Runaway Train


I decided to add this prologue after the first few comments to this post. This post uses an incident in India, but is actually universal in nature and focuses on the moral, philosophical, and ethical decision-making involved in an emergency.

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Imagine you’re traveling from Mumbai to Pune by train, which is full to capacity, as usual in India. An additional engine is added to the train to climb the ascent of the Western Ghats from Karjat at sea-level to Lonavala at a height of 2000 ft. above sea level. Your train trudges laboriously upwards and reaches Lonavala after 1.5 – 2 hours. You enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Sahyadri ghats. It stops at Lonavala for a while and everyone gets back on board, ready to proceed.

Suddenly the train starts inching backwards. There are smiles, giggles, and wisecracks about what antics the drivers are up to. Some wonder if they’re simply changing tracks or if some engine replacement or something had to be done. The ‘inching’ turns into ‘crawling’, and soon enough, ominously, the train is now really ‘moving’ backwards. There is puzzlement all around and you are amused as to what’s happening.

There is no let up however, as the train starts getting momentum, accelerates further, and starts gaining speed. Amusement disappears as you and everyone else realize that something is seriously wrong. The train gains further acceleration and you’re already cruising at a reasonable speed. Everyone is peering out the compartment doors and windows only to find people from other compartments doing the same. “Has the driver lost his mind?” you wonder, as people start voicing obscenities at the train staff.

“But, was the staff (driver and guard at opposite ends), on the train when it started off at Lonavala?” someone asks and nobody really knows. The worst possibility comes to your mind – you’re on a runaway train, downhill, with no one at the controls.

By this time, the train is so fast that it would be dangerous to jump off. Panic and confusion all around you. You calm yourself and start thinking rapidly. You visualize the laborious twists and turns of the track as it winds down the mountains. You imagine a full-speed, no holds barred, runaway train hurtling across those tracks and overturning into the picturesque Sahyadri valleys. Is this how you were destined to die?

Point A: Question 1

At this point, if you jumped off, you assess your chances. Let’s say there’s a 70-80% probability that you’ll get seriously hurt, and a 20-30% possibility that you might die in the process. Will you jump off?

Point A: Question 2

Assume you don’t, and cling on to hope, that there will be some miraculous intervention and that you will be saved. After all, when one lives in a civilized and moderately developed society, it is a rational expectation that there will be systems and processes in place to deal with such emergencies.

Some people are seriously doubtful however. They’re contemplating jumping off. Will you discourage and/or prevent people from doing so?

Meanwhile, the train has reached a breakneck speed. The sparks from the wheels are now of alarming proportions and reaching the windows. People from another compartment come rushing into yours as their compartment catches fire. The ghat section, where the real twists and turns begin, is just around the corner. People are screaming, women are crying in hysteria.

Point B: Question 1

At this point, there’s an almost 100% probability of serious injury, including permanent handicap, and a 70% probability of death. Will you jump?

Point B: Question 2

Assume you don’t, and still have hope that you will be saved. However, there are people who are getting ready to jump. Will you discourage/prevent them, just because you have hope even if they haven’t?


The above situation is not hypothetical. This is what happened to the Indrayani Express in the 1990s, when my cousin brother was on the train. During a normal return journey from Pune to Mumbai (downhill), the train used to descend the height of the ghat section in approximately an hour. That day, it ran the same track downhill in 11 minutes. The train did not overturn. Few people who jumped off were seriously injured. There were no major casualties. My brother urged dozens of people not to jump and ended up saving them in the process.

(Photo Credits: the Indian Railways Fan Club)
(Title of Post: Runaway Train by Soul Asylum)


19 thoughts on “Runaway Train

  1. Very interesting posit…
    I would jump if the grass looks soft and clean… and not if there were a river….
    mostly I would be in a fetal position, near tha fattest guy/gal in the train!

  2. I wouldn’t jump. Technically the tracks have an angle of banking that supports maximum speed of the train, so toppling ‘ideally’ wouldn’t be possible and I’d stick to this.

    Secondly I wouldn’t try to alarm others either, thats because my idealist theory (in which I believe) is quite shaky in reality (maybe the design was faulty, maybe they don’t maintain the tracks or carriages etc.)

    That makes me curious. What exactly did your brave cousin say to stop others? Emotional appeal, or technical reasoning?

  3. I’m just curious about the brake chains that are in each compartment of a bogey. Do they only work when the engines are running? Or did no one think of pulling them?

