No panic button on trains yet; Railway moves on forgetting Soumya

Representative image. Photo: Michele Ricucci/Shutterstock

What if there was a ‘panic button’ installed on all train coaches? What if the protection force personnel could reach out once the panic button gets pressed, like how the train stops pulling the chain?

Such a thought was mooted by the Southern Railway authorities in 2011. To be more precise, right after Soumya, a 23-year-old woman was sexually assaulted and killed during her train journey in Kerala.

Now, even after eleven years have passed, the Railway’s concept of installing ‘panic buttons’ remain in thoughts.

The then Railway Police Superintendent A C Thomas, who led the team to nab Govindachamy, Soumya’s killer within 24 hours, says, “Stringent security measures with the help of digital technology must be in place in the trains to ensure the safety of women passengers at all times.”

Nevertheless, the recent experiences women encounter during train travel prove that the Railways has not learnt a lesson from Soumya’s unfortunate death.

A 16-year-old girl travelling from Ernakulam to Thrissur along with her father on the Thrissur  Guruvayoor Express (the same old passenger train) was molested by a 6-member gang on the train, last week. As per the complaint, her father who tried to prevent the group of men from touching and molesting his daughter was physically and verbally assaulted by the group.

So, what is the status of women’s safety in trains?

No CCTV on trains

It was after Soumya’s death that the Railways initiated the process of installing CCTV cameras in all trains across the network in India. As many as 12 lakh cameras were to be installed altogether in the trains and the stations.

However, the project did not reach anywhere. It is when even the buses have CCTV cameras installed that the trains continue to lack any such measures.

Though there are cameras installed in the coaches of a few new trains, all trains running through the rail lines in Kerala continue to lack them. There has been no progress in the announcement that 8 cameras would be installed in each coach to ensure women's safety.

The passages between the compartments still remain a nightmare for the women travellers, especially on night trains. The promise of forming teams of women RPF officers to ensure the women’s safety in trains has also not been fulfilled.

Though the safety of lone women travellers was decided to be entrusted with the RPF officers on platform duty, the order to effect the same has not been issued yet. The incident, in which a woman traveller on Guruvayoor Punaloor Express had to jump out from the moving train to escape from an attacker, had happened a few months ago.

It seems the Railways is not going to learn anything from any of these episodes; the latest incident is proof enough.

Although the teen girl had informed the guard about the assault and molestation by a group of men, the Railway Police could not reach out for help until the train reached Thrissur from Ernakulam. In between, the culprits alighted from the train at different stations en route.

 Where is the ‘panic button’?

Panic buttons are red switches which can be installed in all train compartments to serve as a security measure. At the press of the button, the control room and the guard room would be alerted and the security personnel can rush to the spot to help the person in danger. However, unfortunately, this system is not in place yet.  

When the attack on women passengers on Mumbai local trains increased, the authorities acted by installing CCTV cameras in all coaches on these trains. About 1000 cameras are being installed on Mumbai trains. Nevertheless, this has not affected the trains running in Kerala’s rail network. 

Meri Saheli

Even as a project named ‘Meri Saheli’ was implemented, there is no respite for the attacks and assaults on women passengers. The Railway Ministry implemented the project for the women passengers in 2020. The project proposed and promised a woman’s complete safety right from the point she gets on the train until she alights. Teams of women officers were also formed for this purpose.

These women officers reach all coaches including the Ladies' compartments, and get the details from the women passengers. If the woman is travelling alone, her coach number and seat number would be noted. The women would be told to call the RPF helpline on 182 or the Railway Police helpline on 151, in case of any emergency. The passengers are also directed not to take any food or drink from strangers.

The project was initially launched in 2 trains on the South Eastern Railway. It was told that it would be extended to other Railway zones also. As per reports, the project was extended to more than 200 railway stations. Despite news and reports on the team helping out and averting many possible attacks, the fear of women when it comes to train travel has not been addressed.

The situation of women travellers is worse once the travel is outside of Kerala. Besides sexual assault, robbery is also very common on the trains elsewhere. Complaints are galore that the authorities refuse to register the FIR in such incidents. By the time one tries to call on 139 Railway helpline and get help, the culprit would have escaped.

 A talk-back system is needed

The Central Railway has facilitated a talk-back system so that the women passengers can talk to the guards from any compartment. Railway passengers’ association had pointed out that such a system can be tried in Kerala too. On the press of a button in the system installed near the door in the coach, the guard would get a light and sound signal and can be talked to directly.

The microphone, speaker and push button on these talk-back systems on Mumbai trains have been set up in such a way that criminals and anti-socials cannot tamper with it or damage it. It is also being demanded that a system to announce emergency contact numbers in case of any situation must be in place in railway stations at all times.

‘Limited’ security forces

The Railway Protection Force (RPF) and the Government Railway Police (GRP) are the forces responsible for ensuring safety on trains. There are only 600 RPF personnel to cater to the lakhs of train travellers travelling across the rail network in Kerala every day.

The confusion on who is to take action, whether the RPF or the Police, in the event of a crime, also causes a delay in reaching help to a woman in trouble.

The very limited number of women personnel in the Railway Police stations is a lapse too. There won’t be any women personnel at all in some small stations.

The demand to remove the coaches without the facility to pass from one coach to another has not been considered yet. Neither is there a system to rout out those roaming around on the platforms unnecessarily.

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