying that all vehicles used for public transport must be
in good shape all the time.
This applies to private vehicles too, but public vehicles carry a
large number of passengers whose lives depend solely on the operators of
those vehicles. They thus have a moral obligation to ensure that their
vehicles are always in a perfect condition on the roads.
It is reasonable to assume that thorough checks are not carried out
regularly on the mechanical aspects of public transport vehicles. True,
it may not be possible to check a train daily, but once a week is a fair
proposition. The same applies to buses. Such a process will help
identify any technical, mechanical or structural defects in buses and
trains so that corrective action can be taken without delay.
There is also no ‘grounding’ policy in our part of the world, whereby
all public transport vehicles of a similar type are not allowed to run
temporarily after a serious accident until a complete mechanical ‘sweep’
We do have a system for the issuance of fitness certificates for
vehicles, but there is no clear indication that it works properly. We
have seen some ramshackle garages bearing the sign ‘vehicle fitness
certificates issued here’. The exemption of certain public transport
vehicles from some of these requirements is also a wrong move.
In some countries, all vehicles (public and private) have to undergo
an annual Ministry of Transport (MoT) Test which examines all mechanical
aspects of a vehicle. Trains and rail tracks too are inspected
regularly, because the potential for fatalities in an accident involving
a passenger train is much higher.
Public transport providers must necessarily have a safety crew
responsible for checking the safety aspects of their vehicles. From the
effectiveness of brake pads to the structural rigidity of the
footboards, they should be in charge of inspecting and repairing any
mechanically unsound part. This can go a long way towards preventing
freak accidents such as the recent rail tragedy.
We also lack a separate body to investigate accidents. While the
police have to be involved in any accident investigation, they are not
equipped to probe accidents scientifically. This is why it is essential
to establish a separate body comprising transport safety experts and
engineers for investigating serious accidents.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of the US is a good
It has wide powers and its experts are dispatched to major accident
sites (mainly plane, train and bus crashes) within hours. They work
together with the police and other federal/state agencies to
‘deconstruct’ accidents and to recommend steps that should be taken to
prevent similar accidents. Many safety improvements to planes, trains
and buses have stemmed from their recommendations. The Discovery
Channel, in its series Seconds from Disaster featured some of their
brilliant detective work.
Our public transport terminals and vehicles must also have Public
Service Announcements (PSAs) and billboards in all three languages on
safety. For example, in the UK all stations request passengers over
their public address systems to “mind the gap” between the train and the
platform, even though it is only a matter of centimetres. Passengers
must be strictly warned not to climb on to, or alight from, a moving
train (or bus). Walking on the rail track is another strict no-no.
The media too can contribute positively to such a safety awareness
Public transport terminals such as train and bus stations must also
have other safety features. For example, there is no uniformity
regarding platform height at our train stations with the result that at
some stations passengers have to climb just one step to get on board the
train, whereas at others it might be three steps.
The gap between the train and the platform is also not uniform across
the station network. Attention should be paid to these safety issues and
rectify any shortcomings. There should also be walking and climbing
assistance rails where necessary.
The main transport terminals must also be equipped with ambulances
and first aid facilities. Even a delay of five minutes (spent until the
arrival of an ambulance) could be a matter of life and death for an
injured passenger. The staff should also be trained in first aid and
simple paramedical techniques.
Safety must be a priority for all transport operators regardless of
whether they are publicly or privately owned. Sri Lanka’s private buses
are also notorious for a woeful safety record.
Many accidents have been caused by mechanically unsound private
buses. Private bus fleet owners must be held responsible for any safety
lapses. It is in their best interest to subject their buses to a
periodic safety review and take any corrective action.
Laws must be introduced to ensure such mandatory safety checks.
However, the authorities alone cannot ensure 100 per cent transport
safety.The passengers too have a vital role to play. They must adhere to
all safety directives at transport terminals and inside buses and
trains. They must also be vigilant about any apparent safety lapses.
Passengers with babies and children must be especially careful. Safety
is all about eternal vigilance and preventive action.