On April 26 last year, after observing two minutes of silence at a meeting with Railway Board members, Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal said he wanted all the unmanned level crossings on the broad gauge railway network across India to be manned or eliminated before Ganesh Chaturthi, six months away.
Earlier that day, 13 schoolchildren had been killed at an unmanned level crossing in Kushinagar, near Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. A school van driver was crossing the railway track when the vehicle was hit by a train.
“The minister said (at the meeting) that all level crossings needed to be manned in six months. We were stunned,” said a senior government official who was part of the meeting.
To put that task into perspective, there were 8,948 unmanned level crossings across India when the NDA came to power in 2014. Over the next four years, the Railways had gradually manned or eliminated 5,469 level crossings. Goyal was asking the Railways to man or eliminate 3,479 level crossings — nearly as many as it had done over two-three years — in just about six months. The Railways was anyway inching towards ridding itself of all unmanned level crossings in broad gauge in a phased manner. It has a policy of not having level crossings while planning new lines.
In the end, the Railways achieved the target in 10 months, as the last level crossing on broad gauge network was manned near Allahabad last month. Now, 1,042 unmanned level crossings remain on narrow/metre gauge lines, where train movement is negligible and of slow sped. These are to be eliminated eventually when converted to broad gauge as per the existing policy.
On February 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while flagging off the Vande Bharat Express, counted elimination of all level crossings as one of the main achievements of the NDA government.
As per law, a train has the right of way on its track and anything that comes in the way is trespassing or obstruction. Therefore, technically, accidents — especially at unmanned level crossings — are not really the fault of the Indian Railways. That’s why in the official records of the Indian Railways, such accidents are described as “road vehicle dashed against the train” and not the other way round. The Railways also pays ex-gratia compensation to victims even if it is not liable to.
However, in reality, level-crossing accidents bring a bad name to the national transporter, besides adding to the overall casualty figures of train accidents every year. Between 2012 and 2018, around 475 people died in accidents at unmanned level crossings across the country.
Unmanned crossings are also interruptions to train mobility. Often, road users don’t heed to warnings of approaching trains. The Railways even tried posting ‘Gate Mitras’ — men who counsel people on safety and stop them from crossing if a train is approaching — at the sites but the strategy was rendered ineffective because no one paid heed to them. So, the Railways decided that manning its level crossings or eliminating them, depending on train movement and vehicular traffic, was the only answer.
By April 2018, before the new target was set, the Railways had eliminated all unmanned crossings in ‘A-category’ routes — high traffic density routes where trains had speed potential of 130-160 kmph, such as the Delhi-Mumbai route. All unmanned crossings in C-category routes — the suburban network — had also been manned. The B- category routes with train speed potential of 100-130 kmph had around 58 unmanned level crossings left, and as per the original target set in April, were in the process of being manned by June last year.
So the massive manning exercise was for level crossings which were mostly in the D and E category, with very little traffic. For instance, 479 unmanned level crossings were such that they saw about two trains a day. Manning — installing barriers or gates, a hut with a telephone line connected to the nearest station master, and at least two men to operate the gate — costs around Rs 10-12 lakh per gate, plus the monthly salary of the gatemen. Manned crossings with interlocked gates, where the signal does not turn green for the approaching train if the gates are not lowered, cost more.
Which level crossings should be manned and which eliminated permanently by building bridges or underpasses or limited-height subways are determined by road and train traffic on the route. It is measured by an international metric called Train Vehicle Unit (TVU).
TVU is derived by multiplying the total number of trains in a day with the total number of road vehicles at the crossing, through a week-long census physically carried out by three railway officials. This exercise is done every three years and every railway crossing is assigned a “TVU per day” value.
However, while doing the census, the Railways had never took into account two-wheelers because the rules said any vehicle that could be lifted by a person was not to be counted as a road vehicle. It was only during the current manning exercise that a policy decision was taken to add two-wheelers to the list. Officials had anyway been pressing for this change with India the world’s second-largest market for two-wheelers.
This mattered because as per rules, a level crossing with a TVU of 3,000 or more has to be manned. Even in the manned ones, a crossing with a TVU of 1 lakh has to be eliminated with bridges. Hence the periodical census.
Every accident puts the spotlight back on Railways’ unmanned crossings. The accident in Kushinagar, for instance, was at a crossing in the E-category line, which sees very little train and vehicle traffic and had a TVU of 2,100. The top brass in the Railways deliberated that the worst death toll could occur even at a sleepy level crossing.
After the decision to finish the manning exercise, came the actual task and its problems. The Railways, it turned out, also realised it did not have the manpower to spare for these level crossings. Hiring government employees would escalate costs. So it was agreed that ex-servicemen and retired trackmen would be hired on contract. But there was a problem. The Railway Act, 1989, did not allow anyone other than a bonafide railway servant to be entrusted with the critical safety-related job of a gateman. Finally, Section 197(2) of the Act interpreted “railway servant” as any person carrying out railway work where the Railways is the principal contractor.
According to the zonal railways, this policy tweak made it easy for them to engage manpower at the crossings without much red tape.
THE NEXT FRONT
Now that all the unmanned level crossings across the 64,000 km of broad gauge network are gone, the next frontier is the 21,901 manned level crossings. Talks are on regarding how to replace the 2,700-odd heavy-traffic level crossings with road bridges or other means on the Golden Quadrilateral and its diagonals, which comprise 17 per cent of the railway network, yet carry around 60 per cent of the total traffic.
One step being considered is interlocking the 1,250 manned level crossings whose TVU is 20,000 and more on a priority basis. Even a manned level crossing is an irritant to mobility. The station master has to telephone the gateman to close the gate; the gateman closes the gate and confirms that back; and only then is the train allowed to cross. A lapse on anyone’s part can cause an accident. So after unmanned, the next front for the Indian Railways is its busiest manned level crossings.