Railway accident, fatalities an indicator of unfinished reforms

25Mar 2020
Editor
The Guardian
Railway accident, fatalities an indicator of unfinished reforms

DISBELIEF was the way many people reacted to the news about a head-on crash of a railway line trolley car and a train where five officials of the Tanzania Railways Corporation (TRC) lost their lives and others are being treated in hospital.

It was a case where a ‘rescue train,’ implying it was on special duties for instance conveying repair materials or conducting inspections as was the case in this incident, was not aware of another service or inspection vehicle coming from the opposite direction. It was a total breakdown of communications, apparently.

Readers with some long memories will recall how in 1998 there was a ghastly accident that led to the loss of lives of some 300 people on the railway track beyond Dodoma to the sloping plateau towards Tabora. It was also a restive environment where workers’ unions were at loggerheads with the third phase government on a whole host of things, partly having to do with scheduled privatization and how workers’ welfare would be sorted out. None of these issues was ever really clarified - as such explanation wouldn’t serve much of a purpose.

It is hard to see what is the difference between that situation and the present environment or incident, except that there is no privatization going on, nor indeed are there cut-throat issues of workers’ welfare at TRC. Instead, there are two situations mirrored in this incident, where on the one hand Tanzania is building a highly modern speed train railway line, and then it demonstrated surprising levels of incompetence in maintaining its old fashioned steam engine railway line. How far does it translate into capacity for running a modern railway system, at present?

These are questions for which there are no simple answers, as during the earlier period those in government and a section of academia and especially foreign think tanks had a simple answer to all this: privatization. There is however plenty of evidence as well that in advanced countries some huge accidents were explained from excessive deregulation, lack of peer review on what a company is doing. It would appear that there is a similar climate here as TRC isn’t regulated by anyone but itself, and the worst it can suffer is to lose its chief executive and get another.

At the time that the liberalization and privatization approach to reform was ditched, gradually during the third phase and more emphatically during the fourth phase and its being a non-issue at present, another view came up. The World Bank, which is often wrongly criticized as a privatization champion whereas some its top economists have battled it stridently, in office and well beyond their terms of office, came up with the capacity building strategy. We could measure TRC way of handling operations by that precept, but even in 1998 total communications failure was something difficult to comprehend, but a repeat 22 years later is even stranger.

There is an expression about the need for special solutions for special problems, and perhaps there is something of that sort here. It will be up to top levels of the government in the relevant ministry and other think tanks or advisory bodies to figure out if the same management that has a trolley car colliding with a service train can run a rapid train network. There ought to be clear answers on that matter.