Synergy between man and machine  

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: November 18, 2019 22:19:56

The November 13 terrible collision between two passenger trains near a station in Brahmanbaria district sparks a number of questions. One relates to competence of the loco master and his assistants operating the train; in preliminary probes they have been held responsible for the major accident. Other questions touch upon issues ranging from outdated technical infrastructure and sloppy reform initiatives to insufficient number of loco masters and key technicians. Viewing the accident in a global and historical perspective, a large group of people may tend to point out many hazardous aspects of mechanisation of transports. As seen in over a century, mechanisation has not always been an unalloyed blessing to mankind. On occasions, thanks to human flaws and mishandling, this mechanical revolution has also invited woes for many. But the reality is the blessings in general have overwhelmed the demerits and limitations of mechanisation.  

Ever since technology, science in the broader sense, began entering the travel and communication sector, humans have invisibly been stalked by the spectre of accidents. It noticeably started with the sinking of steamships. The vessel which readily comes to mind in the category of these ill-starred ships is Titanic. The massive ocean liner sank in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912 in its maiden voyage from Southampton in England to New York City. An estimated 2,224 passengers were on board; of them more than 1500 died. The ship had fatally collided with an iceberg despite receiving six warnings. The Titanic case prompted steamship experts and researchers to focus on negligence on the part of its crew over the decades. The ship was later found to have begun its journey with some technical and structural flaws not properly addressed.

The history of aviation is filled with scores of fatal disasters. After the Wright Brothers' first-ever aircraft made its opening flight in 1903, they had to confront the reality of plane crash just five years later --- in 1908. It was a demonstration flight, with Orville Wright operating it as pilot. The aircraft was carrying a lone passenger. To the horror of 2,000 breathless people looking upward, the plane in a short time nosedived and fell on the ground at Fort Myer, near Washington DC. In the first crash in aviation history, one of the inventors of aircraft --- Orville Wright, almost became the first fatality. The co-passenger, however, died from burn injuries. In the following 111 years, the world has seen dozens of disastrous flights killing hundreds of passengers. The accidents were generally caused by mid-air collision, fateful landing and take-off, fall from flight path on the ground and into the sea due to mechanical trouble, overworked and erratically behaving pilots etc. Collisions involving two speeding planes on the runway, planes crashing into human settlements etc also led to many calamitous tragedies. 'Mysterious' disappearance of a few planes has lately beset the aviation world.

 The point to ponder is travels have turned comfortable, less hazardous and speedier as they cover long distances in shorter time than before --- be the transport modes planes, trains, buses or ships. In the modern times, air and train travels are considered the two vital communication means. Passenger ships and the other water vessels are normally used for recreational purposes nowadays. However, in the least developed countries water transports constitute a vital sector of commuting and travel. Bangladesh is one of them. Railway and bus journeys are also integral to the country's travel network. They are less expensive than air travels, and, thus, are affordable to the general people.

Like elsewhere in the world, including the industrialised countries, travel by a mechanised mode of transport in Bangladesh has never been fully free of hazards. Apart from the disastrous crash in 2018 involving a Bangladeshi private sector passenger plane in a neighbouring country, Bangladesh had few killer aviation-related accidents. Almost all the regions within the country are connected by domestic air routes operated by both government and private airlines. As expected, it is the upper and upper middle-class people who normally travel by these short-distance aircraft. Thanks to their exorbitant fair compared to that of trains and long-haul buses, these air travels are mostly off-limits to middle and lower middle-class people. Prospective air travellers' wait for cheap budget airlines appears to have become unending. These aircraft are expected to benefit many.

Perhaps in a quirky twist of reality, Bangladesh has witnessed few incidents of deadly air crashes. Of them, the most tragic one involved a Biman Fokker F-27 plane which crashed into a marsh while landing on the northern side of HSIA, then ZIA, in 1984. The aircraft allegedly became unwieldy due to rain. Coming from Chittagong, it had 45 passengers and four (04) crew members including the pilot and co-pilot. All of them perished in the tragic crash. The Fokker F-27 accident is recognised as the deadliest aviation disaster on Bangladesh soil. Earlier, in 1966, a PIA passenger helicopter crashed in Faridpur district due to mechanical fault. It was also hit by a vulture as it started descending uncontrollably near the heliport. Twenty passengers and three (03) crew members died in the accident. The crash led the PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) authorities to close the service. Briefly speaking, airline operators of the country have largely been spared major accidents inside Bangladesh. However, minor flight-related hazards continue to occur.

In the 48 years of independence, it has been the disastrous accidents involving road and water transports which have invited much infamy for Bangladesh. The annual tally of accidents on these two modes of transport shows no signs of abatement. Long considered safer, cheaper and more comfortable than the road-water-air transports, the railway travels have lately started becoming fraught with risks. The passengers continue to get frustrated with the train services. Apart from being plagued with myriads of drawbacks, the rail sector is fast getting mired in a dysfunctional state. Ironically, the rail travels across vast rural areas make many still nostalgic. The sector requires a complete overhaul. More importantly, a man-machine synergy ought to be in focus.


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