A train service going off the rails

opinion July 10, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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Sunday's brutal rape and murder of a child has shocked the country and left many reluctant to travel by rail

News of the brutal rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl on an overnight train from Surat Thani to Bangkok on Sunday night sent shock waves across the country. Shock at the vicious nature of the crime  – the victim’s body was thrown from the train after the girl was raped and killed – was compounded by the identity of the perpetrator. He was a State Railway of Thailand (SRT) employee – someone tasked with ensuring the care and safety of passengers.

SRT bed-attendant Wanchai Saengkhao, 22, was arrested after confessing to the crime on Monday night. The victim’s body was found by the tracks in Prachuap Khiri Khan’s Pran Buri district before dawn on Tuesday. An initial police autopsy showed that she died from suffocation.

Following his arrest, the suspect reportedly confessed to having drunk beer with his colleagues and taken drugs before committing the crime. Investigators say he also confessed to raping two fellow SRT employees during separate train rides, though the victims never alerted police. Wanchai was arrested on drug charges five years ago and reports suggest he has a history of drug abuse and involvement in the drug trade.

This case has underlined two major concerns about travelling by train – passenger safety and drug- and alcohol-fuelled crime.

The long-held assumption that trains are the safest mode of transport for long journeys is disappearing fast. It had already been eroded by a high-profile case in 2001 in which an SRT employee was found guilty of raping a woman passenger on an overnight train and sentenced to nine years in jail. 

The latest assault has led to widespread debate online and in print, with some claiming to have witnessed or been the victim of improper sexual advances by drunken SRT employees during train rides. Many have called for mandatory death sentences for those guilty of rape and murder, adding that convicted sex offenders should not be pardoned or have their jail terms commuted even if they had confessed.

A senior SRT official has said employees are tested every three months for drugs and before every excursion for alcohol. But to deter alcohol and drug abuse among staff, these tests need to be more frequent and the sale of alcohol banned on board. Meanwhile any SRT worker found drinking on duty should face harsh penalties.

The SRT is one of the country’s oldest state enterprises, but also among its biggest loss-makers. Improvements are badly needed in many areas – the cleanliness and hygiene of carriages, condition of the trains and general service. But passenger safety has now become the top priority. Although cases like Sunday’s attack are rare, the SRT and its management must conduct a thorough and broad-ranging review and act to prevent such a crime from recurring. They need to increase security measures for passengers. Simple background checks would weed out employees with criminal records.

SRT Governor Prapat Chongsanguan should take responsibility for conditions that allowed such a brutal crime on his watch. Perhaps it’s time he heeded growing calls for him to step down. Child-rights activist Wallop Tangkhananurak says the SRT cannot escape blame, adding that, in other countries, senior officials would have handed in their resignations.

The Railway Police Division, which has direct responsibility for providing security aboard trains, must also share the blame. Not a single police officer was assigned to the train on which the girl was attacked on Sunday. At the very least, there should be a police presence on every overnight train.