Dangerous rail crossings

Dangerous rail crossings

Dangerous rail crossings

Two hundred railway level-crossings remain unmanned in the South Western Railway’s Bangalore division, dangerously exposed to accidents. But the poorly designed, traffic-choked manned crossings within the City are no better in safety.

Sanjay Sinha was in a tearing hurry. His son’s school bell was to ring in 10 minutes. Riding his bike in reckless abandon, his five-year-old son precariously perched on the backseat, Sinha approached the level-crossing at great speed. Chugging in at 100 kmph, the Lalbagh Express had just turned the corner. The signals read green, the locopilot knew he had no reason to slow down!

What transpired in the next few minutes depended entirely on Sanjay and the gatemen at the crossing. Survival was a matter of discretion and discipline, factors severely in short supply at the 484 railway gates under the South Western Railway Bangalore division. But the commuters alone couldn’t be blamed, when a whopping 200 gates remain unmanned, dangerously vulnerable to a fatal collision. 

Praveen Pandey, Senior Divisional Safety Officer, South Western Railway, is convinced there will be no unmanned Level Crossing (LC) anywhere in the country by 2016. “The LCs will be either removed entirely if unnecessary, or replaced with an underbridge or an overbridge. Besides, the latest railway budget is clear that there will be no LCs at all in any of the new lines,” he explains. Yet, 2016 is another three years away.

And, even if Pandey’s assertion that there are no unmanned LCs at all within the city proper is reassuring enough, such crossings remain extremely risky on the outskirts. If compliance of traffic rules and safety norms at LCs is weak in the City, it is even less so on the largely unregulated exteriors. Pandey himself admits that LC accidents constitute about 60 per cent of all rail-linked mishaps. 

Ambush checks

For the traffic police, a rail-hit accident at an unmanned LC could be obviously nightmarish. But the short-staffed department often finds it tough even to man the roads effectively. No wonder, the Railways had to turn to the Regional Transport Officers (RTOs) to engage their transport inspectors for ambush checks. Launched in February this year, the inspectors’ mandate was to check motorists speeding at the unmanned LCs without halting to see approaching trains. A hefty penalty of
Rs 1,000 was fixed for violations.

But even manned LCs are not without accidents caused by the reckless drivers. As Pandey informs, “every month, about eight to ten cases of vehicles breaking the boom (gate bar at the LCs) are reported from across the City. It can get very dangerous.” If the boom breaks when a train is too close for comfort, it could trigger a disaster. The gateman would have to be quick and replace the broken boom with a chain and a STOP board, before getting the boom back.

Awaiting the train, impatient motorcyclists often bend down with their bikes under the boom to cross in a hurry. Gatemen say nothing could be riskier than such widespread practices.

Then there are those who hunt for alternate routes, trying to cross over, somewhere, somehow.  Two months ago, the crying need for safe and secure railway crossing points for both men and motor vehicles came to the fore once again with dramatic effect. Barely 100 metres from the Bapujinagar level crossing on the Mysore line, a woman and her young daughter were crushed to death under a speeding train. They had crossed one track but failed to spot the Express rambling in on the other track.

Ear-plugged track-walkers

If crossing the track away from the level-crossings is dangerous, the widespread practice of walking on the tracks is even more deadly. A railway official cites the section between the City and Cantonment Stations, where the track is a virtual walking path, especially for the youngsters. “This adventure can turn really fatal. Many of these pedestrians have their ears stuffed with headphones or are busy talking on the mobile phone.

They just can’t hear the approaching train, even if the sirens are in full blast,” says the official.Railway officials are at their wit’s end trying to find a way to end this menace. Awareness campaigns have only had limited results.

Unchecked encroachment of railway land, congested level-crossing points and inadequate railway underbridges and overbridges have complicated matters, triggering continuous inflow of people on train routes. Straying cattle have also taken a toll. Repeated efforts by railway gatemen to dissaude cattle-owners from letting them loose have failed. Barely a week back, four cows were crushed under an early morning train near the Kaggadasapura LC.

Delayed bridges

In the SWR Bangalore division, at least 12 over-bridges and an equal number of under-bridges are in the pipeline. But completion could realistically take years, since the Railways is responsible only for the section of the bridge over its land. The approach roads have to be built by the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) or the respective civic authority. A case in point is the Bapujinagar underbridge, which lies disused due to lack of approach roads. BBMP cites land acquisition problems for the delay, even as the nearby level crossing continues to bear the brunt of an ever-increasing traffic.
Remodelling the existing LCs could offer temporary relief, feels S N Siddaramappa, Superintendent of Police (Railways).

“The scene is always chaotic near many level crossings in the City as vehicles flood from both ends. We should construct centre medians to separate vehicles for smooth flow. Widening the gates is another option. The medians should begin from the gates. These two steps will end the chaos,” he explains. The SP has now decided to soon write a detailed letter to the Divisional Railway Managar, South Western Railway, listing these suggestions. He is convinced that these measures, if implemented, could also arrest the rising number of non-fatal accidents.