Train safety is well and truly off the rails

If you think the number 297 is no cause for alarm, maybe it's time to think again. It's the number of deaths in railway accidents in Thailand which has totalled 887 in six years.

That means more than 50 deaths a year, or more than four deaths a month. And there were nearly 1,000 injuries in the course of those six years.

There is no doubt that many of the dead were breadwinners of the family and the losses must be enormous, not only for each individual family, but also for the country's economy.

Some may argue that this is a case of ill fate and recklessness on the part of drivers since we know very well that a large number of Thai drivers of all manner of vehicles are careless lunatics and it's likely many of them were among those who perished in the railway accidents.

But that may not be the case given the fact that more than 80% of the crashes occurred at "unauthorised crossings" _ meaning rail crossings that have had roads build across them which the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) has not approved _ which total 562, as well as some authorised crossings which lack standard barriers; and have no warning signs or signals.

Worse, some are at locations with a slope, a curve or a bush which hinders the vision of motorists. This can be a "deathtrap" for non-locals.

Years ago, a senior colleague of mine had a near-miss experience with a train. She was travelling in a car driven by her brother in a southern province. As they encountered a curve, they had no idea a crossing was just metres ahead. There was no warning sign. And I believe there still isn't a warning sign there.

SRT governor Prapat Chongsanguan acknowledges the problem but still cannot come up with a solution.

He says his obstacle is a "lack of budget", a classic excuse for many state agencies.

As the SRT big boss, Mr Prapat tends to think big. He has envisaged overpasses and underpasses for the 4,000 kilometres of railway as a way out of the problem and that, of course, requires a lot of money from the state coffers _ and, of course, time.

Can we afford to wait? I think not.

We cannot afford to allow the SRT to be this irresponsible anymore.

The SRT must do everything it can to ensure public safety _ actions that are practical and not expensive.

Now that everybody is talking about high-speed trains, it's unlikely Mr Prapat will get what he wants.

The SRT cannot avoid responsibility by simply saying it has no money. What is needed for a solution is not money but a mindset.

We would appreciate it if the SRT talked to local administration agencies to find ways to work together. How about starting with locating the "blind spots" or those areas where accidents occur frequently.

Due to decentralisation, these agencies have budgets of their own.

Our demand is that all railway crossings must have proper signs or flashing signals to warn motorists of what lies ahead.

Unquestionably, Thailand's train service contains some problems that epitomise our underdeveloped infrastructure and efficiency _ run-down carriages, poor hygiene, unreliability in terms of punctuality. On top of that are these kinds of accidents which can be prevented _ if we try harder.

Of course, safe driving habits are also important. The land transportation department should find ways to make safe driving practices a deciding factor in its driving exam. Given the country's high accident rate, with high fatalities each year, driving exams should look further than driving ability. Instead, it's driving responsibly that counts.

Some leading organisations have launched "white" road projects that aim to curb accidents. Isn't it time the SRT thought of a "white" railroad?

And again, this is not just about money. It's about mindset. The right one.

Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy Oped Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Ploenpote Atthakor
Position: Deputy Editorial Pages Editor