I will never forget the morning of the 22nd of March, 2006. It was the day that the Butterworth to Bangkok express hit a ten-ton grain truck on a level crossing. Being asleep, back in coach number 13, all I suffered was a rude awakening. Others were not so lucky.
Having quickly dressed, I went to see what we had hit. As I surveyed – and photographed – the tangled wreckage, it became readily apparent what had happened. The truck had come across the single rail-track from the left, dodging around the half-barriers, when its front had been hit square-on by the locomotive.
The loco was on its side in a paddy-field, its undercarriage ripped away as it had ploughed over the truck’s cabin. The emergency services were already removing the luckless train-driver from what remained of his cab. There was no hurry.
What little remained of the truck’s cabin was receiving the same treatment – while the dead and dying were being freed from coach number 1. It was obvious that my continued presence would not help matters, so I removed myself from the scene.
News reports regarding the cause of the disaster merely echoed my own first impression; it had been the truck-driver’s fault.
But examining my photos later, it realised I might have been a bit hasty. I had noticed something which, at the scene, had only grazed my subconscious and which, had I not spent five years with [a large electronics corporation] as a Road Traffic Systems Engineer, I would probably have missed entirely.
The half-barriers were down and UNDAMAGED, but their control-box had been CRUMPLED by the back end of the truck, as it had been swept past, by the loco. This was clearly indicated by the marks in the grass, both on the photos and in my vivid memory of the scene.
But that did not square with the early news stories I had read, in which a rail official claimed the truck had RAMMED THROUGH the barrier. Since the truck had clearly come from the train’s LEFT (the position and condition of the wreckage proved that) and the left barrier was INTACT (as my PHOTOS showed) I KNEW that was an outright LIE – but this did not stop the Police and other media repeating it.
Later stories declared the truck-driver had been stoned, drunk – or just incredibly stupid – and had driven AROUND the half-barriers.
But that made no sense either. The crash had occurred at 07:45 on a bright, clear morning – NOBODY is incapable at that time. And whilst manoeuvring a vintage, fully-laden ten-tonner AROUND two half-barriers – at SPEED according to one report – across a single rail-track might not be impossible, it would NOT have been easy (I once drove trucks as well).
Furthermore, would a man responsible for his own life, that of his young passenger (the reports stated the occupants had been the truck’s owner and a younger man) his truck (his livelihood) never mind its load (representing perhaps six months’ work for a family – possibly his own) NOT have simply taken the trouble to turn his head a few degrees, thus enabling him to look down a clear, STRAIGHT track, where he would have observed several hundred tons of TRAIN heading straight for him??
It just did not add up – but another scenario DID. I BELIEVE THAT WHEN THAT TRUCK-DRIVER APPROACHED THE CROSSING – THE BARRIERS WERE UP.
And he did what we ALL do when given the official all-clear – he trusted to luck and carried on. But on that fatal March morning, his luck ran OUT – along with that of six other people.
Then as the rear of his truck was slammed into the barriers’ control-box – destroying it – the power to the barriers now being CUT, they SAFETY-DEFAULTED. Simply dropped down, under their own weight.
For the fault to have happened, would only have taken a minor glitch in the sensors, their wiring, or the control-box itself. The site was rural. The fault could have existed for some time without even being reported.
But I was alive and the dead were dead. So why was I troubled? Because I had this recurring vision of a widow weeping for her dead husband. Perhaps also for her eldest son (the other passenger?) For the stigma she and her remaining children would bear for LIFE; that her husband/their father had been a stoned, drunk or reckless fool who had caused his own and several other deaths, plus varied injuries to some fifty others.
AND for the fact that she and her children now had no income (Thailand has no welfare system). The State Railway of Thailand would have been unlikely to entertain a compensation claim from her – their position was her husband broke their train.
But WAS it his fault? If the crash had happened in The West, within months the autopsy results would have been submitted, along with the lab’s report on the remains of the barriers’ control-box (even a smashed circuit can reveal faults that occurred before its destruction) wiring and sensors. Blame would have been apportioned and recommendations made.
However, this happened in Thailand. Public enquiries are VERY expensive. And this one might JUST have shown that the fault had lain with the barrier-system which, according to an SRT official I spoke with, were maintained by the SRT THEMSELVES.
Which would have been EMBARRASSING.
But so far as I was able to establish, NO inquiry took place. The SRT simply cleared up the mess, repaired the line and went back to business as usual.
Now, while it is POSSIBLE the truck-driver was single (the passenger being his “longtime companion”) and pissed as a fart at seven forty-five in the morning, yet still able to negotiate a large, ageing truck around a half-barrier (at speed?) without even scratching it, I maintain that MY scenario HAS to be more LIKELY – just on PERCENTAGES.
Thus being doubtless the ONLY retired Road Traffic Systems Engineer on that train, I realised it fell to ME to DO something about this probable grave injustice. But as a Stranger living In A Strange Land – subtlety was needed. I LIVE here. And to those who issue visas, a concerned citizen is one step short of an activist – and an activist is one step short of a TERRORIST.
So I wrote a piece for a certain Bangkok-based English-language newspaper (the ABOVE piece, more or less) and tried to get them to publish it. And also, get their investigative journalists to follow it up. But nothing happened.
At first, they claimed to have LOST the piece. But when I pointed out I had sent it by registered post – and they had SIGNED for it – they eventually caved and printed it. Including the bit at the end which read, “…I call upon the [name of the newspaper], an organ I trust, to take it on and pursue the truth.”
Unfortunately, it transpired they TOO were Strangers In A Strange Land and had not stayed in business throughout Thailand’s many political ups and downs by making themselves BUSY. All of their foreign news came off the wires, whilst local news reports were merely regurgitated press handouts. They did not HAVE investigative journalists.
So unless someone important saw my piece and ACTED on it – I doubt anything was ever done. But at least I can look at myself in the shaving mirror and say I TRIED.
Meanwhile, the next time YOU approach a level crossing – or indeed, just a regular road traffic-light – remember, they DO NOT ALWAYS WORK. As a now-retired road traffic systems engineer, I can tell you during five years in the job – in ENGLAND – I encountered THREE sets of lights that had “conflicting greens” (a green both ways).
In fact, my company once asked me to appear as an “expert witness” in a trial involving a fatal RTA (Road Traffic Accident) and state that a green conflict was impossible. I refused. When they asked why, I listed the ones I’d SEEN.
So I am sorry if you are a motorist and I have just ruined your illusions. Of course, you CAN LEGALLY slow down to walking-speed every time you approach a green light, enabling you to establish that the traffic coming the other way HAS actually stopped – if you do not mind the constant honking of angry motorists and the occasional DOZY one rear-ending you.
But realistically, all you can ACTUALLY do is what the driver of that grain-truck probably did, on that fateful day – having been given the official all-clear – plough on and hope for the best. After all, traffic-lights USUALLY work…Footnote: My photographic record of the disaster (including the ones showing the flattened control box and the INTACT barrier) can be seen at – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uGYzkksGGuE