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Install those gates now

2013 Jun 29

We seem to be having Yogi Berra moments very frequently these days, especially when it comes to disaster, both natural and manmade. Failure on the part of various ministries and departments tasked with the welfare of the public seems to be creating déjà vu moment, compelling the 'We told you so' refrain.


Exactly two months ago this day, our editorial invited the urgent and immediate attention of the government in general and the Minister of Transport in particular, to the grave situation of death traps at railway crossings, and called upon them to offer some long-term solution to prevent the needless deaths and debilitating injuries that are becoming a near daily occurrence. It has apparently fallen on deaf ears.


Earlier this week, Tuesday, 25 June, to be precise, six more needless deaths were reported when a van collided with a train at an unprotected rail crossing in Aluthgama, another death trap along the country's railway lines. A van carrying Poson devotees had crossed onto the path of a train racing from Colombo to Aluthgama. Five people died on the spot, while the sixth died on Wednesday morning at the Nagoda Hospital in Kalutara. Another six people were injured and admitted to the Aluthgama Hospital. Three who sustained severe injuries and were deemed critical, had been transferred to the Nagoda Hospital.


Underscoring the routine of such incidents, there had been a number of accidents along unprotected railway crossings reported in the media the past few weeks. Whose fault it is, whether it was the pedestrian, motorist or that of the Railway operator, is of little significance after the fact, for what emerges as noteworthy is that as long as there are unprotected railway crossings, there remains the potential for death and destruction.


Reportedly, there are 775 unprotected railway crossings across the country, including 149 fitted with bamboo gates and manned by people, which are also considered as being virtually unprotected, as the safety of those gates depends on the person handling it. The Railway Department has maintained there is a comprehensive programme to install proper gates at these crossings, while in what appears to be a typical case of passing the buck, has also called upon local bodies to install rail gates at all unprotected railway crossings in their areas.


The Ministry of Transport, busy making deals with the private bus operators, and wheeling and dealing with international suppliers of buses and railway carriages, appear oblivious to the urgency of the situation. Every death at a railway crossing is a needless death and could have been prevented, if the officials only acted on their promises, and simplified their plans instead of glorifying them and limiting them to the paper they are drafted on.


Unfortunately, the priorities seem to have been mixed up with the safety and protection of those who dwell at the bottom of the ladder occupying a fast-diminishing priority. Where could the ordinary man or woman turn to? At press briefings, the authorities concerned address every issue but the most significant one: When will this 'carnage' end? When would the ordinary commuter be given the opportunity to voice his views? View that could be taken into consideration in the planning and execution of the country's 'transport plans.'


Until and unless these questions are asked and answered, the deaths will continue to happen; they will continue to haunt the villages and townships whose unprotected railway crossings are kept readily available for these utterly wasteful deaths. Every relation, parent, sibling or offspring of those who have died, every person who was incapacitated and bed-ridden with broken limbs and traumatized psyches, would no doubt be silently cursing the powers that be.


The problem of unprotected railway/road crossings will continue to haunt the commuters for a long time to come. Wisdom will dawn on decision-makers only when their kith and kin become the unfortunate victims of this menace. But how can we wish for that? No protest march or street demonstration would open the eyes and ears of those who make million dollar-decisions on behalf of the suffering masses. It is this lackadaisical approach to national issues that has paved the way for repetition of the accidents such as what happened on 25 June in Aluthgama.

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