Kushinagar accident brings to fore one of Indian Railways' biggest safety issues: Unmanned level crossings

An accident at a railway crossing in Uttar Pradesh's Kushinagar on Friday led to the death of 13 children as a train and a school van collided. The incident brings to the fore the problem of unmanned crossings across the Indian Railways network.

Railway Board chairman Ashwani Lohani on Thursday had said that all such crossings will be eliminated by March 2020, but asserted that the primary responsibility lies with drivers on the road and not with the railways.

 Kushinagar accident brings to fore one of Indian Railways biggest safety issues: Unmanned level crossings

At least 13 children were killed on Thursday when their school bus was hit by a train in Uttar Pradesh's Kushinagar. Gudoo Kumar Chandan/Team 101Reporters

Thirteen children on their way to school were killed when a train rammed into their van, some 90-100 kilometres away from Gorakhpur and 30 kilometres away from Pandrauna. Five others were injured as the Thawe-Kapatanganj passenger train hit the van carrying 25 people, mostly children between the ages of eight-ten years from Divine Public School, at 7 am.

Railway minister Piyush Goyal ordered an inquiry into the accident and announced a compensation of Rs two lakh for the kin of the deceased. The minister also said the railways will provide an ex-gratia amount of Rs one lakh for those with serious injuries and Rs 50,000 for those with simple injuries.

"My thoughts are with the families of the deceased and I pray for the early recovery of the injured. Ministry of Railways will provide an ex-gratia amount of Rs two lakh for the kin of the deceased, Rs 1 lakh for those with serious injuries and Rs 50,000 for those with simple injuries," the railway minister said in a statement.

Not a one-off incident

Presently, there are 5,792 unmanned and 19,507 manned crossings across the railway network. According to a report in The Free Press Journal, as many as 6,000 people die every year in accidents at level crossings worldwide. In India, 61 percent of railway-related fatalities happen at unmanned level crossings. At last count, out of 30,000 level crossings in the country, 11,000 were unmanned, the report said.

According to a report in India Today, accidents at such unmanned crossings contribute to about 60 percent of the total mishaps on the railway network. A ministry official quoted by the report said that 109 rail accidents have occurred at unmanned crossings across the country since 2014-15. In 2014-2015, 50 such accidents took place at UMLCs, 29 in 2015-2016, 20 in 2016-2017, 10 in 2017-2018 and one this financial year.

Railway sources claimed that accidents at unmanned crossings were more frequent in rural areas while such crossings in cities have either been eliminated or manned.

March 2020 deadline

The chairman of the Railway Board had said in the fifteenth report, adopted in August 2017, on 'Safety Provisions at Unmanned Level Crossings’ that "As on 1 April, 2017, the total number of unmanned level crossings (in broad gauge) were 4,943 and we intend to remove them in three years."

"By 2020, all level crossings will be removed. In the first two years, we will remove 1,500 each and balance 1,943 will be removed in the last year," the report added.

On Thursday, Lohani reiterated the goal set in the report. "We will eliminate all UMLCs (unmanned level crossings) by 31 March, 2020," he said, adding that till then, people need to be careful while crossing tracks. "There is no substitute to that. Railways cannot take any step that is completely foolproof against negligence," he added.

"While crossing UMLCs, the primary responsibility lies with the road user, and not with the railways. The rule while crossing such railway lines is to look both ways, stop and then proceed. In this case, according to reports, the driver did not stop,"

"However, because the accidents happened in our territory, it remains our concern. That's why we are trying to eliminate all unmanned level crossings. In the meantime, I urge people to be careful. Also, please do not use earphones when walking near the railway tracks," Lohani added.

Section 131 of the Motor Vehicles Act as well as Section 161 of the Railways Act have provisions on crossing unmanned railway lines – both put the onus on the driver of the motor vehicle to ensure that there is no train approaching.

Lohani also said that while the railways had completed the work of eliminating most of the unmanned level crossings at the busy stations in March, work on 44 such stations is going on and will be finished by June.

The railways has also built over bridges and subways for people to cross the tracks – 1,354 ROB/RUB were built in 2016-17 and the target is 1,600 in 2018-19. The railways has also issued both print and television advertisements creating awareness against irresponsible crossing of tracks, he said

Alternative plans to plug safety loopholes

The North Eastern Railway (NER), Northern Railway (NR) and North Central Railway (NCR) claim to have deployed volunteers to ensure the safe passage of vehicles. Called "crossing mitras", they are being stationed at all unmanned level crossings under their jurisdiction, a Hindustan Times report said.

"We have deployed crossing mitras at all such places. Working in two shifts, they sound the alarm whenever a train passes through an unmanned level crossing. While most of them are private individuals, we have deployed home guards too,” an NER chief public relations officer quoted by the report said.

In addition to this, railways officials have also hinted at special chips developed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) that will be fit in railway locomotives. These chips will track train movements on a real-time basis to prevent accidents. They can be programmed to automatically turn sirens on at unmanned level crossings.

"The project has currently been installed on a trial basis on Rajdhanis bound for Guwahati and Mumbai. Hooters have also been installed at around 20 unmanned crossings along the route. They will be used on other trains and routes once all the tests are cleared,” a senior NER official told Hindustan Times.

With inputs from agencies.

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Updated Date: Apr 27, 2018 16:16:21 IST