LESSONS TO LEARN FROM THE PAYAGALA TRAIN TRAGEDY
Posted on April 14th, 2015

Dr. Tilak S. Fernando

During the Easter Weekend, a Sunday Newspaper highlighted the tragic death of an eighteen-year-old British girl who succumbed to death by falling off the moving Matara-Kandy express train at Payagala station. She was later identified as the daughter of the former European Union Ambassador, Bernard Savage, in Sri Lanka from 2009 to 2013.

Foul play has been ruled out due to eyewitness confirmations from other passengers who travelled in the same train. It is revealed that she had been photographing the scenic beauty of Sri Lanka while seated on the footboard of the train as the train moved at high speed.

Matara- Kandy Express traian-

However, when the train passed through Payagala north station, her leg (or the bended knee) had struck against the narrow platform, which made her lose her balance, and got thrown out of the train due to the excessive impact. According to reports she had been entrapped between the train and the platform, without being noticed by the guard or engine driver of the train, until the train continued its run up to Kalutara, its next stop!

Naturally it was one of the most horrific accidents on record, yet who can be blamed for it….?  It appears that the teenager had not heeded the advice of the Railway staff, ‘not to travel on the footboard’, but adamantly had decided to sit on the steps in order to capture the picturesque sights of southern Sri Lanka while travelling by train.

Flippancy

OIC of The Protection Force of the Ceylon Government Railway based in Aluthgama has been quoted as constantly giving ‘warnings to passengers not to travel on the foot board’, but many train passengers are seen today, especially during peak hour travel, hanging on to the footboards of trains like owls!

The danger that poses while travelling by train in such a cheeky manner by ignoring Railway Officials’ cautioning, by either standing on the footboard or seated (as the case may be in question), only makes commuters to take their lives into their own hands, as the modern railway station platforms are elevated to give an easy access to passengers while embarking and disembarking from the train. Apart from the risk involvement with elevated platforms other dangerous area could be while trains travel at speed through narrow tunnels or when two trains cross each other at tapered corners of the railway line.

The complications associated with such tragic accidents are many fold. In the case of such an accident followed by a heart-breaking death of the above-mentioned nature, the possibilities are highly restricted to identify the dismembered body after such an accident even to the next of kin or any one known to the victim. But in the case of a tourist, for example, especially one who had travelled alone, this kind of a situation poses enormous problems for the Sri Lankan authorities, police in particular, and the relevant Embassy or the High Commission authorities of the victim’s country because the very first criterion becomes to identify the body.

What Procedure 

The procedure that needs to follow after such an appalling death could be very complex. In the first instance the Police will have to go into thorough investigations in finding out who the next of kin or a relative of the dead person is.  Then it becomes more convoluted when it comes to identify the body, depending on the degree of mutilation after getting crushed to iron wheels and concrete platforms like in this case, which apparently had become a strenuous task.  No post-mortem examination could be carried out prior to identifying the body, according to prevalent laws of the country.

Then it becomes more complicated when there is no one, either the next of kin or a relative of the deceased in this country. Apparently this particular incidence had been a real setback to the local police or to the relevant officials of the British High Commission as there was no one else who could either identify the body of the British teenager, as her family apparently lives abroad.

The normal procedure in such circumstances is to identify the body first, which gives access to the post-mortem examination that releases the Death Certificate, which to the agony of any foreign party, the death certificate is issued in Sinhala, with the intervention of a Grama Niladhari official. The death certificate in turn has to be translated into another language (in this instance English) and has to be officially certified. All such complex issues would be too extreme to handle for any foreign party even if they could converse in Sinhala.

Generally various foreign Missions based in London have appointed their own wardens on district levels to look after the welfare of their expatriate community living in Sri Lanka. Even so, such representation could   become too demanding if the warden happens to be foreign. For this purpose British High Commission has always appointed a mixture of local wardens, majority of them are Sri Lankans with dual nationality to have an effective service to the British expatriates living or touring this country.

The reported tragic death of the British teenager would have certainly appeared as a ‘ test case’ where the dead person did not have any family or  next of kin in this country and certainly would have had to sweat out a lot by the Sri Lankan authorities as well as the British High Commission authorities to sort this problem out and to decide whether the funeral to be held in Sri Lanka or the body to be expatriated to the UK.

If it was a case of repatriation of the body to a foreign land (UK in this instance), an insurance company would have had to come into the scene, and for them to execute it effectively all the above mentioned formalities should have been observed with the help of the Grama Niladhari, Local Police, Coroner’s report, Death Certificate (translated into English etc.), the bulk of such responsibilities certainly falling upon the shoulders of the British High Commission officials in Colombo and the local Warden in the area.

In the above mentioned British girl’s case it appeared that authorities were thrown into the deep end, as the Police in the first instance could not do anything without identifying the body. The fact that the dead person had no one in Sri Lanka made things worse which placed the British High Commission officials too into a somewhat problematic situation.

In case of a death, Gramaseva Niladhari Officer and Police will have to liaise in identifying the body, arrange post mortems and release the death certificate (in Sinhala) etc., In the absence of any next of kin or relative of the deceased in this country, such operations will completely be alien to a foreigner!

The above-mentioned tragedy is a clear-cut example where all parties concerned could learn a lesson from when Sri Lanka is expecting many tourists to visit the island. Sri Lankan authorities as well as the foreign missions are well advised to open their eyes wide and formulate simple and uncomplicated methods and procedures to deal with any such situations or accidents in the future, as human life is akin to a ‘dew drop’ on a blade of grass, and it can burst at any moment.

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2 Responses to “LESSONS TO LEARN FROM THE PAYAGALA TRAIN TRAGEDY”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    SL procedures should be to serve SLs. FEW foreigners who get inconvenienced is OK. UK does not change its procedure to suit SL people visiting there.

    We should NOT change anything local to suit foreigners.

    Google Bernard Savage Sri Lanka and you will find very interesting things about him and his involvement in SL.

    My 2 cents worth.

  2. Fran Diaz Says:

    There ought to be a sign in all Railway Stations that footboard travellers on the train will be FINED & PROSECUTED. That is the only way to stop tragedies like this.

    I have seen trains in India with passengers hanging onto any space they can possibly find. Nothing is done to stop them. This is not the way Lanka should do things.

    Perhaps a large glass window carriage area at the back of the train can provide a safe photography area ?

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