The death of an 18-year-old student of a local university due to a fall from the roof of the Kandy-Colombo train has drawn attention to the lack of safety on trains. The students had been riding on top of the train when he fell down and was killed, railway officials said.
The tragedy happened on the day that the officers of the Railway Department’s Locomotive Operating Engineers’ Union went on strike thus increasing the pressure on the trains plying that day.
Since the incident, many voices have been raised regarding the safety of railway travel with members of the Sri Lanka Railway Station Masters’ Union (SLRSMU) blaming the executive officers of the department for the tragedy saying they failed in their duty of assigning more trains that would prevent passengers from taking risks such as riding on top of trains.
Thousands of commuters take trains daily as it’s a cheaper and quicker alternative to buses. However, despite the increasing demand for railway transport, the Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) has not evolved to keep up with the growing demand.
Daily commuters on trains are often seen riding on footboards, hanging precariously from trains and several deaths have occurred due to this. Although the numbers travelling on top of trains are less, there are some who resort to this extreme step to get to their destination and the tragic end to a young life of a promising student is an example of the dangers of resorting to such measures.
The popularity of trains with foreign tourists, namely the up-country line, can be seen from the numerous photographs on social media. Most of these photographs show the tourists hanging out of trains and posing dangerously for photos. The trend has caught on and many locals too are resorting to such actions. It is obvious that there is a tragedy waiting to happen due to such reckless behaviour of passengers and the failure of the railway department staff to impose strict safety regulations on trains. However attractive such photographs may come out, safety must be the prime concern and it would do well if the railway authorities paid more heed to this aspect. Other than the safety factor, there are many shortcomings that SLR has to address.
There are often reports of pickpockets and thieves on trains and announcements are made at stations for passengers to take care of their possessions while travelling. However it would be useful if such announcements are made on board the trains as well as there have been incidents where thieves have jumped off trains close to stations by grabbing bags of passengers.
The SL trains also lack any facilities for senior citizens. In many stations, getting on and off trains is a nightmare for elders in particular given that the height between the train and the platform is so high that it makes it dangerous and difficult for seniors to get on or off the trains. While this may sound like a trivial matter, for those who have to commute by train regularly, this is an inconvenience that they have to deal with and one which can lead to serious accidents.
Railway employees are among those who go on strike more often than those in other sectors. The ongoing strike by some of SLRs employees led to the Railways being declared an essential service by the President. It goes without saying that public transport is an essential service and there should be no disruption to it due to trade union action. Such action only inconveniences commuters and sometimes such strike actions can take a deadly turn like the tragedy which befell the young man. While union action is necessary at times, it would be best if grievances are discussed and settled in a manner that commuters are not inconvenienced.
There are many problems that train travellers in the country face, which are likely much more than those faced by employees of SLR. Both the SLR and the Ministry of Transport need to address issues such as the safety and convenience of passengers and give them priority so that train travel can be a pleasant experience instead of a hazardous one.