|Wednesday, 17 November 2004|
by Tharuka Dissanaike
Railway crossings in this country have become nobody's business. The two most recent deaths on a rail track-road crossing happened in busy Kalutara, near a popular tourist destination just last week.
The man and woman who met an untimely end while on their way to attend a seminar at the hotel and the car they were traveling in was mangled and thrown some 50 yards due to impact of the train. These unnecessary deaths were totally due to the absence of a gate or a guard at this crossing.
And the incident coincided sourly with the Railways Department's announcement last week that the public will have to safeguard themselves at railway crossings because the Department has no funds to do so!
Unprotected railways are a major source of accidents and untimely deaths for hundreds of people. Many of us would have experienced near-accidents on remote unprotected crossings because there are no signals or guards to ward off crossing vehicles at the approach of a train.
All this while, the public believed, quite naively it appears, that they were being protected from the train by a well-organised system of gates and gate keepers- but reality, in fact, is far from that.
After a spate of accidents in the eighties, (we do wait for the worst to happen before taking action) the government decided to step in and improve protection at the gates. They came up with a brilliant plan.
Employ some 800-odd state 'dole' then called Janasaviya-recipients to man the gates. They were paid a Rs. 1000 allowance for this work. Later, the allowance was increased to Rs. 3000, but the numbers of manned gates reduced visibly. The gate keepers had their problems.
They were not recognized as railway employees so they had no claim to benefits- but above all, there was no real coordination with the Department or the nearest Station Master.
The gatekeepers had no clue (other than the schedule) when the next train would exactly arrive and found themselves listening for the trains, which were invariably delayed for one reason or the other.
They had no shelter and no proper place to sit and await the train. Often they were up at night- or more often, the gates were left unprotected at night.
In some cases the gatekeepers had to supply bamboo or wooden poles for the gates- the Railway did not supply them. Above all there was no accountability for the work. Today only 130 of those 800 recruits still work at the railway gates.
So where does that leave the general public? The Railway Department itself admitted there are 740 unprotected railway crossings.
There are plans, they said, to have automated gates at about 240 of these locations but the cost factor (each gate is estimated to cost around Rs. 2 million) is holding the Department back.
Even the light-signal systems installed by the Department near railway crossings malfunction during heavy rain (exactly when you want it to work) and a guard is required to give manual flag signals to motor traffic. Automated systems are not reliable, and therefore level crossings need human presence in case of emergency.
The Department's position, explained over weekend newspapers, is that people using the level crossing regularly, those who live in the vicinity and the local authority of the area much take a bigger responsibility and bear the cost burden of operating the gates.
This is an interesting concept- that the public should be more responsible, plus bear the financial burden, of living by a level crossing.
It is difficult to see however, local authorities which cannot maintain roads and perform their basic duties to the constituents, coming forward to embrace new financial responsibilities. And one as grave as managing railway crossings at busy intersections.
But this job has to be done. While it is well and good to say that motorists must be more careful and vigilant, such roads are public areas used by children, old people, disabled and buses. It is not always possible for individual travellers to be responsible for their own safety.
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