By Jay Mazoomdaar
The killer railway tracks of north Bengal claimed another seven elephants on Wednesday. That takes the death toll to at least 48 since 2004. This year alone, the Chhapramari-Gorumara route has killed 18 jumbos. With at least another nine elephants severely injured in Wednesday’s collision, the count is likely to go up further.
According to reports, a large herd of at least 40 elephants was crossing the Jaldhaka Bridge in Hilajora forest at around 6 in the evening when the Assam- bound Jaipur-Kamakhya Kavi Guru Express came charging in at 80 km per hour. The driver claimed to have applied the brakes but it was too late. The impact of the collision threw several elephants, calves included, off the track and damaged the bridge. It was a gory sight.
Elephant deaths on railway tracks have been making frequent headlines in recent years. Outraged conservationists demanded immediate steps when the Coromandel Express ran over six jumbos near Berhampur in Odisha on 30 December 2012. Another two accidents in January – one on the same killer tracks in north Bengal — made the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways discuss elephant safety.
Every time there is an accident, the railways and forest authorities play the standard blame game. The former blames the forest staff for not alerting them about elephant movement. The latter accuse the locomotive driver of breaking the 50 kmph speed limit. After the January accident in north Bengal, for example, the Railways defended the driver who sped the train at 100 kmph in the dark because it was still half an hour to 7 pm when speed restrictions come into force. Only then did the forest department realize that the 7 pm-5 am low-speed window did not cover the extended dark hours during winter and change it to a sunset-sunrise schedule.
On paper, however, this speed limit applies to only 17.4 km of the total length of the 163 km stretch between Alipurduar and Siliguri. In practice, the go-slow distance is calculated by adding a series of short stretches – about 1-3 km – which do not even cover the braking distance. In effect, trains must run at a lower speed along the entire distance to be able to follow the speed limit along the designated stretches. So it did not make much of a difference when the forest department increased the 17.4 km go-slow distance to 79.60 km earlier this year. More....