Level Crossings: A death trap for common man

Dec 4: Children on way to school scream to seek the attention of their driver to stop the vehicle, seeing an approaching train at an unmanned level crossing at an unmanned level crossing Uttar Pradesh’s Mau district. The driver does not hear the cries as he was listening to music on his earphone. In seconds, the speeding train smashed into their van killing six children and injuring over a dozen. Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu tweets: Avoidable tragedy.

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

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Manned or unmanned, railway level crossings numbering 30,348 are becoming a death trap for common man. The fatalities are nearing a century 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 it was 124 fatalities in 53 accidents in 2012-13. Another 204 died in 54 accidents in 2011-12. The numbers may appear less when one compares it with accidents and fatalities on roads. But the whole dimension changes when one comes to know that 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 has occupied the hot seat only a month ago. The Railways has already generated tones of literature on the accidents and it might have already briefed the Minister Railways’ ‘Right of Way’ at unmanned crossings and provisions of Motor Vehicles Act 1988 putting the onus on road users.

Of course, the onus is on the road users to ensure their safety. It is also true that many a times, Railways could not be blamed for the accidents at the level crossings. Carelessness and highhandedness, as seen in this month’s incidents, of drivers and travelers 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 Railways stay aloof from such accidents and not speed up suggested measures like eliminating the number of level crossings not done on priority? Unmanned level crossings have “persistently stayed as death traps” though due to the negligence of road users with accidents and fatalities remaining at “unacceptable high level”, 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 adds.

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.

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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, 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 now suggests 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 last six years, 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 decline. In 2012-13, it was 1,163 and 2013-14, it was 1,098.

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

But Railways alone is not to be blamed as it runs into bottlenecks when it comes to construction ROBs/RUBs or closure of level crossings or manning them. Problems of land acquisition holds and encroachment removal become a big issue when it comes to construction of ROBs while technical feasibility comes in way of building RUBs, say Railway officials. If it plans to close some level crossings, they say, public outrage and government disapproval comes in 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 to Parliament House in New Delhi, the bottomline should be a remark in page 35 of the Kakodkar committee report – “No civilized society can accept such massacre on their railway system.”

(An edited version appeared in Deccan Herald on Dec 14, 2014)

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