Our deepest condolences and solidarity go out to the families and friends who lost their loved ones when the Kanchenjunga Express collided with a goods train near New Jalpaiguri, West Bengal. At least 15 people have been reported dead, and 60 others injured, with rescue operations still ongoing. The regularity with which people lose their lives in train accidents in india is largely due to the mismanagement of the indian railway ministry. With technological advancements, one might expect errors to decrease and accidents to become rarer. Yet, here we are again, mourning the tragic loss of life and questioning the efficacy of those in charge.

This accident of the Kanchenjunga Express should prompt us to reflect on travel itself and trains as a unique mode of transport with their own distinct features and history. A train journey opens up a series of experiences, of which accidents are a tragic part. train derailments and crashes remind us that both trains and journeys can be “demonic”.

The railway apparatus has been regarded, in “common-sensical” perception, as a symbol and harbinger of rational modernity; perhaps even of national integration. Yet, the train compartment has been a site of anxiety since its inception: from the Victorian idea of the violent “railway madman”, spurred by the motion of the train automating the human body to travel at speeds unnatural to animal existence, to the incident on July 31, 2023, when a railway guard killed four people on the Jaipur-Mumbai Central Superfast Express.

There is a train in kenya called the ‘Lunatic Express’, named so because of the hundreds of migrant laborers from british india who died during the hostile conditions of building the railway tracks. Trauma, the “wound” implicit in our experience of modernity, comes from travel and displacement—from the Biblical story of the “Fall” to the “Birth of the Nation” marked by the wound of partition, whose primary totem are photographs of butchered refugees in trains from the freshly sliced nation-states of india and Pakistan. There is something about train travel that is amenable to unhinged irrationality, and the collapse of the rational symbolic order.

In her book *Tracking Modernity: India’s Railway and culture of Mobility*, Marian Aguiar argues that the train has “historically been the most pervasive symbol of terror”. Terror here refers to experiencing it both materially and culturally. Trains have always been the site of violence and trauma. Partition in South Asia is a robust example of such a history. Right after partition, on the fateful day of september 22, 1947, 3,000 Muslim refugees were killed on a train when a group of Sikhs armed with rifles, swords, and spears attacked them. The ghost trains of partition that carried the bodies of the dead are a testimony to such trauma of the train and how it became a medium and messenger of madness from both sides of the border.

These days, we are often treated to visuals of overcrowded trains in india shared on social media. This is a stark image when compared to the mid-19th century image of the train in india, which was seen as a “car of fire” that could shorten one’s life. As so many die due to accidents, we should ask, who travels in trains and who is to be held accountable for such accidents? Can people take moral responsibility for such accidents? If they don’t, what of them?

Historian Eric Hobsbawm once qualified railways as a synonym for ultra-modernity. Have they—because of years of official neglect and misplaced priorities—become an emblem for accidents in india, a “charnel-house”? This is a question that looms large as we ponder the dual nature of train travel: a symbol of progress and modernity, yet also a harbinger of chaos and calamity.

It is high time for the indian railway ministry to be held accountable for these frequent, tragic accidents. The loss of life and the trauma inflicted on survivors and their families demand more than condolences and promises of improvement. We need a thorough overhaul of the railway system, stringent safety measures, and a renewed commitment to protecting the lives of those who travel by train. Only then can we hope to transform our trains from symbols of terror and tragedy into true emblems of progress and unity.

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