By NIRMALA GEORGE, Associated Press
NEW DELHI (AP) — About 15,000 people die every year trying to cross the tracks of India's mammoth rail network, a "massacre" that a government committee said was being ignored by railway authorities.
The safety panel said new bridges and overpasses were urgently needed, but it noted previous recommendations to make the world's fourth largest railway system safer had been ignored. Its report noted that railway authorities were unwilling to view the deaths of people hit by trains while crossing the tracks as train accidents.
Most of the deaths occur at unmanned railroad crossings, said the report released over the weekend. About 6,000 people die on Mumbai's crowded suburban rail network alone.
Another 1,000 people die when they fall from crowded coaches, when trains collide or coaches derail, it said.
India's 40,000 miles (64,000 kilometers) of railway track cut through some of the most densely populated cities, flanked by shanty towns, in the nation of 1.2 billion people.
Railway experts say stopping pedestrians from crossing the tracks in congested areas would be virtually impossible.
"The situation is exceptionally dangerous in Mumbai where four or five tracks, or more, lie parallel and people living in slums on either side have no choice but to walk across the tracks," said I.M.S. Rana, a railway expert.
The High Level Safety Review Committee was set up by the government in September after a spate of train accidents. Around 20 million people in India travel by train each day.
The report called on the government to urgently replace all railroad crossings with bridges or overpasses at an estimated cost of 500 billion rupees ($10 billion) over the next five years.
"No civilized society can accept such a massacre on their railway system," the report said, referring to the crossing deaths.
"Reluctance of the Indian railways to own up to the casualties, which do not fall under the purview of accidents, but are nevertheless accidents on account of trains, can by no means be ignored," the report said.
The panel was especially scathing about the large number of deaths in Mumbai and recommended that the "grim situation on Mumbai's suburban system has to be tackled on a war-footing."
"Trespassing occurs because of lack of barricading, fencing, lack of adequate number of pedestrian overbridges and lack of facilities such as sufficient number of platforms, escalators, elevators for the disabled apart from insufficient train services. These are the main reasons for the heavy human death toll," the report said.
The committee, headed by leading scientist Anil Kakodkar, blamed railway authorities for the "grim picture," saying there were lax safety standards and poor management. Kakodkar headed India's Department of Atomic Energy before he retired last year.
It said local managers are not given adequate power to make crucial decisions and that safety regulations are also breached because of severe manpower shortages.
The panel noted that in the past few decades several new passenger trains had been introduced without any attention paid to enhancing infrastructure required for additional trains, or the financial viability of some trains.
In India, railway ministers resort to populism by introducing new trains, often to gain votes in upcoming elections in their constituencies.
"Political leaders decide on such issues as introducing new trains or increasing train fares. Railway fares have not been increased for nearly a decade," said Rana.
The panel suggested a high-level task force be set up to implement its recommendations relating to safety and that a fee be added to every ticket to form a safety fund.
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