Tue, 04 Sep 2001

Will this be the last?

News of fatal railway accidents are so regular in this country that if they do not claim numerous human lives then they are commonly treated as insignificant events. Last year alone there were 14 accidents involving trains, killing 85 people. Twelve of the accidents occurred on the overcrowded island of Java and two on Sumatra, where only two of the island's provinces operate railway systems making news of such tragedies rarely heard over there.

For Jakarta citizens, however, the railway accident which happened in Bintaro subdistrict in 1987 is still fresh in their minds. The disaster claimed 160 lives. The high frequency of railway accidents has ironically made the people reluctant to demand the resignation of the minister in charge of public transport, because if such action was demanded there would have to be at least one new minister every month.

However, the railway accident which occurred early on Sunday morning at the Cirebon station, 200 km east of Jakarta, and claimed at least 41 lives has become a controversial topic in the capital city. The tragedy took place when the incoming train from Jakarta, with some 400 passengers on board, rammed into a locomotive at the station at 3:45 a.m., instantly killing 41 people and injuring 62 others.

The reason for the uproar is not just a consequence of the huge number of victims, but also eye-witness accounts stating that the train driver and his assistant were sleepy long before reaching the West Java coastal town. Such fatal negligence also occurred several years ago. As the number of casualties was small in that case, railway authorities did not feel obligated to think of ways to avoid a reoccurrence of the dangerous pattern. So, it happened again and again, and this time on a more horrendous scale.

The most remarkable thing about this country's most repetitive tragedy is that those who had been made to bear responsibility for the disasters have only been those from the lower ranks. Is there no other effective way of avoiding the tragedy from repeating itself?

The government has tried to improve the management and system but it has not found an effective way to avoid further accidents. The company that used to operate the railway system has been replaced by PT Kereta Api Indonesia (KAI), still a state-owned company but a more professional one. Despite the change, the new management still seems to be in a quandary about methods needed to improve safety, much less avoid income losses.

The new management has not improved the supervision system because there is no clear protocol about who is supervising whom in KAI. The latest accidents have demonstrated that the management has not been able to establish stricter discipline among railroad personnel or stop the public from treating the railway system as a free social service.

Many years ago this paper warned railway authorities to take stern measures against employees allowing passengers to jump onto the top of railway cars or stand in between the cars. Despite being an extremely dangerous practice, hundreds of passengers still sit on the moving cars every day. Maybe because this country has been experiencing an economic crisis KAI management does not believe that the growing trend could further affect our image as an under-developed country.

Furthermore, recent reports that personal safety has been deteriorating inside the trains suggests that it would be a good idea for management to now renew the policy of placing railway police inside the cars.

Finally, the latest accident should motivate the minister of transport to investigate the true causes of the Cirebon tragedy and whether discipline among the railway employees has dropped. The minister must also determine whether their employees' salaries and welfare are commensurate with the level of their responsibilities.

These steps are crucial because the railway industry has long exacerbated the nation's headache.