Transport agency experts visit site
Sunday’s accident near a level crossing in Aroor that claimed five lives could have been prevented if the railways and the car driver had been careful, the National Transportation Planning and Research Centre (NATPAC) has concluded.
Experts from the agency, after visiting the site, saw that the gatekeeper’s cabin on the rail track’s northern side and the overgrowth of shrubs and mangroves on the same side considerably hampered visibility. “Because of the two impediments, a motorist has to drive up to five metres near the track to see the trains coming from the northern direction (like the train that met with the accident),” said G. Ravikumar, the scientist who heads the agency’s extension service division.
Another danger zone
He cautioned that an unmanned crossing around 300 metres north of the accident site too was a danger spot. It too has a gatekeeper’s cabin, apart from shrubs, hampering visibility. A railway official said the maintenance wing under the railway’s civil engineering wing ought to have cleared the area of shrubs and other obstructions that posed a threat to safety.
Referring to the possible error of judgment by the car driver, Mr Ravikumar said the train was visible from about 500 metres from the crossing. The car could have crossed the 10-metre-wide railway portion within five or six seconds, by which time the train (if it was travelling at 100 km per hour speed) would travel 150 metres of the total 500 m distance. The curve on the crossing’s northern side and the possibility of the car driver misjudging the train’s speed too might have contributed to the accident, Mr Ravikumar said.
The car driver was from the area and he knew that it was an unmanned level crossing. People new to the area could be misled into thinking that it is a manned crossing because of the gatekeeper’s cabin near the crossing, he said.
The team further suggested that the statement given by the train’s driver would hold the key to how the accident took place, since it is unclear why the car was unable to cross the 10-metre track portion.
Posting gatekeepers was the best and simplest way to prevent such accidents, said a senior official of the signal and telecommunications wing of the railways. “Subways, which are cheaper than overbridges, could be built at crossings in busy roads.”
To the question why automatic signal lights and sirens were not installed at unmanned crossings, he said the Southern Railway tried it out at 10 places. “The equipment went missing from a few places.”
While supporting the need for subway at busy crossings, an official of the railway’s civil engineering wing said it may not be feasible in Alappuzha, which is prone to flooding. “Two unmanned level crossings located close to each other can be linked by road and one of them developed as a manned one. The other crossing can be shut down. An automatic signal system in which the light turns red when a train is approaching the crossing can prevent such accidents,” he said.
Subways should be wide and tall enough for heavy vehicles, said T. Elangovan, former director of NATPAC and currently the head of its traffic and transportation division. “The railways and local bodies must ensure the safety of level crossings. Overbridges must be built at busy stretches used daily by one lakh train vehicle units (the number of trains multiplied by the number of vehicles) or more,” he said.
As for narrow level crossings hampering free movement of vehicles, Mr Elankovan suggested that they be widened to at least seven metres so that vehicles can travel in either direction without getting caught in traffic snarls.