Can railway accidents be prevented?


By Dr. Ananda Ranasinghe

Few months back it was reported that there had been a major train accident where a train had crashed into the observation saloon of another train, with disastrous consequences.

Apart from the financial loss incurred by the government, lives have been lost and many were injured including the driver and assistant of one of the trains. This is not an isolated incident as far as train accidents in Sri Lanka are concerned. Only major accidents are reported in the local newspapers. There have been interviews from time to time from various people in the media and if the information provided by them is correct, there are at least 8 to 10 minor train accidents per month.

One would find these figures alarming and disturbing. In fact, if we take into account the cost of suffering and heartbreak involved in such accidents, the loss would be immeasurable. Although such injuries are primarily the concern of accident victims and their families, the entire nation should be gravely concerned over such serious tragedies of human and material resources. When it is reported as an accident, the feeling that the general public has is it is unpreventable. But most of these could be minimised and preventable if precautionary measures are used and proper procedures are followed.

Although a committee has been appointed to look into the railway accident that happened sometime back, it might take some time for them to study this matter and report back. At the same time, immediate remedial measures have to be adopted in order to prevent such accidents either in the railway, or for that matter on public roads.

The causes

The general cause of accidents are due to driver fatigue, failure in the mechanical system of the engine, carelessness of the drivers, lack of communication, improper signalling system, insufficient warning given by the public authority etc. Therefore, every department must take these criteria into consideration and address them in order to prevent such accidents.

When we consider the railway, the signalling system plays a very important role. Sometime back in our railways, we had a semaphore arms signalling system, and in cities I have observed these have been replaced by the colour light signalling system. Usually, signals are spaced at sufficient distances so that, for instance, a train arriving at a ‘Caution’ signal at the maximum speed for the section, can safely brake to a halt before the next signal which is at ‘Stop’. Older locos, especially hauling vacuum braked rakes, can reach a signal at ‘Attention’ at the maximum speed for the section, and proceed through without slowing down and still brake safely if the next signal is at ‘Caution’. Therefore, spacing of signals is very important while at the same time visibility also plays an important role. In railways, multiple aspect signals providing several intermediate speed stages between ‘clear’ and ‘on’ allows high speed trains sufficient time to brake safely if required. This is very important as when the train speeds by without multiple aspect signals, a ‘Stop’ signal has to be placed very far apart to allow sufficient braking distance which reduces track utilization. As far as the light signals are concerned, unless there is an electricity failure, generally the visibility is better than the semaphore arms signals.

Mandatory backup

Therefore, a continuous electricity supply or a backup power system has to be maintained. In the highway traffic light signal system, very rarely is backup power provided to activate the signals when there is an electricity failure. Apart from this, ironically the worst thing that could also happen is actually when the signals are active, as quite often the traffic police give manual signals incompatible with the light signals without deactivating them. This could be quite dangerous as sometimes the traffic policeman is not visible to road users, as no proper procedure is being adopted to streamline the system.

In the aforesaid railway accident, it was reported that the driver and the driver’s assistant had died while 17 passengers had also sustained serious injuries. At the same time the loss incurred by the Sri Lanka Railways was in the region of several million rupees. Although it is a fact that the railway lines and signalling system have to be upgraded, the major cause of accidents is due to human error and negligence. In our railway tracks as well as in the public highways the aspect of safety has been badly overlooked. The recently opened near the Parliament is a classic example where a dual carriageway is connected to the Thalawathugoda/Pita Kotte Road and a road running towards Pelawatte. In this road warning signs were erected only after the occurrence of two accidents on both sides of the road, due to excessive speed and lack of visibility while negotiating the exit roads. Therefore, it is evident that the causes of accidents are not solely due only to human error, but a combination of the condition of the road or track.

In the railway accident mentioned earlier it has been reported that the engine driver was driving at a speed higher than that which he should have driven when the signal was at ‘Caution’.

We also have vehicles which are fairly old, and similarly vintage railway engines with a fair amount of wear and tear. Therefore one of the aspects that have to be looked into is to specify the number of years of usage or to have a strict control regarding the mechanical soundness of the vehicles.

It is also extremely important that in modern day travelling there should be proper communication between the engine drivers and the train controllers, guards, station masters etc. so that in case of emergencies prompt action could be taken to avoid drastic accidents. Presently, I have serious doubts whether we do have such proper communication system in Sri Lanka for this purpose and therefore, it is worthwhile investigating this and if necessary to introduce communication equipment to facilitate this.

Calibrated speedometres

It is also a fact that some vehicles and also railway engines do not have properly calibrated speedometers and in certain instances they do not have speedometers at all. Therefore, the drivers have to assume speed while driving and sometimes one may get a false impression that one is driving at a slower speed whereas the actual speed that he is driving could be much higher. Therefore, this has to be monitored and strictly supervised and in both cases, such as railway engines and motor cars, some controlling system has to be introduced. In trains and sometimes in long vehicles the driver has to depend on his assistant for support. Therefore, there should be a proper way of communication between the driver and his assistant as drivers do have to be heavily dependant on others when there is a lack of visibility.

Declining discipline

Our disciplinary standards have gone down drastically in most of the institutions and our Railway Department is no exception to this. Therefore, structural changes have to be imposed in order to create a sense of responsibility by each person in the team, and it is worthwhile introducing a quality assurance system for this purpose. In any railway, or for that matter even in roads, one cannot maintain the same speed throughout the journey. Depending on the track conditions, maintenance work, seasonal changes etc, traffic speed limits may have to be introduced and although this might be a Herculean task for highways, it should be introduced to the railways with out much difficulty.

Tampered signals

In long distance railways there is a signal system built into the railway engine in order to keep the driver alert, as otherwise he would even fall sleep. Sometimes deliberately in order to catch a few winks, in certain engines this signalling system is tampered with. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the railway authority to check the proper functioning of this feature at regular intervals in order to keep the driver alert during the entire journey.

Although it might appear as common sense to maintain railway tracks, visibility of the driver and lights etc. these should be inspected before each and every journey, and even if there is the slightest doubt with respect to the quality of this important criteria it should be rectified before the journey. As the railway carries a large amount of passengers, one should not risk the lives of passengers merely because of the lack of finances or lack of technically suitable persons, spare parts etc. Improvements have to be done to the entire system including quality and discipline of the workers in order to have a safe railway system for the users.

Accidents unplanned

Accidents are unplanned and unintentional events that result in harm or loss of life, property, production, or nearly anything that has some inherent value. Accidents are rarely simple and almost never result from a single cause. Most accidents involve multiple, interrelated causal factors. Accidents can occur whenever significant deficiencies, oversights, errors, omissions or unanticipated changes are present. Any one of these conditions can be a precursor for an accident; the only uncertainties are when the accident will occur and how severe its consequences will be.

Who dies? - Over the years pedestrians remain the highest victims in road accidents and although this is not directly applicable to railways, the victims are mostly the travellers and property. They will continue to remain vulnerable in our country so long as factors affecting them are not adequately addressed by the relevant authorities. Therefore I wish, before waiting for an eye-opener to occur with another tragic event, it is time to address these issues in a proper, professional and proficient manner.

The writer is the President of the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka (IESL). The views expressed herein are the personal views of the writer.

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