Making level crossings safer | Daily News


Making level crossings safer

The last few weeks have seen a spike in deaths at railway level crossings across the island. On Sunday, a father and his daughter were killed on the spot at an unprotected railway crossing in Wadurawa, Veyangoda. The 42-year-old father, Manel Ruwan Sanjeewa Chinthaka Silva and his 11-year-old daughter Roosali Dilangsa Silva died on the spot when the motorcycle they were riding collided with a train travelling to Kankasanthurai at the Wadurawa level crossing in the Veyangoda Police Division. Just a few weeks earlier, six soldiers were killed at a level crossing in Kilinochchi.

Sri Lanka’s extensive railway system criss-crosses a lot of main and sub roads, with around 1,400 level crossings. Some of these are unguarded. Almost every day, we see news reports on television and in the newspapers about fatal accidents at level crossings. These can broadly be categorized into two types – there are some drivers who disregard the instructions of gatekeepers and passersby not to cross over. The other type is far more common – accidents at unprotected (i.e. no gates) level crossings, where there is often no one around to warn the motorists of the impending danger. Accidents are rife especially at night at these crossings.

There is often a knee-jerk reaction every time such an incident happens with the authorities ordering the construction of gates and deployment of gatekeepers. In the early 90s, an express train collided with a bus carrying schoolchildren which was trying to cross the Railway line near Ambalangoda. This resulted in the deaths of a large number of schoolchildren. Many years later, in the famous Yangalmodara incident, a bus that was trying to go through a closed level crossing collided with a train. (The driver and the conductor, both of whom escaped, received the death penalty). In both instances, there were calls for the installation of gates at all railway crossings and also better “policing” of gates to ensure that no one deliberately tries to cross over while the gate is closed.

Despite the good intentions of successive governments, the truth is that there still are many unprotected and unguarded level crossings around the country where accidents occur with alarming regularity. This issue was also highlighted as part of the International Level Crossing Awareness Day (ILCAD) on June 6. There are several solutions for this problem. One is to have automatic gates that close on their own once they receive a signal that a train is on its way. Another approach is to station gatekeepers at all other crossings which may or may not have a manually operated gate. Both these solutions have been tried here with varying degrees of success.

There is a third option that a number of other countries are trying which may not always work here – the elimination of level crossings altogether by realigning railway tracks or creating underpasses/overpasses for road traffic. In Sri Lanka too, a number of overpasses were built to avoid the problem of level crossings, including Nugegoda, Ragama, Veyangoda and Pannipitiya. The Ministry of Railways of India has said that it is concerned over the loss of lives at railway level crossings and is working on a comprehensive scheme to eliminate unmanned level crossings in a phased manner. In Sri Lanka, in instances where a railway line is being newly built (such as the extension to Beliatta-Kataragama), efforts have been made to avoid level crossings as much as possible. The level crossing issue will also not arise with the proposed new elevated Light Rail Transit (LRT) project from Colombo to Malabe.

But the biggest issue is educating motorists on the need for taking due precautions at ALL railway crossings, manned, unmanned or automatic. It is just not worth rushing over to the other side of the tracks, because death can strike you in those few seconds. Extra vigilance is called for in case of double tracks. You may avoid one, but still get hit by an oncoming train on the other track. If you have a passenger in your vehicle, it is often advisable to ask him or her to get down and look around at an unprotected level crossing, before giving the all-clear. In instances where the vehicle has a sole occupant, a bit of patience will save one’s life. The electronic media must play a major role in this regard by frequently playing Public Service Announcements (PSAs) on level crossing safety.

It is not only motorists who are at risk. Every year, hundreds of people who walk on the tracks are killed by passing trains. Today, most of these accidents happen because they are often looking at the phone and/or are wearing headphones. Walking on tracks is actually an offence, but few people know about it. In the other category are pedestrians who try to sneak through closed rail gates and are knocked down by trains. One must be 100 percent sure that a train is not nearby when crossing a track by vehicle or on foot. You may get two minutes late to get to your destination, but your life is well worth the wait.

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