Once again there was a deadly accident on an unmanned railway level crossing. This past Sunday, six members of a family died as their car was hit by a train.
The accident took place some 14 kilometers from Gojra town, and at the level crossing, which was the scene of yet another such smash some months back. What followed the accident was expected – the people blocked the rail traffic, police registered a case and the concerned minister shifted responsibility for the accident onto others. If the past is any indicator not much should be expected beyond this washout. There are some 2,470 unmanned level crossings where railway line crosses a road or path at the same level as opposed to manned crossings, overhead bridges or underpasses.
And these level crossings being death traps take a huge toll of human life. The concerned officialdom may draw vicarious satisfaction from the fact that such accidents take place elsewhere too, but they seem to be unaware that in there the concerned authorities are continuously at pains to improve the situation by taking appropriate steps. But that has not happened in Pakistan, essentially because even when the railways is a federal subject the management of level crossings is a provincial issue, an anarchism enshrined in the 126-year-old Railway Act. Apparently, neither the federal nor any provincial government is prepared to foot the bill of something like Rs 26 billion which is the cost of manning the unmanned level crossings.
Not that this kind of expenditure is too heavy a burden, it is the inbuilt resistance on the part of the management to pull the railways out of its past and turn it into an efficient organisation. It is riddled with corruption, mismanagement and lack of investment. As we said in this space sometime back, go to any rail yard you will see how much of track is unused and is rusting, how much of its real estate is in adverse possession and why hundreds of railway stations are still being financed when trains have not been stopping there for the last many decades. One wonders why one of the staff members from the Pacca Anna railway station, which is located only a kilometer from the site of the accident but trains do not stop there anymore, could not be posted at this unmanned level crossing.
The guards should be posted at these crossings, which should stop the vehicular traffic some time before the train is to pass either by show of hand or by closing the gate if it has one. And wherever the traffic is heavy underpasses or overhead bridges should be constructed. Modern technology too can help improve the situation in myriad ways. For instance, in some countries the unmanned level crossings are operated automatically by use of sirens and flashing lights.
Just before the time a train is expected to pass powerful lights begin flashing or sirens are sounded. But more than that what counts is the behaviour of someone who arrives at an unmanned level crossing. Ideally, he should get down from the vehicle, move to the track and see on its both sides before crossing over to the other side. Imagine the cavalier attitude of the driver.
He could very well ask the passengers to get down and push his broken down car out of the rail track. In case the car could not be pushed either because it was too heavy or intractably entrenched the passengers would have escaped unhurt. Taking due precautions is mandatory by law in some countries. In India, the law demands that every driver of a motor vehicle at approaching any unguarded level crossing must ensure that no train or trolley is approaching from either side.
Accepted, given the enormity of the challenge it may not be possible to completely eliminate accidents on unmanned level crossings but their occurrence can be significantly reduced – and for that both the travelling public and those who run the trains have to reinvent their thinking. -Business Recorder