I have to admit that the Railways, for all its deficiencies, has done a tremendous job in linking every corner of the country, and has provided largely reliable travel at extremely affordable rates for India's masses (do we thank the British for this?). It is pretty much possible to reach even the most remote corner of the country by train (except J&K, and parts of the North East). The railway coaches are Spartan but sufficient (while travelling second class), and are quite comfortable while travelling in a second A/C or first class coach. The prices are always affordable even to the common man, and sometimes ridiculously cheap. Amtrak trains in the United States cost nearly as much as air travel, and even in Europe (which has exceptional train services) the prices cannot be called "cheap". A simple train ride from Florence to Venice or Rome costs about 40 Euro, and that's half the distance from Bangalore to Chennai, which costs some 150 rupees, or 2-3 Euro. In addition, I have loved travelling by train, enjoying observing the different types of people who travel, the commotion, the food on railway stations, the card games and conversations with co-passengers......a complete package deal, so to speak. For a country as populous as India, trains really are the only viable mass transit option.
However, amongst other things, the Railways has an atrocious safety record. There are way too many reports and statistics on this for me to link to, but just in this year there were two major accidents (including the Sabarmati express derailment, which the media seems to have already forgotten about!). Authorities blame most of these accidents on "human error", which range from alcoholism among field staff to sheer negligence. How much longer should such callousness be tolerated? A lack of accountability allows senior railway officials to remain unpunished for their negligence. When the Island Express plunged into the Quilon river in 1989, officials said it was due to a "freak typhoon". Over the years, many of us have heard many such priceless excuses. Modernization efforts are buried in red-tape, and probes for the causes of accidents remain confined to paper. The public continues to tolerate such nonsense. Stringent action, accountability of ALL railway employees and rapid modernization of the railways is absolutely essential. All this can happen only with strong public action. How an apathetic public can be mobilized, however, remains a topic for a different post. I just felt I had to vent some of my feelings after the latest train accident.