A death trap for common man

A death trap for common man
Children on their way to school scream to seek the attention of van driver to stop the vehicle, seeing an approaching train at an unmanned level crossing in Uttar Pradesh’s Mau district.

The driver does not hear the cries as he is listening to music on his earphone. In seconds, the speeding train smashes into their van, killing six children and the driver and injuring over a dozen. Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu tweets: Avoidable tragedy.

Dec 5: Two children are killed and three others injured when a speeding train smashes into a tractor at a manned level crossing in Uttar Pradesh’s Hardoi district. Driver allegedly threatened the gate man to open the gates. Gateman opens the gates. Railway Minister in a press release: Has given instructions to suspend gateman.

Manned or unmanned, railway level crossings presently numbering 30,348 are becoming a death trap for travellers. The fatalities are nearing the hundred mark in about 35 accidents since April this year. As per latest statistics, 90 people were killed and 69 injured in 33 accidents between April and November this year. In 2013-14, 95 were killed in 46 incidents while there were 124 fatalities in 53 accidents in 2012-13.

Another 204 died in 54 accidents in 2011-12. The numbers may appear less compared to accidents and fatalities on roads. But the level crossings contribute to 40 per cent of rail accidents and 30 per cent of fatalities.

It would be unfair to point fingers at Prabhu for doing nothing to arrest this trend at this stage, as he occupied the hot seat only a month ago. Railways has massive information on the accidents and it might have already briefed the minister, “Right of Way” at unmanned crossings and provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act 1988, putting the onus on road users.

Callous attitude
Of course, the onus is on the road users to ensure their safety. It is also true that many a time, the Railways cannot be blamed for accidents at the level crossings. Carelessness and highhandedness, as seen in this month’s incidents, of drivers and travellers contribute a lot to such incidents.

The Motor Vehicles Act 1988 makes it mandatory for road vehicle drivers “to get down from the vehicle, walk up to the crossing to ensure that no train is approaching from either side before crossing the unmanned level crossing”.

However, can the Railways stay aloof from such accidents and not speed up suggested measures like eliminating the number of level crossings? Unmanned level crossings have “persistently stayed as death traps” though, due to negligence of road users with accidents and fatalities remaining at an “unacceptable high level”, the Anil Kakodkar-led High Level Safety Review Committee said in 2012.

Reluctance of the Railways to own these casualties, which do not fall under the purview of train accidents but are nevertheless accidents on account of trains, can “by no means be ignored,” the committee added.

The panel, which also had “Metro Man” E Sreedharan as one of the members, recommended the elimination of all the manned (18,785 at present) and unmanned (11,563) level crossings in five years at a cost of Rs 50,000 crore. The measure, the panel felt, will save operation and maintenance costs incurred at gates.

Apart from saving lives, the Railways could save about Rs 7,000 crore per annum because of elimination of level crossings and “thus the entire investment will be recovered in about 7 to 8 years time,” it said. The level crossings also lead to trains losing punctuality due to non-closure of manned level crossing gates in time.

The Railways believe, according to a presentation made by Alok Kumar (Director, Safety) and Sanjiv Garg (Advisor, Safety) at a global conference in Illinois (US) in August this year, that manning unmanned level crossing is not an “ideal solution” and pitches for doing away with level crossings, as suggested by Kakodkar committee and Indian Rail Vision 2020.

Whether it is the Kakodkar report or the Vision document, all suggest construction of rail over bridges (ROBs) and rail under bridges (RUBs) at level crossings. “Railways decided to progressively eliminate all unmanned level crossings by closure, merger, provision of subway and manning, based on availability of funds and coordination from states,” Prabhu recently informed Parliament.

In the last six years, the Railways had eliminated 6,502 unmanned level crossings out of which 2,635 were by staffing and the rest by other means.  Between 2013-14 and 2016-17, another 9,808 unmanned level crossings are planned to be eliminated. But if one goes by the rate of progress, it seems the Railways will not be able to complete the job by 2017-18 and it may take another decade. While 1,258 unmanned crossings were eliminated in 2011-12, the next two fiscals saw a decline. In 2012-13, it was 1,163 and 2013-14, it was 1,098.

Fund crunch
As it goes ahead with construction of ROBs and RUBs, Prabhu admits that they “really have a fund constraint”. Around Rs 25,000 crore worth ROBs and RUBs have been sanctioned while projects worth Rs 14,000 crore are at various stages of sanctioning process. Presently, many unmanned crossings have been provided with speed breakers and road signboards but they are of not much use.

But the Railways alone is not to be blamed as it runs into bottlenecks when it comes to construction of ROBs/RUBs or the closure of level crossings or manning them.

Problem of land acquisition holds and encroachment removal becomes a big issue when it comes to construction of ROBs while technical feasibility comes in the way of building RUBs, say railway officials. If it plans to close some level crossings, they say, public outrage and government disapproval comes in the way. Manpower requirement is another problem when a decision is taken to staff certain crossings.

Whatever the constraints, for policy makers in Rail Bhavan, located opposite the Parliament House in New Delhi, the bottom line should be a remark in page 35 of the Kakodkar committee report – “No civilised society can accept such massacre on their railway system.”

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