A passenger train hit a school bus at an unmanned railway crossing in Telangana’s Medak district on Thursday killing at least 20 children and injuring 15 with fears the death toll could rise further.
This was not the first such avoidable tragedy involving Indian Railways, nor will it be the last. According to statistics, 40 per cent of all rail casualties occur at unmanned crossings.
The rub is that instead of triggering a debate over how to avoid accidental deaths at unmanned railway crossings, the Medak tragedy too has merely led to the familiar blame game.
The immediate response of the state government was to blame the railway authorities. “The villagers have been requesting the railways to put up a gate and man the crossing. Several memorandums were given, but nothing has been done in this regard. Stern action should be taken against SCR (South Central Railways) general manager and other officials concerned,” said Telangana Home Minister Nayani Narasimha Reddy.
Union Railway Minister DV Sadananda Gowda, on the other hand, blamed it on the bus driver’s careless driving. “The driver did not stop the vehicle at the stop board of level crossing to check for approaching train as prescribed in section 131 of the Motor Vehicle Act 1988,” he said. Officials of the SCR, the zone in which the tragedy occurred, quoted the Motor Vehicle Act and Indian Railways Act in their defence. According to these, road users should be cautious while crossing rail tracks at unmanned crossings.
The fact is there are about 14,000 unmanned railway crossings across the country where such accidents are common. Before the Medak mishap, 53 people have been killed on unmanned crossings since April this year. In last five years, 723 people were killed in such accidents. Around 95 people were killed on unmanned rail crossings in 2013-14 while 124 lost their lives in 2012-13. The figure was 204 in 2011-12.
While releasing Indian Railways Vision 2020 in 2009, then railway minister Mamata Banerjee promised that “not a single level crossing in the country will remain unmanned or unprotected in the coming five years.” Banerjee and her partymen were in charge of the railways during bulk of the next five years, but there are still 14,853 unmanned rail crossings out of total 32,694 across India.
Railway officials claim that the accident rate has come down following the impact of an awareness campaign. The Medak tragedy shows how limited the impact of such campaigns has been. Fund crunch is the usual excuse
offered by railway authorities for their failure to eliminate unmanned crossings.
It is true that the elimination of unmanned level crossings is a huge task. Removal of level crossings or making alternative arrangements like road over bridges and under-bridges entail huge investment running into crores. But for a government that has plans to introduce bullet and high-speed trains to modernise the railways, ignoring this will be bad economics and worse politics. As the high-level committee on safety headed by Anil Kakodkar pointed out, such expenditure can be recovered over seven-eight years due to saving in operation and maintenance costs incurred at gates and smooth train operations.
Gowda has announced provisioning of `1,785 crore for construction of road over bridges and under-bridges in the 2014-15 Railway Budget while promising examination of all unmanned crossings in detail and chart suitable modalities for their elimination. The process should be undertaken in an expeditious manner as safety of people overrules all other considerations. It should also be accompanied by a rigorous campaign to educate the people on proper and safe use of unmanned crossings.
The writer is associate professor at Barkatullah University