Asia: Privatisation’s gruesome death toll

Sri Lanka and Japan are both reeling from horrific public transport disasters, in each case resulting from the privatisation policies of their governments and the blind chase for profits.

In what is probably Sri Lanka’s worst road tragedy in 16 years, 37 bus passengers were killed and more than 60 seriously injured when an express train smashed into a private bus packed to capacity with 100 passengers at a level crossing near the town of Polgahawela on Wednesday morning 27 April. Monday’s high-speed train derailment in a town near Osaka, western Japan, cost at least 106 people their lives, with over 400 injured.

Burst into flames

The Sri Lankan crash happened 80km north-east of Colombo. According to several eyewitness accounts, the conductor of the Colombo-bound bus stood guard at the crossing and waved at his driver to zigzag through the closed barriers, in an attempt to gain an advantage over three other buses waiting in the traffic queue. This was despite the gatekeeper shouting frantically at the men not to drive onto the rails as the train was approaching. Cutthroat competition between private bus companies encourages crews to take insane risks, which on this occasion ended in disaster. The bus was hit by the approaching Colombo-Kandy express train and burst into flames as its fuel tank ignited. Most victims appear to have died as a result of the fire. The side of the bus was torn open as it was dragged 75 meters by the locomotive and "people were spilling out and being run over by the train," an eyewitness said. Bystanders rushed to the wrecked bus but their efforts to pull survivors clear were hampered by the blaze.

"I saw around 25 burning bodies falling off the bus as it was torn apart and dragged off by the train," the shocked gatekeeper told the press. Sri Lanka’s president Chandrika Kumaratunga was reportedly "shocked and saddened" as is customary on such situations, yet this disaster throws into stark relief the brutal reality of public transport privatisation, turning what should be a public service into a mad chase for profits in which overspeeding and overloading of buses is normal practise. An editorial in the Daily Mirror (Colombo) on 29 April speaks of "a private bus service gone awry for want of better control and management". Yet the answer of the authorities is to arrest the (injured) bus crew and, in all likelihood, charge them with murder. While the action of the bus crew was clearly reckless and negligent, the answer lies not in stiffer penalties for wrongdoing but in scrapping the anarchic privately owned system of bus services and replacing it with a planned, publicly owned and democratically controlled service.

"Like a horse race"

As Bandulasena of the United Socialist Party (CWI Sri Lanka) comments, "this is the brutal reality of private ownership… a private bus operator says to the crew ’this is the amount you must make today, I don’t care how you make it’. They have no choice but to take risks, it’s like a horse race with buses each trying to beat each other to the next bus stop, more passengers and fares. The buses are poorly maintained and the system is chaotic and dangerous, but it’s wrong to just blame the drivers – they’re forced into this position – they’re just workers."

The spokeswoman for International Socialist Resistance in Sri Lanka, K. K. Dhammika, explains that many young unemployed who are desperate for a job become bus drivers and conductors. "They are prepared to work under these appalling conditions with little or no training because the alternative is being jobless. In the state sector, for example on the railways, the workers at least receive real training."

According to the police, the driver of the crashed bus who is still unconscious since the collision, was not the usual driver. One of the survivors, a regular passenger on the bus, told the Daily Mirror, "Once before this bus did the same thing at the Muthetugala junction but fortunately no one was hurt."

Another survivor, a soldier, revealed that he normally avoided taking the bus but had no choice on the day of the tragedy in which he lost a comrade. Over the last three years there have been 700 accidents involving private buses in Sri Lanka. The gatekeeper at the Polgahawela crossing who tried to prevent the collision explained that buses "jumping" the gate were a common occurrence during rush hours. This chicken race between private buses had resulted in "a few close calls" before he said.

"Trying to improve profitability"

Meanwhile Japan was in a state of shock after its worst rail disaster in more than 40 years in Amagasaki, near Osaka on Monday 25 April. By Thursday, when the rescue operation was called off, the death toll had risen to 106 with over 400 injured. Four carriages derailed in the morning rush hour collision with one carriage smashing into the side of an apartment building.

Eyewitness accounts from survivors and bystanders indicate that the 23-year-old driver who is thought to have been killed in the crash was speeding when the commuter train plunged from the tracks. Witnesses say the train overshot the previous station by 40 metres, suggesting that brake failure might also have contributed to the disaster. The driver had only 11 months experience and had been cautioned before for speeding. But as Reuters report, the newly-privatised company, JR West, "has been trying to improve profitability by cutting costs, leading to speculation it might have cut corners on safety." Police have searched the Osaka headquarters of the company as part of their investigation.

This disaster has shaken public confidence in Japan’s rail system, which transports 21 billion passengers every year. Privatisation of the network started in 1987. This shows that even in developed countries like Japan, privatisation kills. The arguments of the privatising politicians – greater efficiency, cheaper fares, less cost to tax payers, etc. – are invariably completely disproved by the actual experience of privatisation. Usually while privatsiation enriches a few top directors and consultants it costs the state and consumers more than a publicly owned system, especially when safety is factored in. Privatisation has often been pursued on ideological rather than purely economic grounds, to weaken the public sector unions and create a new layer of shareholders with a supposed vested interest in keeping services private. In Britain, however, the country where privatisation was first pioneered two and a half decades ago, only 11 per cent of the population favour private ownership of the rail system. Socialists everywhere must step up the fight for a safe, publicly owned and democratically controlled integrated public transport system as an alternative to the capitalists playing Russian roulette with passengers’ lives.

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May 2005