Column: Here’s the rub

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Published: August 6, 2015 12:34:14 AM

Unless Railways’ decision-making is streamlined, closing of level-crossings will keep falling short of target

There are 30,348 level-crossings (18,785 manned and 11,563 unmanned). An estimated 43% of accidents and 67% of deaths are because of these (these are 2012-13 numbers). In case you don’t know, Indian Railways (IR) isn’t culpable for deaths at level-crossings. Section 131 of Motor Vehicles Act and Section 161 of Railways Act make this clear. Level-crossings should be dealt with in different ways. Unmanned ones can become manned, though that’s not the best solution. Ideally, level crossings should entirely go. The trouble with IR—and outside IR, too—is the jargon and the plethora of acronyms. Train vehicle unit (TVU) is one. This is simply the product of the average number of trains and vehicles that pass through a level-crossing during a 24-hour period. If TVU is low, level-crossings will be closed, merging them with others nearby. If TVU is high, level-crossings will be replaced by road under-bridges (RUBs), road over-bridges (ROBs) and subways. That’s the general idea. More specifically, if TVU exceeds 50,000, there will be a ROB and if TVU is less than 50,000, there will be a RUB. Over the last 5 years, every year, around 1,000 level-crossings have been eliminated. At this rate, it will be 30 years before we scrap ones that remain.

An otherwise knowledgeable friend remarked that this year (2015-16), there will be 970 ROB/RUBs and 3,438 level-crossings will be eliminated. He got that out of the Railway Budget speech. But he, like many others, misunderstood the process. When there is a ROB/RUB, how many level-crossings are eliminated? That’s impossible to answer, it isn’t a neat one-to-one correlation. A ROB on the Kalyan-Igatpuri Road may eliminate only one level-crossing. But a subway in Narwana-Kurukshetra can eliminate 20 level-crossings at once. ROBs/ RUBs/ subways are a mixed bag. Though future projections aren’t necessarily linear extrapolations of the past, it is unlikely that 3,438 level crossings will be eliminated this year. Par for the course is something like 1,000. With the Railway Budget papers, there is something called Pink Book (actually, 3 volumes). This is the counterpart of the Expenditure Budget documents in the Union Budget. But unlike the Expenditure Budget, this Pink Book rarely receives attention outside IR. It is sacred to IR and tells us how IR proposes to spend its money.

For 2015-16, the Pink Book lists 341 ROBs/ RUBs/ subways, categorised as road safety works. Those are the major ones. If you want entire list of 970, including minor ones that below a threshold of R2.5 crore, you will have to go down the list, zone by zone. For the major 341, notice this. First, each of those 341 has a budgetary provision of R5 lakh in 2015-16. Second, there are 272 such works, pending for more than 5 years. Third, not all expenditure on ROBs/ RUBs/ subways/ level-crossings is borne out of the Safety Fund. There are extra-budgetary resources (EBR), too. This requires explanation. When a new line is built, or within 10 years of opening that line to traffic, if a level-crossing is required, IR will bear the expenditure. Otherwise, state governments will have to bear construction cost and a one-time capitalised cost of operation and maintenance. For a ROB/RUB, if TVU is more than 100,000, IR will meet 50% of cost of construction. State governments will have to bear remainder. Before IR starts constructing a ROB/ RUB, state governments must acquire land (and bear the resultant expenditure), provide for 50% in state budgets and give an undertaking that once a ROB/RUB is built, the level crossing will be closed. If TUV is less than 100,000, the state governments must bear the entire cost of construction, operation and maintenance.

You now get the idea. Those 970 won’t be completed this year. They have merely been started this year. What will be completed this year was what was started earlier, perhaps many years ago. And when IR reports a ROB/RUB as complete, that only means the bridge part has been done. It doesn’t necessarily mean approach roads are complete, or the level-crossings closed. Nor is the R6,581 crore in this year’s Railway Budget only for ROBs/RUBs and level-crossings. Level-crossings are listed under Plan Head No. 29 and that’s just R306 crore. ROBs/RUBs are under Plan Head No. 30 and that’s R1,340 crore. In terms of the process for ROBs/RUBs, each zone has a Chief Bridge Engineer (CBE). The CBE identifies a level-crossing and computes its TVU, getting in touch with the roads & buildings department of the state government. A joint inspection and a traffic census results in a proposal that goes to the Railway Board. If the Board approves, it is included in the Railway Budget. After that, alignment proposals go back and forth, resulting in a General Agreement Drawing (GAD)—back and forth for finalisation of designs, approach roads and estimates. Get administrative approval, acquire land, float tenders, finalise contracts, tie-up funds for BOT, execute the project and only then close the level-crossing.

Land and environmental clearance delays are obvious constraints. However, CAG reports also document how internal IR approvals take upwards of 3-5 years. Unless decision-making and project management within the Railways are streamlined, future projections will continue to be linear extrapolations of past trends. That is the reason I expect 1,000 level-crossings to be eliminated this year, not 3,438. But it is a safety issue. As the train tragedy in Madhya Pradesh illustrates, there are safety concerns about level-crossings, bridges, tracks, signalling and lack of investments.

The author is member, NITI Aayog. Views are personal

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