Slow on safety

Why only 1,000 level crossings will be eliminated this year. And why that’s not enough.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: August 6, 2015 1:48 am
level crossings, railway line crossing, Indian Railways crossings, railway crossing deaths, unmanned railway crossings, Bibek Debroy column, indian express column, ie column Unless decision-making and project management in the IR are streamlined, future projections will continue to be linear extrapolations of past trends.

There are 30,348 level crossings (18,785 manned and 11,563 unmanned) in India. An estimated 43 per cent of accidents and 67 per cent of deaths were because of these in 2012-13. The Indian Railways (IR) isn’t culpable for deaths at level crossings. Section 131 of the Motor Vehicles Act and Section 161 of the Railways Act make this clear. Ideally, level crossings should be done away with entirely. If the TVU (train vehicle unit), the product of the average number of trains and vehicles that pass through a level crossing during a 24-hour period, is low, the level crossing should be closed and merged with a nearby one. If the TVU is high, the level crossing should be replaced by a road under-bridge (RUB), road overbridge (ROB) or subway. More specifically, if the TVU exceeds 50,000, there should be an ROB, and if it is under 50,000, there should be an RUB. Since the last five years, each year, around 1,000 level crossings have been eliminated. At this rate, it will be 30 years before they’re all gone.

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An otherwise knowledgeable friend remarked that this year, 970 ROBs/ RUBs will be built and 3,438 level crossings eliminated. He got that from the rail budget speech. But he, like many others, misunderstood the process. How many level crossings are eliminated by an ROB/ RUB? That’s impossible to answer. There isn’t a neat one-to-one correlation. An ROB on the Kalyan-Igatpuri road may eliminate only one level crossing. But a subway in Narwana-Kurukshetra could eliminate 20. Though future projections aren’t necessarily linear extrapolations of the past, it is unlikely that 3,438 level crossings will be eliminated this year. A thousand would be par for the course.

For 2015-16, the IR pink book lists 341 ROBs/ RUBs/ subways, categorised as road safety works. Those are only the major ones. If you want the entire list of 970, including the minor ones, below a threshold of Rs 2.5 crore, you would have to go down the list, zone by zone. For the major 341, notice this: First, each has a budgetary provision of Rs 5 lakh in 2015-16. Second, there are 272 works that have been pending for more than five years. Third, not all expenditure on ROBs/ RUBs/ subways/ level crossings is borne out of the safety fund. There are extra-budgetary resources, too. When a new line is built, or within 10 years of opening a line for traffic, if a level crossing is required, the IR will bear the expenditure.

Otherwise, state governments will have to bear the construction cost and a one-time capitalised cost of operation and maintenance. For an ROB/ RUB, if the TVU is more than 1,00,000, the IR will meet 50 per cent of the cost of construction. The state government will have to bear the rest. Before the IR starts constructing an ROB/ RUB, state governments must acquire land (and bear the resultant expenditure), provide for 50 per cent of the cost in their budget and give an undertaking that once the ROB/ RUB is built, the level crossing would be closed. If the TVU is less than 1,00,000, state governments must bear the entire cost of construction, operation and maintenance.

You now get the idea. Those 970 won’t be completed this year. They have merely been started this year. Others that were started years ago may be completed in 2015-16. When the IR reports an ROB/ RUB as complete, it only means the bridge has been built. It doesn’t necessarily mean that approach roads have been completed or that the level crossing has been shut. Nor is the Rs 6,581 crore in this year’s rail budget only for ROBs/ RUBs and level crossings. Level crossings are under plan head number 29, and that’s Rs 306 crore. ROBs/ RUBs are under plan head number 30, and that’s Rs 1,340 crore. In terms of the process for building ROBs/ RUBs, each zone has a chief bridge engineer, who identifies a level crossing and computes the TVU, and gets in touch with the state roads and buildings department. A proposal, including a joint inspection and traffic census report, goes to the Railway Board. If approved by the board, it’s included in the rail budget. After that, alignment proposals go back and forth, resulting in a general agreement drawing. There is further back and forth for the finalisation of designs, approach roads and estimates. Then, one has to get administrative approval, acquire land, float tenders, finalise contracts, tie-up funds for build-operate-transfer, execute the project, and close the level crossing.

Land and environmental clearance delays are obvious constraints. However, CAG reports also document how internal IR approvals take upwards of three to five years. Unless decision-making and project management in the IR are streamlined, future projections will continue to be linear extrapolations of past trends. That’s why, I expect 1,000 level crossings to be eliminated this year, not 3,438. But it’s a safety issue. As yesterday’s train tragedies in Madhya Pradesh illustrate, there are safety concerns about level crossings, bridges, tracks, signalling and lack of investment.

The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal

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