Is Sri Lanka a country that cannot afford to spend Rs. 3 million a month for the safety of thousands of vehicular passengers who cross the railway lines daily at about 600 points throughout the country? This question is so pertinent in the light of the increasing number of fatal accidents at unprotected railway crossings since lately. The last fortnight might go down in the railway history as the fortnight with highest number of accidents or at least one of such fortnights.
Accidents at railway crossings are not unavoidable phenomena as natural hazards such as tsunamies or volcanoes. It is simple logic that the only remedy for these accidents and loss of lives is to prevent the motorists from crossing the railway lines at times when trains pass through these vulnerable points or to inform them of the approaching trains. However, there is no doubt that the authorities would argue that public coffers cannot afford to protect such a large number of railway crossings by putting up gates.
There seems to be no unanimity within the transport sector on the number of unprotected railway crossings even though the department has a history of more than 150 years, as Transport Ministry Media Secretary SujithVidhanapathirana claims that there are around 900 such crossings while Sri Lanka Railways Signal and Telecom Department Chief Engineer Palitha Samarasinghe had put the number as 615, which is more reliable as the Signal Engineer is an authority in this respect.
President Ranasingha Premadasa soon after his assumption of duties in 1988 ordered to install bamboo gates and recruit casual gatemen to man them from the vicinity with an allowance of mere Rs. 1000, following a school bus being ploughed by a train in Ahungalla in January 1989, killing 38 children on the spot. Though scorned by the Opposition, which is now in power, the bamboo gate system worked, but later the ARs, FRs, and other red tapes put an end to the system and the crossings again became “unprotected.”
At the present rate the Railway Department would have to pay such a gateman at least Rs. 5000, a month in addition to an initial expenditure for the installation of crude wooden or iron barricades, and there is no point in requesting the authorities to install a sophisticated protective system. Compared to the huge waste and corruption the country had seen or heard of, these figures are a mere pittance.
" At the present rate the Railway Department would have to pay such a gateman at least Rs. 5000, a month in addition to an initial expenditure for the installation of crude wooden or iron barricades, and there is no point in requesting the authorities to install a sophisticated protective system. "
The Railway Department is not a welfare association but an income generating business venture. As former State Minister for Transport M. S. Sellasamy, who was also veteran trade unionist, once argued, there is no reason for the Railway Department and the SLTB to run at a loss since no passenger travels in trains or buses on credit. Also yesterday’s Daily Mirror had quoted Human Rights Commissioner Dr. Prathibha Mahanamahewa as saying that since 2012 up to now, monetary allocations amounting to one billion have been given to the relevant authorities for the construction of gates at 200 unprotected railway crossings. Hence, it is evident that only the concern of the authorities is lacking in saving human lives.
Few years ago the COPE reported frauds involving Rs. 160 billion in 26 public institutions. That is the backdrop against which vehicles loaded with humanbeings are being ploughed by speeding trains.