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Death junction

Using taxpayer money, UP’s politicians are forcibly building roads over railway lines. Inevitably, trains are killing people, one every seven days. Darpan Singh reports.

india Updated: Nov 03, 2009 02:00 IST
Darpan Singh

The elected representatives of Uttar Pradesh have found an easy way of connecting with their electorate.

To please people, they are spending their local area development funds by laying roads over railway lines. That’s how unmanned railway crossings are increasing in number.

In Uttar Pradesh this year 37 people have been killed in accidents involving trains at unmanned railway crossings, including the 15 who died on Sunday in Gonda, 150 km southeast of Lucknow.

The problem is three-fold: legislators’ haste in building roads, the Railways’ slow pace of work in converting the unmanned railway crossings in the state into manned ones, and careless driving by those at the vehicles’ wheels.
Railway Board Chairman SS Khurana said: “We are recruiting more people and plan to cover up to 5,000 unmanned level crossings in the country in the first phase out of a total of about 18,000 unmanned crossings.”

After Gujarat (2,650), UP has the highest number of unmanned railway crossings in the country – 2,556.

A senior railway official said, “We can only create awareness. The practice of politicians opening railway crossings for cheap publicity should be discouraged. It adds to our problems and puts lives in danger.”

“The Motor Vehicle Rules are quite clear. We cannot man all crossings. Road users have to be careful,” North Eastern Railway Chief Public Relations Officer Amit Singh told Hindustan Times on Monday.

There are 34,744 level crossings in the country. Of these, 16,778 are manned.

To post guards at all railway crossings, the Railways require approximately Rs 2,450 crore as capital cost and Rs 700 crore per annum to meet maintenance and operations charges.

If road over-bridges (ROBs) and road under-bridges (RUBs) are to be constructed at all level crossings, the Railways will need to spend Rs 4,00,000 crore (the cost of setting up a hundred 1,000 MW thermal power plants).

“Huge costs are involved and the state governments have not been forthcoming in contributing the 50 per cent share towards construction costs of ROBs/RUBs,” former Railway Board member R.N. Agha said.

“Evidently, the chances of accidents at level crossings are becoming higher,” former Railway Board Chairman V.K. Agarwal said. “There is a need for creating greater public awareness in this matter,” he added.

Even the manned railway crossings are not in good shape due to defunct gates (one that does not open or close when required to do so for want of maintenance) and lack of essential equipment. There are 370 such unmanned crossings in the Lucknow division of Northern Railway. The number in the Lucknow division of the North Eastern Railway is 400.

Though rail officials do not own up responsibility for accidents taking place at unmanned crossings, successive probes have found the organisation guilty. A top railway official in his report on the Unchahar (80 km east of Lucknow) accident in January this year said that the defunct gate was responsible for it.

In May this year, the Lucknow division of the Northern Railway had announced that it was going to spend Rs 10 crore on manning 47 unmanned level crossings considered most vulnerable in the division. A proposal on this was sent to the Railway Board and work was likely to begin soon: Twenty-one crossings where the traffic volume is heavy (irrespective of visibility) and 26 others with restricted visibility (but less traffic volume) were to be manned.

However, to date, work has not been completed on a single crossing. “Work is almost complete at eight crossings. The rest have been shortlisted. The railways will soon float a tender for the purpose. We will also need people to man these proposed crossings," a top railway official told Hindustan Times.

The Supreme Court in July 2007 took up the issue of unmanned railway crossings and asked the Railways to place before it steps taken and what it further proposes to tackle the issue.

Hearing a public interest petition, the court also asked states to respond to the Railways’ plea that they (states) were not co-operating.

With inputs from Srinand Jha in New Delhi