December 9, 2013
Tripping over the same stone
It is much easier to define what would be inappropriate reactions to last weekend’s train derailment in Once station with around 100 people injured than finding exactly the right thing to say. One knee-jerk reflex in an election week might be to maximize political exploitation of this disaster in callous disregard of the human suffering or at least dedicate prime attention to gauging its electoral impact. Or conversely, downplay the damage by pointing out that nobody was even seriously injured — the fear sown by the fouth major rail accident mishap on this line in three years is devastating for the thousands of commuters helplessly exposed to this daily hazard even without a fatal outcome this time round. And perhaps the worst thing would be to say that this lower toll from a weekend crash vindicates former transport secretary Juan Carlos Schiavi’s outrageously insensitive claim that far fewer than 50-plus people would have died in the big Once tragedy 20 months ago had it been a public holiday.
Needless to say, the blame game has already started with the engine-driver of the errant train in the front line and sinister mutterings about sabotage by either ruthless electoral interests or obstructive trade unionism in the background. A widespread tendency to blame the government is not unjustified — if the ruling Victory Front now has to pay a political cost for all the infrastructural neglect from the Ricardo Jaime and Schiavi years, this would be fair enough in many ways even if they have started corrective action in the last 20 months (too little, too late?). Yet there is a case for blaming this disaster on society at large and not just the government or the engine-driver or the union. Far too many of us have accepted the Mephistophelian pact whereby the lion’s share of public money over the last decade has gone into subsidizing dirt-cheap rail fares (reportedly only paid by a minority of passengers) instead of improving the subhuman transport conditions — there has been no lack of complaint about these conditions, of course, but demanding more comfortable commuting without insisting on public investment being ploughed into infrastructure instead of fare subsidies is trying to have it both ways.
But rather than the blame game, the real urgency is to find solutions now to head off these too far recurrent rail disasters shocking us again in the future. If the automatic signalling contracted from China or other corrective modernization is not due until next year, then by all means deploy two engine-drivers per train to reduce human error but somebody must do something.