Defying the unmanned death traps

Duriya Aamir

Pakistan Railways is a legacy built when there were less and slower trains, and no cars on the road. It is almost 150 years old and level crossings were part and parcel of this longstanding system. Level crossings are not time wasters, they are life savers. Every single day they save thousands of lives by shielding us from busiest rail networks in Pakistan. Here we have pigeonholed level crossings as manned and unmanned. Manned is the purposefully made by authorities and is being functioned by staff. These manned level crossings are extremely safe and the only time that accidents occur is usually when hasty people violate the signals and try to ground the barriers. While unmanned level crossing is the general term for where a road; path; landing field; or, any other pathway traverses a railway line and has no flagman or other safety feature to prevent crossing the path of an oncoming train. Over Pakistan Railway system, more than 2000 unmanned level crossings exist.
During the last three years (2014 to2016),184 accidents occurred on these level crossings ,out of which 140 occurred at unmanned level crossings. As a result of accidents on these level crossings, 98 persons died and 102 sustained injuries.58.5% of railway network falls within Punjab, with 76% unmanned level crossings are vulnerable. Similarly 16% of railway network falls within Balochistan with 6.7% unmanned level crossings are vulnerable. While 21.25% is the total network area of Sindh with 9.5% vulnerable unmanned level crossings and KPK has 4.25% railway network with 7.8% of vulnerable unmanned level crossings. This is the reason that majority of accidents took place in Punjab.
Pakistan Railways (PR) has taken numerous steps to deliver safety structure at level crossings. According to Railway Act 1890, Section-12, the obligation of financing the up gradation of unmanned level crossings to manned lies with the road owning authorities which are mainly provincial highway departments or city district governments. Pakistan Railways proactively took up the issue with all the provincial governments to fund conversion of these unmanned level crossings. As a result of this follow up 75 unmanned level crossings out of 550 have been converted into manned level crossings during 2015 -16 in Punjab at a cost of Rs 610 million provided by the Punjab Government. Whereas only 7 unmanned level crossings were upgraded during last 5 years (2008-13).
Efforts are underway for up gradation of remaining susceptible level crossings. In this regard the support of respective provincial government is being solicited. Punjab has committed funding of Rs 1250 million (mn) in two phases for upgardation of another 150 vulnerable unmanned level crossings during financial year 2016-17 and 2017 -18.Sindh has also provided funds to the tune of Rs. 54.5 mn out of total Rs.105 mn committed for the current fiscal year. Balochistan and KPK have also been approached to provide funding.
Pakistan Railways is also exploring the possibility of converting vulnerable unmanned level crossings into manned level crossings depending upon their vulnerability and volume of traffic on BOT basis. Kh. Saad Rafique and his team are doing everything for improving the railways’ system but the expenses related to level crossings are not Railways responsibility. It is provincial government’s responsibility and the department shouldn’t be held responsible for the level crossings’ expenses. Railway is responsible if the crossings without guards has not been identified and highlighted before the relevant provinces. Level crossings were part of a network when the pace of life was much slower. But if you were to build a railway today it would not have any level crossings. The most effective way of reducing level crossings risk is to replace it by road bridges or underpasses. Most exposed unmanned level crossings have mutually been surveyed and identified and suggestions are being executed for up gradation of crossings, with the cooperation of the provincial governments. Instructions have been issued to all operating divisions for the introduction of LED-based lights in tail lamps.
Railways staff undertakes regular inspections in accordance with prescribed standards to maintain safety. This process is being regularly checked at proper levels; special announcements and instructions are issued regularly for the guidance of staff. Pakistan Railways (PR) is working on revamping all of its manned and unmanned crossings to stop train collisions and incidents of carnages of passengers and pedestrians. Realizing the severity of the condition at railway crossings, the authorities are now regularly piloting training and refresher courses at the Pakistan Railways Academy, Walton, so that its staff is more equipped to stop incidents.
Exceptional attention is being given to the training of the locomotive crew, guards, station master and other concerned staff related to train systems. Pakistan Railways is also focusing on its drivers and assistant drivers. They will have a medical checkup twice a year. Railways have held inquiries into accidents, fixed blame and took rapid corrective measures on the basis of the findings. Special attention is being paid to the roads passing through the crossings. Warning signs in Urdu lingo have already been established which are clearly visible from both sides of unmanned and manned level crossings. Ministry of Railways has also recommended heightening of penalty to road vehicle drivers and trespassers for ignoring safety at railway crossings. Another step is conversion of old age kerosene oil based signal LEDs on mainline.
An IT system has also been devised for controlling the accident at unmanned level crossing. This system is named as Train Approaching Warning System at Level Crossings (TAWC). The system consists of two sensor modules and a control module in which train movements are detected and siren and blinker warnings are produced when the train is within one km of the level crossing. Sensor modules are located within 3 kms of level crossing to sense train movement on track. Fitted with solar panel, it is power efficient system.5 prototypes made under TAWC will be installed at busiest areas till December 2017. Media can also be engaged in order to explain level crossings’ safety awareness through multi-pronged thematic programmes and popular mass communication modes. Posters and stickers can be pasted at prominent places in vulnerable locations. Railway personnel can distribute safety pamphlets and counseled road users at different locations
PR is trying its best to control accidents due to unmanned level crossings. But people shall also take some responsibility towards crossing the track. Provincial government shall also help in up gradation of level crossing. It should be remembered that Pakistan Railways is a state organization so all stakeholders shall unite to counter the accidents occurring at railway crossings.

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