Deadly rail crossings and crash deja vu

Deadly rail crossings and crash deja vu

Passengers observe the bus struck by their train in yet another deadly crossing
Passengers observe the bus struck by their train in yet another deadly crossing "accident" at Nakhon Pathom on Sunday. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

It's appalling. The sight of the crash between a train and a coach that killed four and injured more than 20 at a rail crossing in Nakhon Pathom on Sunday was sad beyond words.

What makes it worse is: this kind of accident should never have happened. We all know; the government knows, so does the State Railway of Thailand, as well as the Highways Department and other agencies.

But we are made to read about this kind of news again and again.

Aside from the details, the impact of the crash and the casualty toll, the rest is the same.

Someone would point out rightly that there were no barriers, or if there were, there happened to be flaws in the system. Other excuses are the crash site is a blind spot -- no signs to alert drivers -- and that the drivers were not careful enough. All lame excuses on the part of law enforcers.

The fact is that all the causes are preventable. But they still happen. So why not prevent them?

I looked through my work and found an old column on this very topic which I wrote on June 5, last year. It was headlined: "Rail crossings don't have to be death traps."

But the fact is, nearly a year on, the crossings, as evident by the Sunday crash and accidents in previous months, are still death traps.

My comment last year was in response to a series of serious train crashes that prompted authorities concerned to give a reaction -- albeit a knee-jerk one, though, just like this time.

Then transport minister Prajin Juntong, who is now deputy prime minister, came up with the idea of installing barriers with a sensor system for nearly 2,500 railway crossings to boost safety.

The plan required more than 27 billion baht. It should be noted that other "illegal crossings" -- some 500 dangerous paths that were initiated by locals -- are not in the ministry plan.

My argument then, and now, is that we don't need an advanced system with sensors, as it requires a lot of investment. We need a simple device that really works and, since it's a matter of life and death, it needs to happen quick.

This brings us to the Nakhon Pathom collision.

The crash site has seen a number of accidents over the past few years and prompted local people to ask for a barrier, which has been provided by the Rural Highways Department.

It has been installed for four months but is not in use.

The department is waiting to deliver the device to the SRT. So in other words, it's the bureaucratic system we're waiting on.

We also learnt there are some 20 such completed barriers that are "waiting to be delivered". The horrible crash will accelerate the process, or so the authorities promise.

But what about other dangerous areas that are still on the bureaucratic waiting list? There must be many, including all the illegal crossings.

The Nakhon Pathom crash was not an accident, not in the typical sense.

It is pure negligence on the part of the rail operator, the Transport Ministry and state agencies. The untimely deaths leave those families devastated.

When a crash takes place, most train drivers are protected by SRT regulations as it's not technically possible for them to stop a train abruptly. For the Nakhon Pathom case, it's yet to be decided if the coach driver was reckless or because of a lack of visibility in that area.

But the fact that the area has had so many crashes in the past tells us something rather important: waiting four months for a system to arrive that can reduce accidents is far too long.

Therefore, I encourage families of the crash victims to sue the SRT and not just settle for receiving cash as compensation, otherwise the issue will be again swept under the carpet.

Instead, they should bring the case to court.

Negligence should not be tolerated, as the agencies, in particular the SRT, are supposed to know best where the death traps are. But they fail to do their best to prevent it and the risk of tragedy remains.

It's time they learnt their lesson and acted more promptly. Because only this can help prevent more casualties and deaths.

We simply cannot wait any longer.

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Ploenpote Atthakor

Editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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