Picture this – a school bus with little children onboard speeds towards an unmanned level crossing. The driver, probably drunk or drowsy, cares two hoots about an approaching train. The train too fails to sound an alert with continuous honking and rams the bus killing the children and driver. Such tragedies are repeatedly witnessed in villages and outskirts of small towns. Over 650 people have lost their lives at unmanned level crossings in the past five years. After newspapers and television channels cover it, the accident is forgotten until another shocker happens. The Central government has made a wise decision to set a 2018 deadline for the Indian Railways to eliminate all unmanned level crossings in the country.
Zone of Danger
The vehicle drivers, particularly in rural areas, are uneducated. In most accidents, the driver is a youth, between 22 and 28 years of age. The adrenaline rush and patience-deficit kindle the urge for adventurism when he is behind the wheel.
Several locations of unmanned level crossing are at accident-prone spots, where the speeding train would be visible to the vehicle driver only at the last minute owing to a sharp turn. Moreover, many a time, the vehicle driver approaching an unmanned level crossing is never in a position to gauge the speed of a train, which usually runs at 100-120km per hour. And at night, if the vehicle driver is not alert, he could be asking for grave trouble. The train driver may not bother or forget to honk.
There have been instances when the train driver would not be aware, during an absent-minded moment, of an unmanned level crossing closing in. The scope for damage-control is nil even if the train driver spots a vehicle crossing the tracks.
A Major Task
There are 28,607 level crossings on the rail routes of which 9,340 are unmanned in broad and meter gauges as per the Railway Ministry records. New Railway Minister Piyush Goyal wants the 5,000 unmanned crossings responsible for 30-35% of the accidents to be removed within a year. The Railways has to work on a war footing as the task at hand is formidable. Culverts, road underbridges (RuBs) and road overbridges (RoBs) should be constructed as per the requirements. The constituency funds allocated to Members of Parliament and Members of Legislature may be utilised for construction of RuBs and RoBs. The advantage of RuBs and RoBs is that human, mechanical and equipment failure could be completely ruled out.
The places where there are a sizable number of vehicles crossing the tracks daily, an underpass with possible installation of a CCTV may be envisaged. The Railways could be empowered to seize and auction vehicles violating norms and a toll could be charged at the new underpasses, which could not only add to the revenue but also ensure discipline among the road users.
Even the information technology sector could be roped in to devise a foolproof mechanism, probably using sensor network, to avoid collision if there is an unexpected delay in the removal of unmanned level crossings.
Among reasons that lead to delay in abolition of level crossings are availability of land and funds for making alternative arrangements. Non-allocation in State budgets is another hiccup that is beyond the Railways’ control.
Even though unmanned level crossings come under the Railways, an approval in writing by the civil administration concerned is mandatory for their permanent closure. These are mere formalities that can be cleared if the Centre and the States are keen on focusing on the larger picture and achieving the target.
In some European countries, there are unmanned level crossings because the traffic density is not as intense as in India. The vehicle drivers there stay put when an alarm is sounded to signal that a train will pass by soon.
Indian Railways officials in States where there are unmanned crossings galore, particularly in rural pockets, place the blame squarely on drivers of vehicles such as three-wheeler tempos, school buses and tractors stating the latter are invariably in a tearing hurry to cross over before the train passes by.
Section 161 of the Railway Act says: 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.
Section 131 of the Motor Vehicle Act says: Every driver of a 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 vehicle across such crossing, and where no conductor or cleaner or attendant or any other person is available, the driver of the vehicle shall himself get down to ensure that no train or trolley is approaching from either side before the railway track is crossed.
These sections could hopefully be deleted if the Railways that is vested with the responsibility of safe running of trains meets the government deadline.
If the Railways wipes out at least 60% of the 5,000 unmanned level crossings that Goyal has in mind within the next year, safety would have been achieved to a large extent. The rest of the target could be covered in the next four to six months. The bottom line is no unmanned level crossing should exist in the country in another 18 months.