I was surprised to learn from the media that 200 railway gates with electric bell and light systems are to be installed at a cost of $ 6.4 m. At the current exchange rate, it works out to an astounding Rs. 5.2 m per gate with the total direct investment exceeding Rs. 1 billion!
Harking back to the past, it was reported on 2 March 2015 that the Railway Dept. had installed 20 railway gates with electric alarm bells at a huge cost of Rs. 10 m per gate! Thereafter, the Transport Ministry had recommended a proposal by the previous Government (appearing in the media on 18 May 2014) to install 200 similar rail gates with bell and light systems at a much lower figure of Rs. 4.15 m (still high in our view) in collaboration with the University of Moratuwa and a private firm.
The present move is clearly a resurrection of the latter proposal being considered at a higher exchange rate for the dollar. We are at a loss to understand why such extravagant and ineffective technical solutions eating into our meagre forex reserves and billions of taxpayers’ monies are recommended at a time when our deeply-indebted country is afflicted with debt repayment and balance of payment problems? It adds insult to injury when we hear about salary increases and luxury chairs for politicians!
In the wake of a series of tragic accidents at railway gates, the writer proposed a low cost, viable alternative for rail-gates which was first published in both Sinhala and English press as far back as in the year 2013, followed by several reminders through the years 2014 to 2017.
As mentioned in my above proposal, these electric rail-gates entail high maintenance costs and in addition are liable to frequent breakdowns due to rainy weather, excessive heat, etc. Besides, as proved in the Wanawasala, Batuwatte and Hideniya tragedies, electric bell and light systems have been defective due to exposure to elements.
A valid comment by an eye witness at the Wanawasala tragedy sums up my point: “No one can rely on that bell. Sometimes when it rains heavily it rings continuously till someone fixes it. Vehicles with their shutters closed and the radios on wouldn’t hear it on most occasions.”
These tragedies repeatedly point to the fact that negligence over-rides high-cost technical solutions such as barrier gates and bell and light warning systems. Constructing over-head bridges for motor vehicles at rail crossings is another costly solution. It adds insult to injury, when negligent drivers ignore the visual and audio traffic signals and drive on unhindered. No doubt, the latter danger can be curtailed by railway gates but certainly not at such enormous cost!
As a viable low-cost alternative to this high cost rail gate systems, I suggested that concrete speed- breakers (humps) be installed at a safe distance (five to seven metres) ahead of each crossing on both sides of the road. In order to adequately warn the vehicle drivers, a visible red-coloured danger signal with appropriate lettering should be painted on the face of the hump itself so that it would be clearly visible even during the night.
The forced slow-down or stoppage of the vehicles due to the presence of the hump will enable the motorists to clearly read and see the danger signal and exercise caution before crossing the railway track. It should be mentioned that Sri Lankan motorists are quite responsive to speed breakers and we have not come across any major accidents caused by them.
To make this preventive measure more effective I have suggested the following additional steps.
1) Display the usual traffic signal used to indicate a railway crossing in a more prominent manner (luminous) to attract the attention of vehicle drivers.
2) Clear the immediate vicinity of the railway crossings of trees and shrubs to improve the sight of an approaching train.
3) Instruct all Railway engine drivers by circular to toot the engine horns adequately to attract the attention of those passing the railway track at any railway crossing.
Though belated, the Railway Dept. started responding to my proposal and by May 2017 they were reported to have installed 111 humps. I have requested the Railway Dept. to update me with the present status of the humps for the benefit of the public. It is unfortunate that Hindeniya rail crossing was not protected by humps, which surely would have averted this tragic accident.
With so much money being spent on carpeted and concrete roads, the concerned authorities should speed up the installation of these permanent, quick to construct, low-cost, maintenance-free, effective speed-breakers also referred to as ‘sleeping policemen’ at all possible crossings and prevent further unfortunate accidents and wastage of scarce financial resources.