Train of thought

Tuesday, 20 September 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

THE horrific train accident that occurred over the weekend has resulted in much soul searching. Given the death and destruction that happened in the incident, it is no surprise that it would have sent off many trains of thought across all people’s mind.

The Railways Minister has endeavoured to put the signal system as the main fault of the accident and while few will argue that it is a contributory factor, the fact that mismanagement of resources within the Railway Department had a hand in this accident cannot be denied.

This is not to fault the many workers who spend their days providing transport to the thousands of commuters in the country, but rather to the management that for years has condemned the railway system of this country to disrepair and neglect.  

Three people including a French national were killed and 37 persons were injured when three trains collided at the Alawwa railway station on Saturday evening. By Sunday, only 20 were reported to be in hospital while the rest had been discharged.

A train plying to Polgahawela from Colombo collided with the Rambukkana-bound train from behind. It crashed into the observation compartment of the Rambukkana-bound train, killing the train driver and assistant of the Polgahawela-bound train.

At the time of the incident the Polgahawela-bound train was being used to push another train which had stalled at the Alawwa station due to a technical failure, to Polgahawela. Two passengers who are in a critical condition are receiving treatment at the ICU of the Kurunegala General Hospital.

It is no secret that corruption and mismanagement of resources is pandemic among public institutions in Sri Lanka with the Railway Department being no exception. There have been plenty of instances when funds have been misused, particularly in the buying of carriages, engines or power sets. Time and again it has been discovered that the money paid has been to purchase railway carriages that are unsuitable for the local conditions but nothing has been done to bring the offenders to book.

While the Minister’s efforts to bring justice to the victims of the accident are commendable, there is more than the signal system that needs to be upgraded. The entire institution needs to take a closer look at itself and strive to make itself a more competent outfit.

According to Central Bank statistics, goods kilometerage transported by the State railway has increased by 44 per cent, mainly due to the increased use of railway for oil transportation for the State-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.

This has helped Sri Lanka Railway to reduce operating losses by 33.5 per cent to Rs. 3,173 million in 2010. The State railway has been making heavy losses in recent years and has survived on subsidies by the Treasury.

Nonetheless, the loss of nearly Rs. 3.2 billion is not a small one. If these losses can be reduced, then they can be used to upgrade the signal system and other components of the Railway Department and assist commuters to have a safer and more comfortable ride

Transport Minister Kumara Welgama would be better off focusing on that rather than taking more public money to keep a loss-making entity afloat.