  4. Phew!

    Depends whether I am alone or not. If I am alone, I would jump. If I survive, the others may decide for their own.

    If I am not alone i.e., with my family. I would rather stay behind.

    Voracious Blog Reader

  5. Prax: I’m not so sure about the ‘sensible’ part, regardless of what was the outcome in that particular incident. And no…almost everyone I know has been featured on the WordPress homepage, but as far as I know, not me.

    Rambodoc: Apart from the humor, I would like to have your views about the ethics/moral issues involved especially from the viewpoint of a person engaged in medical practice. If there were emergency medical team members on board, how would they have responded to this situation? How would you like medical emergency personnel (say, who were traveling as ordinary passengers on board) to respond in such a situation?

    While I appreciate your humor, I wouldn’t want you to miss the gravitas of my post. Because I value your opinion highly.

  6. Priyank: //I wouldn’t jump. Technically the tracks have an angle of banking that supports maximum speed of the train, so toppling ‘ideally’ wouldn’t be possible and I’d stick to this.//
    I’m not sure how you’re sure about the angle of banking supporting a runaway train. Any more info would be helpful. I checked out whatever resources I could, but couldn’t find any. If the ‘maximum’ speed of the train you’re referring to actually refers to normal conditions, that is inapplicable in this situation.

    //Secondly I wouldn’t try to alarm others either, thats because my idealist theory (in which I believe) is quite shaky in reality (maybe the design was faulty, maybe they don’t maintain the tracks or carriages etc.)//
    I think you meant “I wouldn’t try to calm others either”. And that’s exactly what my question is about.

    //That makes me curious. What exactly did your brave cousin say to stop others? Emotional appeal, or technical reasoning?//
    Think mob control. How does one control a suicidal mob? We have suicidal bombers, who’re brainwashed. Think about controlling a suicidal mob out to harm themselves in the interest of self-preservation. Do you think technical reasoning works in such situations? Forget technical, do you think rational reasoning will work?

  7. Priyank: By the way, thanks for being the first one to answer my questions in the post!

    Amit: For some reason, the emergency brakes failed. Everyone tried pulling all the chains, including chants of “1, 2, 3, go”, but it didn’t work.

    Voracious Blog Reader: //Depends whether I am alone or not. If I am alone, I would jump. If I survive, the others may decide for their own. If I am not alone i.e., with my family. I would rather stay behind.//

    VBR: You raise another significant complicating factor out here regarding family!

    If you were alone, at which point would you jump?

    If you’re with your family, why would you prefer to hold on?

  8. I have added a Prologue to this post after all these comments, because I think that I didn’t get through with the initial post.

    The “Question No. 1″s are of a personal, individual nature. The “Question No. 2″s are wider in scope.

    The essence of Questions #2 is this: do we have a right to impose our value-judgements of a certain situation on others? I mean, it is fine if you think you’ll ultimately be saved from this disaster, but when all facts point otherwise, do you have a right to dissuade others from choosing their own decisions regarding what risk they would like to take?

    No one has responded to Question 2 (with the exception of Prax, indirectly). Contrast this with Question 1.

    Come on, you intelligent folks – let’s get your responses and discuss! 🙂

  9. VRB: I was distracted by your point of family so much, that I completely disregarded the important part of your response – I apologize.

    You said if you were alone you would jump. We have our first response, who says he would have jumped. Thanks! VBR: At which point? A or B?

    If you ask me, (somehow no one has), I would’ve indeed liked to jump off as early as possible.

  10. Point A Question 1: I would jump off. Primarily because I do not have precise physical knowledge about the traction levels of train wheels and tracks. So I couldnt be sure about the train not derailing at some point. The only bit of knowledge I have would be the instances where trains have derailed. So I will choose a fairly grassy area and jump off

    Point A Question 2: Very hard question. But I think I would urge those who look physically fit to jump off.

    Point B Question 1: I would not jump off. While my knowledge of railway tracks and train wheels is still incomplete, I at least know for sure that jumping will probably kill me. So I would rather take a chance with an unknown probability.

    Point B Question 2: Again, my knowledge about the dangers of jumping off are clearer at this point. So I will advise people (perhaps not force) not to jump off and take their chances. That might be the logical thing to do.

