India is often divided by intelligence, and united by stupidity, or may be, plain non-performance.

Every time I travel the Indian Railways (which thankfully I do not use very often these days, after successfully convincing my mother that not all cars on the highway are run over by trucks), I am amazed by how little this anachronistic monster has changed in all these years. It looks like a moving museum, a piece of Byzantine art that, in spite of all our talk on modernity, of scientific and technological prowess or our rise as a ‘superpower’, simply refuses to change, a few model rakes, bio-toilets and the engine-less train-18 notwithstanding. It is justifiably an embodiment of everything that is wrong in this country. A grim reminder of our abject lack of creativity and our unwillingness to shake off the colonial past that has stuck to us as much as our own (largely) murdered, disfigured English.

But what worries me more is something else. That the train is also a killer on wheels. No, I am not talking about it being a popular and highly effective means of suicide in this country, at least for people who stay by the tracks. Or it running over herds of elephants or ramming into school buses at unmanned level crossings. Or it bisecting those who fall onto the tracks while trying to get in or off the moving train.

It’s a killer because if you look closely, you will see that our trains are designed to inflict maximum damage to the passengers in case of an accident.

  • In case of fire, the collapsible doors of AC compartments make exit virtually impossible. In the absence of an emergency locking mechanism that holds the doors open, the train can turn into a death trap. Emergency windows are extremely rare, and when they are present, the operation is criminally complicated, and the efficacy dubious at best.
  • The metal chains / plates from which the middle and top berths hang end in sharp nut-bolt arrangements that can cause deep gashes in case someone is thrown around.
  • The steel latch that keeps the lower-berth’s backrest in place has a big, protruding metal handle that can cause serious harm.
  • The extremely crude reading light in AC sleeper berths with its super sharp steel lid is another disaster in design and safety considerations.
  • Lavatories are the worst with many threatening edges and handles.

There are, in fact, many more. I wish I had the photographs. From fan casings to steel bottle holders to luggage-rack clamps, you will find plenty of things inside a train which seem to be designed to maim. I will not be surprised if a minor incident results in disproportionate passenger casualties.

That apart, the interiors of our trains often look like the job of a local carpenter with several ‘patch’ boards cut crudely and screwed over random unplanned holes, broken parts fixed with improvised replacements; e.g. the custom-latches replaced with cheap off-the-shelf door latches available at local hardware stores. They are pathetic cases of our much-discussed ‘Jugaad’; for example, the clumsy ‘cages’ for liquid-soap bottles and deodorant balls (which never contains anything, and no one expects them to, anyway). Almost nothing in our trains look modular, or made professionally, say in a mould. Everything seems to have been manufactured by a motley group of small-time welders, local blacksmiths or lathe operators. The hundreds of protruding screw-heads everywhere, the ungainly fit and finish and the poor choice of materials, all point towards that.

The question is, are we so incompetent as a country? How long would we keep running to France or Japan to get decent rakes or lay down a high-speed line? Is constructing high quality railway cars rocket science (which we seem to know anyway)? Without blaming them directly, I wonder of what use are our premier institutions like NID and IITs if we could not improve the basic design and usability of our biggest mass-mover, even after several years of independence! Could we involve them in overhauling the entire design to create safe, functional, state-of-the-art trains that are robust, long-lasting and, more importantly, fool-proof (we have too many of them onboard). Can we not modernize our coach factories or privatize coach manufacturing?

How long do we have to keep traveling in this World War relic where a mug is still chained to the lavatory? Hope someone is listening!

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