40% of rail mishaps are at Level Crossings; Time to get rid of all LCs by Railways

Level Crossing imageGuntakal (GTL): With all the technological and innovative prowess India has, yet another tragic railway accident and the death of rail passengers erodes the faith of people in the country’s largest transport system, the Indian Railways. What is surprising is that the Rail Bhavan bureaucracy has not been jolted out of their slumber despite spate of Railway accidents which have taken innocent lives in quick succession.

The Monday accident that killed at least six people including a Congress MLA from Karnataka and injured around 25 has put the focus back on urgent interventions required to get rid of all (manned and unmanned) level crossings from railways tracks.

The incident occurred when a lorry rammed into Bangalore-Nanded Express train at a level crossing leading to derailment of four coaches in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district. Though railways blamed negligence of lorry driver, who broke the level crossing gate & then crashed into the train, for the incident, the transporter cannot shun its responsibility.

Mishaps at level crossings are the biggest killer, accounting for 40% of train accidents and 66% of fatalities, reflecting the cash-strapped railways’ failure to eliminate these crossings by building road-over bridges and road-under-bridges.

The latest data shows that there are 29,487 level crossings, of which around 35% (10,440) are unmanned.

Ironically, the national transporter in last eight years (2008-2015) could eliminate only 1,344 manned crossings and 7,650 unmanned crossings. In 2015-16, railways targets to eliminate 820 unmanned level crossings and 205 manned crossings.

Around 18 accidents on unmanned crossing and three on manned were reported since April 2015 till date. In the last five years, on an average, railways managed to eliminate around 1,000 level crossings and at this pace it will take around 30 years to get rid of such crossings.

The transport behemoth has set a target to eliminate 9,808 level crossings during the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17) and not adding any new level crossing to the rail network in future. But the task seems ambitious considering the past performance and financial health of the railways as removing one level crossing costs around Rs 4.4 crore.

The high-level committee on safety, headed by Anil Kakodkar, has recommended elimination of all level crossings (manned and unmanned) within five years by setting up a special purpose vehicle (SPV). The panel pegged the cost at Rs 50,000 crore, but said this could be recovered over 7-8 years due to saving in operations and maintenance costs incurred at gates and by having smoother train operations.

Railways minister Suresh Prabhu has termed the elimination of LCs and ‘the construction of ROBs and RUBs as the highest priority.’ He also said that as a short term precaution, the RDSO has been asked to develop a suitable device in consultation with Indian Space Research Organization which would use geo-spatial technology for providing audio-visual warning to road users at unmanned level crossings.

While the country has an well meaning Railway Minister in Suresh Prabhu but he needs to ensure that before we can plan bullet trains and taking railway to a jet age railway safety needs to be given top most priority. I would advocate that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should focus his next round of review on railway safety and the government should invite innovators in the country to suggest ways to improve safety on the tracks as every railway accident not only leads to sad loss of innocent lives, it also shakes the faith of the common people in the government as millions are transported by the railways. Besides it also reinforces India’s poor safety record globally.