Indian Railways often hogs the headlines for wrong reasons. One of them is accidents at unmanned level crossings (ULCs), where the Railways Act of 1989 clearly mandates the railway has the right-of-way. Unfortunately, such accidents end up contributing almost half of all rail accidents that, apart from the loss of human lives and damage to rail assets, disrupt normal flow of rail traffic, and cause delays. Section 161 of this Act states: “If any person driving or leading a vehicle is negligent in crossing an unmanned level crossing, he shall be punishable with imprisonment which may extend to one year.” Leave alone the errant driver being punished, often state and central governments bend over backwards to announce ex gratia payments to be made to the kin of the deceased.
Soon after taking over as railway minister, Suresh Prabhu had to face criticism for such an accident. In this case, the driver was reportedly talking on phone, blissfully unaware of the approaching Nanded passenger train, which collided with the school bus he was driving on a ULC near Masaipet village of Medak district on July 25, 2014. As a result, 25 students died. Again, as recent as on April 26, 2018, a school van crossing a ULC, unmindful of an approaching train, was hit near Kushinagar in UP—13 schoolchildren, aged 8-10, died on the spot, while eight more were grievously injured.
This was perhaps the proverbial “last straw that broke the camel’s back” and Ashwani Lohani, the chairman of the Railway Board, announced that all such ULCs would be phased out by March 31, 2020. In a subsequent meeting, Piyush Goyal, the current railway minister, advanced the date for 11 railway zones as September 2018, while for five zones—Northern Railway, Western Railway, North Western Railway, North Central Railway and North Eastern Railway—a separate target was to be set later.
Section 131 of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, requires that “every driver of a motor vehicle at the approach of any unguarded railway level crossing shall cause the vehicle to stop and the driver of the vehicle shall cause the conductor or cleaner or attendant or any other person in the vehicle to walk up to the level crossing and ensure that no train or trolley is approaching from either side and then pilot the motor vehicle across such level crossing.” Not many truck, tempo or bus drivers would even be aware of this. TV ads paid for by Railways urging road users to be alert when approaching a ULC and spreading general awareness seldom make an impact on 70% of the nation’s population living in rural areas who have limited access to TV. For such rural folks, a ULC is often the quickest and the most convenient way to get to the other side of a rail track.
Gizmos designed by the Research Design and Standards Organisation and some by vendors to provide warning bells or lights, activated automatically by approaching trains—on the lines of those at road-rail crossings in the US—were tried and given up; often the equipment got stolen or vandalised. Ultimately, zones opted for ‘rail mitra’ or gate-men on a temporary basis till a permanent arrangement could be made.
In its January 1, 2017, business plan, Railways spelt out phasing out of 6,113 ULCs on broad-gauge system—closing 57 that are sparsely used, merging 411 with another level crossing nearby, providing a subway or road under bridge for 2,728 (with states bearing half the cost), and converting 2,917 into 24×7 manned level crossings.
Efforts to eliminate 9,340 ULCs in existence a decade ago resulted in such accidents being reduced from a peak of 70 in 2009-10, to 51 in 2013-14, and 20 in 2016-17. And 123 human casualties 2012-13 came down to 40 in 2016-17.
Getting into high gear, the Railway Board is now monitoring the progress on an almost monthly basis. ULCs on broad-gauge lines have been reduced from 6,117 in January 2017 to 3,479 as on April 2018, and 2,584 in August 2018. Of these, 2,000 ULCs are expected to be eliminated this year, leaving the balance—the tricky ones—to be eliminated perhaps by March 31, 2020.
-The writer is Former Member, Railway Board