Saturday, April 30, 2005

Despite high-profile crashes, train still a safe mode of travel in Asia

DISASTER: Rescuers work at the site of a derailed commuter train that smashed into an apartment building in Amagasaki, western Japan on April 26.

HONG KONG -- Despite occasional headline-grabbing crashes such as this week's accident in Japan, rail travel remains one of the safest means of travel in Asia.

In countries across the region, including India and Pakistan with their creaking colonial era railways, the daily carnage on the roads far outweighs the number of casualties from train crashes.

And in archipelago nations and other maritime countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh, deaths from ferry disasters also outnumber rail deaths.

Monday's rail accident in western Japan, which left over 70 people dead, made a huge impact because such accidents happen infrequently, and when they do, they are visually alarming.

"Rail is much safer. There are regular derailments but although they attract a lot of attention they rarely result in many deaths," says Debra Efroymson, regional director of Path Canada, a Canadian nongovernmental organization, which has carried out research into transport issues in Bangladesh.

Despite regular accidents on its antiquated rail network, the tiny South Asian nation recorded just 25 rail deaths last year and 28 in 2003. By comparison the number of deaths on the roads were around 2,600 last year and 3,279 in 2003.

"The number of road accident fatalities is outrageously high for the number of cars in existence," said Efroymson.

That pattern of transportation deaths is repeated throughout the region.

Indonesian police recorded 10,906 road deaths last year and just 50 in rail accidents, while Taiwanese authorities reported 2,718 road deaths in 2003 and 240 rail deaths and injuries.

Apart from suicides rail deaths were zero in the tiny city state of Singapore and China's southern territory Hong Kong.

Singapore, however, recorded road 194 fatalities last year, while in Hong Kong there were 160.

Even India and Pakistan - which have notoriously creaky rail networks with regular accidents - recorded far fewer deaths on the rails than on the roads.

In the past five years 15 major train accidents were reported in India with death tolls ranging between 25 to 300 in each.

Its worst rail accident occurred in 1981 when a cyclone derailed a train in the eastern state of Bihar killing 800 passengers and in 1995 at least 340 people died when two passenger trains rammed each other in Punjab state.

But despite these dramatic incidents the death toll pales in comparison with the 60,000 deaths recorded from over 10,000 accidents recorded on average each year in India.

By numbers alone China has the most dangerous roads, with 99,217 people killed in traffic accidents in 2004 - an average of 685 people per day, according to World Health Organization figures.

There were no figures for Chinese rail deaths.

While statistics show that many rail crashes are the result of equipment failure or accident - caused by vehicles or animals on the tracks - the vast majority of road deaths are caused by drivers.

"If one goes by sheer statistics then some 70 percent of the accidents are due to human error," said CM Khosla, a former director of India's state-run Central Road Safety Research Institute.

Path Canada's Efroymson agrees, adding that the victims are usually not the cause of accidents.

"Most people do not use cars. Many of the accidents are caused by trucks or buses that drive too fast or pass on curves when they cannot see ahead," she said, referring to Bangladesh.

Economic pressures on commercial drivers, lax motoring standards and poor-quality roads are blamed for the higher rate of road fatalities in developing countries.

A Pakistani health ministry report concluded that reckless drivers, overcrowded vehicles and poor roads were to blame for the Islamic nation's high number of traffic deaths.

Source: Mark McCord - AFP


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