    Your question on the correctness of imposing our jump/no jump opinion on others is very intriguing. I would say that it is correct to let people know the facts of what you do know and importantly what you dont know. So I would tell them that I think its a safer bet not to jump at Point A because of so-and-so facts but I would try and ask for a quick consensus/gut feeling of group. Sometimes collective intelligence works under the right conditions. I think its important not to impose value judgements in such situations, but instead bring your cards to the table and try to maximize collective intelligence. I do realize that its hard to do in a crisis/high tension situation, but I cant think of anything better.

    Or ofcourse, I could ask Scotty to beam me and the rest of the guys up to the Starship Enterprise.

  11. Ashok: Thanks for your excellent comment!

    You (once again) echoed my thoughts. I would’ve jumped off at Point A, and if for some reason I missed that opportunity, I would’ve held on till the end.

    //Your question on the correctness of imposing our jump/no jump opinion on others is very intriguing.//
    Thanks. That was one of the main points of this post. I think you’ve expressed my thoughts better than I would’ve, except for the collective intelligence part.

    I would’ve brought my cards to the table and urged others to do the same, but in life-threatening conditions, each one should think individually.

    However, in emergencies people also tend to abandon individual judgement and adopt a herd mentality. That’s the insidious nature of ‘panic’ – where you abandon your judgement and simply do what everyone else is doing.

  12. True,
    although I think collective intelligence is very frequently confused with herd mentality. Collective intelligence is infact the result of the application of purely individual intellect under certain conditions where the side effect tends to be collective intelligence. Ill give you an example. A few years back, a group of guys searched and located a missing ship off the coast of california. They initially assembled a group of lost ship location experts and gave them the assignment, and they failed. Then the group leader tried something different. He assembled a larger group of individuals, each one with a completely different skill – some in oceanography, some in weather, some ship mechanics, some even radar and radio experts. And he used Bayesian methods to aggregate the guesses/findings of everybody in the group and they managed to locate the ship. Now ofcourse, this might not quite work this way on a runaway train, but the basic idea is still to act independently, but pool in everybody’s intelligence, and then make a personal decision. You can read the ship case study in James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds

  13. Ashok: yes, what you describe is indeed different than the herd mentality I was referring to. I think the latter is more probable than the former in public crisis situations.

    Your example is interesting; never heard of it before. It is quite like how we manage software development and troubleshooting! 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  14. Ashok: When you talk of “each one with a completely different skill”, you’re referring to a situation where different people bring different domain knowledge, i.e. specialized knowledge to the situation.

    I very much agree that it can be very valuable in such circumstances: for example, someone like Priyank may offer knowledge about the banking of the rails, someone may offer knowledge of the Indian rail system’s emergency response systems, and so on. I would prefer calling it ‘collective knowledge’, rather than ‘collective intelligence’, for obvious reasons.

    When you apply the adjective ‘collective’ to the terms ‘intelligence’ and ‘knowledge’ it has vastly different meanings, as might be clear from my pursuant post. Do you agree?

  15. Yes. Collective knowledge and intelligence are very different things. I think my wikipedia example might have muddled things a bit. The collective putting together of facts is collective intelligence. But the system of preventing vandalism, the neutral PoV etc represent collective intelligence.
    Perhaps the difference is in the result – the share market or any sort of prediction market is a collective intelligence system – the output tends to be some sort of decision/choice etc, as opposed to a simple aggregation like an encyclopaedia. so in the case of crowdchess, while there is a collective choice, the fact that it is a simple majority vote kills the collective intelligence. Each person here does not bring in enough diversity in terms of knowledge (afterall, its just chess rules, right 😉 )

  16. For instance, in the e.g i gave earlier, searching for ship, the coordinator used bayesian equations to figure out a new set of coordinates to search based on multiple, diverse people’s inputs. A share market again, is not a simple statistical average kind of system. The price of a share represents the colletive intelligence of all the investors, as an indication of its true value. Ofcourse, a share market can be rigged in such a way the collective intelligence can be lost, as it happened during our stock scam of the 90s.

  17. Ashok: 🙂 I too was thinking about equity markets after reading your earlier comments!

    //The collective putting together of facts is collective intelligence.//
    I think you meant collective knowledge, I understand.

    And agree that in the Wiki example, the system works because of collective intelligence.

    You are so right that the equity markets are not a simple statistical average kind of a system. Absolutely.

    When I referred to your collective intelligence comment in my Friday Flea Market post, I wasn’t equating it rather juxtaposing it. Hasn’t this discussion enlightened us all by clarifying it further? 🙂

    Thanks for your comments, always appreciated.

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