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Saturday, August 7, 1999 Published at 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK

Crammed onto an Indian train

The crowds on the benches and the luggage racks suffer most of the casualties

By India Correspondent Daniel Lak

One of the horrible images of the partition of the subcontinent 52 years ago is a black and white photograph of a train pulling into Amritsar station in Indian Punjab.

It is quite literally bristling with people, hundreds crowd on the roof, faces bulge from windows and doors - one can only imagine the hellish conditions within.

All had escaped from massacres in Pakistan. It's one of those pictures, like the event of partition itself, that makes you mutter "never again" under your breath.

Thankfully India has avoided being partitioned a second time, but on more than a few rail journeys over the past 10 years, I swear, I've seen that train. I've even been on it.

Bench class

Eleven million people travel by rail every day in India - sometimes it seems as if they're all on the same carriage with you, especially if you travel in the lowest class, known on some trains as bench class.

I did that once as an experiment in frugality, spent US$1.20 to get from Hardwar in the Himalayan foothills to Agra. A second class sleeper would have cost me US$5, but I must have needed the few extra dollars for some pressing reason so I parked myself on the hard wooden bench with, I thought, the other seven people with whom I was to share the open compartment.

Wrong. They weren't passengers. They were saving the seats to sell to the highest bidder. By the time the auction was over, there were 15 people in a compartment made for six.

A man was sleeping on the luggage rack, my rucksack was his pillow. A family of four was sitting on the floor, sharing a home-cooked meal. I learned to compress myself, and adapt.

It was an interesting experience - the people were lovely, but I never, never travelled bench class again.

Unknown casualties

I'm just trying to explain how crowded almost any Indian train can be. At stop after stop, people clamber aboard with bundles of possessions, and food, always food.

[ image: 11m people travel by train daily]
11m people travel by train daily
Few if any bother to buy tickets, and at least in the lower class compartments, conductors challenge them at their peril.

It's not unknown for a carriage built for 75 to carry 150 people, not counting those on the roof.

And when there's an accident, especially one as horrific as the crash at Gaisal, it's the crowds on the benches, and the luggage racks that suffer most of the casualties.

For one thing, their carriages are usually at or near the front of the train - for another, they're standing, or perched somewhere precariously. The final insult is that families of travellers without tickets aren't entitled to compensation for a crash.

No guarantees

The whole vexing question of rail safety is now, of course, being examined in India yet again. Yet another inquiry is probing the matter, and the railway minister, a man who was generally well regarded here before the crash, has resigned.

The line from the government is that India has one of the safest rail networks anywhere, the chances of dying in a crash are minimal. That, of course, is statistical, no comfort to someone caught in the one in a million situation.

The reality is that India's massive network is vast, varied and has so many employees that nothing, absolutely nothing, is guaranteed.

You may make computerised reservations in Delhi for the upper berth with vegetarian meal on the Kanchipuram Mail between Madras and Cochin in May of 2001. And it will all happen.

But as the Gaisal accident has shown, someone somewhere might be sleeping, or drunk, or letting a visiting cousin throw the switches at a crucial time - all the failsafe technology and good will in the world won't make a bit of difference if you're on the wrong train at the wrong time.

A vote loser

[ image: Nitish Kumar: well-regarded before the crash]
Nitish Kumar: well-regarded before the crash
The other problem is that Indian politicians have always treated the railway as a political trough, forcing the purchase of new trains rather than new track or safety equipment.

There aren't many votes in collision avoidance technology for train drivers, but you can win an election if you double the number of services in your constituency.

Never mind if that makes the line more dangerous, and takes money away from safety or maintenance budgets. Also, no one wants to raise fares despite the railway being in desperate need of new money.

Again, it's a vote loser. So politicians probably have to be assigned the final blame for accidents like Gaisals. But the day I see one standing in court, convicted of neglect or misuse of funds is the day I'll ride the railway in India with confidence.

That's not to say I won't be taking trains ever again. No, I'll gamble on the statistics, just as we do everytime we board an aeroplane or drive on the motorway.

It's just that we all know in India what could be done to improve our chances, but we can never find anyone willing to take the political risk to make the world's largest passenger-carrying network into the world's safest.

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