THE derailment the engine and first three carriage of the Riyadh-bound express from Damman is a cause for considerable concern.
It is not simply that 35 people have been injured, two of them seriously, but that the crash comes at a time when the Kingdom is in the process of building a rail network some 3,000 kilometers, one of the largest such projects in the world. Public confidence in these lines for the safe and speedy transport of passengers and freight is of paramount importance.
Wednesday’s crash is not the sort of publicity that Saudi Railways will welcome. This said, the rail company and the emergency services appear to have responded admirably in the wake of the wreck. The seriously injured were flown out quickly and those with lesser wounds were taken swiftly to nearby hospitals. Meanwhile Saudi Railways laid on busses and an extra train to take the remaining 297 passengers on the remaining 97 kilometers to the capital.
The key issue now is the investigation into the cause of the derailment near Al-Khurais junction. It is clear that the authorities have not yet ruled out sabotage. It is an unfortunate reality that railway lines are highly vulnerable to malign interference. A determined terrorist could damage the track in such a way that the danger would not be spotted by a train driver, until it was too late. With super express trains, such as the electrified Haramain High Speed Rail Project between Makkah and Madinah, where the trains will travel at 320 kilometers an hour, the danger becomes very real indeed. The good news is that modern technology makes it a relatively simple, if highly expensive exercise, to install security technology along entire lengths of line, especially on long and vulnerable desert stretches. It is not yet clear what the authorities are planning in this respect and for obvious reasons, few details are likely to be made public. Nevertheless, even if the cause of Wednesday’s crash was not sabotage, this incident drives home the need to ensure that the new Saudi rail network will not only be state-of-the-art in operational terms, but will also be equipped with the most modern security technology available.
If however, this derailment was caused by a technical failure, it is no less important that a full investigation is carried out and the precise cause or causes identified. Once that has happened, whatever changes are necessary, in terms of engineering, maintenance, inspection regimes or operations, must be put into effect immediately. Just as with aircraft that fly between Saudi cities, passengers have the right to expect that every possible safety precaution has been taken, and then some.
Saudi Railways has already been embarrassed by recent technical failures on new passenger trains it has acquired. Clearly, it will have been taking a long, hard look at the rolling stock and other equipment it is buying and the way that this is all being operated.
Running a railway is a complex and challenging task, requiring intense management skills. Saudi Railway’s job is only going to become more challenging as its network expands. The investigation into what happened on Wednesday at Al-Khurais junction provides an excellent opportunity for the state-owned operator to demonstrate the rigor with which it conducts its operations.
Train crashes and derailments still unfortunately happen on every railroad around the world; two freight trains smashed into each other head-on in Oklahoma only three days ago. All too often, these wrecks are caused by human error and the failure of safety systems. Until train drivers can be replaced reliably by automated, computer-controlled driving systems, the human element will always be there. But where drivers or signalmen or maintenance men make mistakes and crashes occur, there is always an atbodyt to tighten up procedures to avoid the same error being made again.
This is what must happen in the wake of Wednesday’s derailment. And it is perhaps not helpful for anyone to describe this crash as “an accident”. In terms of health and safety, there are no accidents, only failures. If however this was sabotage, then an entirely different set of extremely serious security issues needs to be addressed as soon as possible.