The number of people who die while trying to cross road or trespassing onto railway track in the city is alarming. Despite repeatedly observing Road Safety Weeks and conducting awareness campaigns, over 3,000 people were run over by trains in the State in 2009 alone, with the Chennai division accounting for about 2200 lives.

One third of all accidents on the road involve pedestrians, many of whom are just trying to cross a stretch of asphalt.

Fast-paced lives, lax enforcement, lack of punitive laws and decision-makers who are disconnected from the everyday reality of a crowded train or a non-functioning pedestrian signal all contribute to the current scenario, say experts.

Trespassing on tracks

On an average, 8 to 10 persons are fatally knocked down daily by trains in the suburban network up to Arakkonam, according to the Divisional Railway Manager of Southern Railway, S.K. Kulshrestha. “Fines are being regularly collected. But so many people are crossing the tracks, we cannot do anything.”

Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel at Egmore station assert that they register over 100 cases per day against commuters who cut across railway tracks instead of using the Foot Over Bridge (FOB).

“Even though commuters are aware of the dangers involved in crossing tracks at unspecified locations, they still take the risk. It becomes even more dangerous when some people try to flee through tracks after spotting police personnel,” said an RPF constable on duty at Chennai Egmore.

But many passengers complain that FOBs are highly unsafe to use especially at night and are often far-off from the railway station. “I avoid them in the nights as there are no lights. Moreover, it is home for the homeless and could also be a hangout for antisocial elements,” said A. Bhuvaneshwari, a commuter.

Stressing that a change in commuter mindset has to go along with engineering interventions which focus on designing better facilities, a senior retired railway official said “Everything from construction to water supply is a different department within Railways. It is extremely difficult to co-ordinate and there is no holistic plan to provide facilities based on detailed passenger movement studies.”

According to him, commuters’ crossing the track en masse near stations does not result in many casualties. “Isolated sections away from the stations, where there are no police personnel, are where most casualties occur. To prevent this, the Railways constructed sidewalls in the stretch from Beach to Tambaram but local people demolish the wall to get easy access across the track. People’s attitudes have to change.”

Cell Phone use

Cell phones act as a contributory factor in a number of accidents, said Inspector General of Police (Railways) C.V. Rao. “After the advent of cell phones, the number of track accidents increased substantially. People believe that walking in between two lines is safe. But a moving train can virtually ‘suck’ a man walking very close to the track.”

In 2009, 165 people were killed after being hit by electric, long distance and goods trains between St. Thomas Mount and Singaperumal Koil railway stations.

Police said that of the 165 deaths, at least 20 were caused when the victims were crossing the railway track talking on the cell phone.

Design intervention

Pointing out that most stations are not commuter-friendly and everything from the ticketing counter is still British era, A. Veeraraghavan, Transportation Engineering professor at IIT-Madras, said ramps and escalators at FOBs, like those in MRTS stations, should be considered within the city. “Besides, more than one FOB must be provided. In comparison to the social costs of fatalities, the investment cost would be tiny. Pedestrian barricades in between tracks at least within stations should be considered.”

According to him, hierarchy and monopoly are huge problems with the Railways. “They just do not care because by the logic of demand-supply commuters have to use their services anyway. The network within the city should be de-linked from the Railway. The Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA), which is yet to become operational, might provide a safer, integrated approach to urban transportation.”

He added that in sections between stations where pedestrian crossing was high, under-passes using new construction mechanisms such as push-through techniques which would not affect rail movement must be considered. “It has been successfully implemented in a few places in Bangalore and the facility can be used by pedestrians and cyclists.”

(With inputs from S.Vydhianathan, Ajai Sreevatsan, Petlee Peter, K.Manikandan)