Mayhem Monday at Bihar’s Dhamara Ghat station has jolted at least a section of railway mandarins in Jharkhand out of their slumber.
Ranchi railway division, which has nearly 150 unmanned level crossings and is a potential disaster belt, has decided to go on a track safety overdrive with PowerPoint presentations, seminars and, above all, designating of alternative routes like footbridges for train passengers and commuters in general.
“We had long been mulling awareness campaigns to deter people from crossing tracks. However, yesterday’s incident has necessitated this drive even more,” conceded B.K. Sinha, the divisional railway safety officer of Ranchi.
At Dhamara Ghat, a backward area 181km east of Patna, 28 passengers — mostly Somvari devotees to the local Kattyani Temple — who had got off two trains on the narrow tracks in between were mowed down by a third that came tearing down the middle line without warning from the station.
The driver of Saharsa-Patna Rajya Rani Express had sounded the horn, but the bustling crowd crossing the tracks either did not notice or, sandwiched between their two trains, had the escape cut off. The train dragged the bodies of 13 women, three children and 12 men some 400 metres under its wheels before coming to a halt.
Though the railway authorities in Ranchi are ruling out such a gory possibility at any station under the division because all of them have multiple platforms unlike Dhamara Ghat, careless crossing of tracks remains a major concern.
The railway division covers Ranchi, Lohardaga, Latehar, Palamau and Gumla districts of Jharkhand and also Purulia district of neighbouring Bengal. Currently, there are 220 railway crossings, of which only 72 are manned.
Sinha said the divisional authorities were planning to seal all unmanned crossings by 2017. “We will either create alternative roads for commuters or raise overbridges and lay subways to stem the possibility of tragedies. Plans are afoot,” he added.
The railway division’s preparations notwithstanding, danger will continue to lurk in backward pockets where tracks wend their way through tribal and semi-literate villages.
The senior railway officer proposed a solution. “We are preparing PowerPoint presentations on safety on tracks. They will be ready in a few days. From the first week of September, we will hold seminars involving social leaders, people’s representatives, mediapersons, district transport officials and police,” he said, insinuating that these people in turn would educate the grassroots on railway safety.
Statistics show that in the past four years, over 50,000 people have been killed on “railway tracks and level crossings due to trespassing”. The figure for the first six months this year is over 8,000.
Ranchi railway division alone has witnessed two major accidents in three months.
In July this year, the Bhubaneswar-Dhanbad Garib Rath rammed into a truck at an unmanned level crossing near Bano in Gumla district, killing the trucker and his helper on the spot. The accident damaged the engine of the train and left its driver injured though no passenger casualty was reported.
Three months ago, another train hit a four-wheeler near Jhalda station in Purulia, killing three people. In July last year, three women were run over by the Bhagalpur-Ranchi Express at an unmanned level crossing in Jhalda.
A senior railway official blamed carelessness for such accidents. “Mobile phones with handsfree device are the biggest bane. People often don’t here the whistle blow when a train approaches. Also, some fail to gauge the speed from a distance and risk their life and limb,” he said.
Ashok Nagpal, vice-president of Chotanagpur Passenger Association, begged to differ. “General awareness about safety on tracks is definitely better among Ranchi residents compared to Bihar’s hinterland. However, a campaign is always welcome,” he added.
Should guards be posted at unmanned level crossings?