“Just heard about the train accident. Let us know that you’re okay.”
That was the message that popped up on my phone as I checked Facebook while standing on the train platform in Jaisalmer. To be honest, I hadn’t heard about the incident that my New Jersey friend was referring to, but a quick Google search brought up the AP report: “At least 96 people were killed Sunday when 14 coaches of an overnight passenger train rolled off the track in northern India.”
That got me thinking! And calculating.
I’m well aware of the safety record of trains in developing countries, and India may be one of the worst due to the extent of its vast rail network, but are Indian trains any riskier than the alternative forms of travel? Turboprop planes operated by low-budget carriers don’t exactly have a sterling record in any country. Regional jets are probably safer but how much do the discount airlines spend on maintenance when some flights within India sell for as little as $29?
And India’s roads? Let’s just say that drivers throughout Asia have been known to pass three or four slow moving vehicles at a time while negotiating blind curves around wet, boulder strewn mountain roads while talking on their cell phones and drinking hot chai from tiny paper cups. And those are the SAFE drivers in private cars with wives and kids in the back seat. You should see the stunts that most of India’s regional bus drivers pull! There’s a reason they’re called “chicken buses” and it’s not because you’re bound to be seated beside an old lady lugging a sack full of live poultry. But I digress.
Perhaps it’s my background in the horse racing industry, but I find myself calculating odds all the time. I can’t help it. Starting in the early 80s when I worked the gypsy circuits of the Canadian Prairies, part of my job was to calculate the ‘morning line’ or opening odds at tracks where I was the program director and statistician. I put some effort into creating balanced and reasonably accurate morning line odds, which is something that few racetracks cared about then and even fewer do today. All those years of setting odds and then comparing them to the real odds set by real bettors with real money taught me a thing or two about probability.
When I left the racing game in 2014, I was employed as a television commentator at Canada’s premier racetracks, Woodbine and Mohawk in the Toronto area. Every night I would sit under hot studio lights in front of a locked-off camera and I’d blather on and on about why one horse was overbet at 2-1 and why another was a steal at 10-1 or vice-versa. I did that for so long that I now find myself calculating odds on just about everything!
With press reports stating that between 23 and 40 million people ride India’s vast rail network EVERY DAY, there’s bound to be a few incidents. But so dangerous that I should cancel my plans? Pffffttttt. Don’t think so. It didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that I was safer on the Jodhpur Express than any of the alternatives short of hitching a ride on a Sherman tank.
Trains tend to stay on the tracks and accidents generally only happen when human error or a malfunctioning switch is involved. Compare the odds of that happening with the chance of something going wrong on a road where lanes are seldom marked, guard rails are non-existent, traffic cops are harder to find than a medium-rare sirloin in Delhi, and any given lane will contain a mix of pedestrians, wandering cows, old men and young boys driving horse, camel and donkey carts, scooters, motorcycles, rickshaws, auto rickshaws, tractors, cars, small trucks, buses and large transport trucks and, well, I’ll take the rail system any day. So with that I boarded the Jodhpur Express.
Five hours and forty-two minutes later we arrived in Jodhpur. We were two minutes behind schedule. I had arrived safe, sound and lead-free after staring at this for the better part of six hours:
According to my calculations, I beat the odds once again.