Train accident a reminder that we aren’t out of the woods yet

18Jan 2022
The Guardian
Train accident a reminder that we aren’t out of the woods yet

ANGUISH was registered again as the Tanzania Railways Corporation (TRC) takes steps to restart regular journeys on the major railway lines, Dar to Arusha in particular, with an accident in Pangani district.

A TRC statement said that five wagons overturned and four were derailed, in what could be said to be a freak accident where one child died and several people were taken for treatment. It suggests that there are dysfunctional features on the track, or in the manner in which the wagons are being operated.

At the same time the time schedule of that journey, leaving Arusha at 2.30 in the afternoon and at dawn the next day the train is lumbering near Pangani in Tanga Region is not 21st century travel but simply a relic of the past. Those of us who don’t know enough of mechanics can’t quite figure out if the problem is the use of outdated engines or a rail track soft belly where speed can’t be increased; by some bad luck the weight impresses upon the track to slope. It may instantly cause a derailing or overturning the wagons, and if the train is on high speed, the scale of destruction would be vastly higher than the lumbering train.

That stated, it all the same raises an issue as to how far we have the ability to restore TRC services to proper reliability, not having to investigate such incidents whether it is along the central railway line or the northern route. While we do not have appreciable answers for that conundrum, we are now in the process of building a standard gauge railway on which we expect to use speed trains, not the usual steam or diesel trains but electric engines that don’t have low speed safeguards for safety. There is a lingering issue of how far are we prepared, and whether we opt for systematic precautions or muddling through.

It will be remembered that for over a decade the railway service was hardly functioning, until early in the last decade that then Transportation minister Dr Harrison Mwakyembe battled to introduce a commuter rail service especially towards Pugu, on the fringes of the city of Dar es Salaam. Plans then started to rehabilitate the northern track (Dar to Arusha, Tanga to Arusha) before the fifth phase embarked on the speed train project, as neighbouring countries were modernizing rail tracks already. But unlike the case here, their ability to run rail services was fairly satisfactory over the decades, while trains fizzled here.

All the same it is unlikely that there is steam in the bureaucracy for precautionary measures, to form a joint venture arrangement (as consultancy is overly expensive) with a company that has rail stock to spare especially of the traditional kind as its investment. It would also have the technical ability to inspect rail track engineering and conditions to ensure that slippages don’t easily occur, and provide vital oversight as we move into speed trains. As they say, a stitch in time saves nine.