Too many lives being lost at train crossings
It was Sunday morning and a group of Buddhists from Samut Prakan were on their way to make merit at a temple in Chachoengsao. Yet the trip ended in a tragedy as their vehicle crashed into a freight train. Altogether, 19 were killed and a few dozen injured.
Believe it or not, such a crash is one of the most common road accidents in Thailand. This one drew much attention from the public and agencies concerned, given the high number of casualties.
The State Railway of Thailand (SRT) was quick to comment that, as we all could have predicted, it was impossible for a train to suddenly come to a halt and the train driver did sound his horn in an attempt to warn the bus driver. There was no train barrier separating the rail tracks from the road as the SRT said the spot was an "illegal crossing."
The Department of Rail Transport pledged to study the problem to prevent this from happening in future. Yet it doesn't require a scientist's brain to see the cause of the accident. The Chachoengsao governor also immediately told the media that he'd ordered the installation of a barrier and a warning light and sign at the spot.
Netizens dived into the topic. They shared an old post about illegal crossings, as explained in 2014 by the state enterprise's PR team.
According to the post, an "illegal crossing" is usually created by a community or local administrative organisation, without permission from the SRT.
Therefore, the agency feels it has no obligation to make it safer for road users. That means no barrier is provided at illegal crossings. The SRT might install a warning sign and/or a flashing yellow light at some spots, but this is at their discretion. It's surprising how the number of illegal crossings has increased over the years. We are told 87% of collisions occur at illegal crossings.
Most illegal crossings are developed from old, small local routes, used by locals. But when the area is urbanised, such a route becomes busy, and local agencies find it necessary to widen it as a standard road to accommodate for more vehicles. But the local agencies may not think about installing a barrier, as this is seen as the SRT's job. The SRT still maintains its excuses, citing illegality. Is it possible that the SRT does not feel the urge to provide safety facilities given its impunity under the existing law? The agency has never been held accountable for the many lives lost.
Don't get me wrong. I would not side with recklessness on the part of the drivers in any of these cases. With or without a warning sign, a driver must be 100% careful. I don't rule out the recklessness of the driver in the Sunday crash. From CCTV footage, the bus driver didn't slow down when approaching the track. Media reports said the music on the bus was so loud and some passengers were dancing on the bus (meaning they neglected the seatbelt rule!). The loud music possibly buried other noises, including the train's horn.
Netizens were divided. Some blamed the SRT for not providing safety facilities while others criticised the driver for recklessness. Is this how we are going to live? Pointing the finger of blame, but not considering prevention measures? Shouldn't a barrier have been installed at the time the road was built?
The following figures are interesting. Of the total 2,684 crossings throughout the country, 621 are illegal. By region, 424 illegal crossings are in the South. During the fiscal years between 2015 and 2019, there were 383 accidents at the crossings, causing 138 deaths and 371 injuries. I'm sure there are quite a few unreported accidents too. How can the Ministry of Transport ignore the fact that these accidents are its responsibility as rail and land transport are under its supervision?
I understand that new roads are being paved monthly, even weekly, in the country. But many are being paved across a rail track without safety measures in place, including a barrier that costs 5 million to 10 million baht. If we are able to invest in infrastructure like roads, we should also add the cost of safety. Imagine if we still have the problem of illegal crossings when the high-speed train service scheduled to open in 2025 is built launches. I only hope the SRT will provide all the necessary safety facilities to launch the train. If not, I can't imagine how many lives, humans or animals, will have to be sacrificed for such recklessness.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.