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Fatal accidents are a common affair at the unprotected railway crossings in the country, while Bangladesh Railway and various agencies of the government squabble over who will bear the expenditure of ensuring safety.

The level crossings are made due to the roads constructed by government agencies that cross the railway tracks. The railway authorities do not give any approval for these nor do they take responsibility for public safety.

The railway crossing at Bhanga Gate in Abhoynagar of Jashore district is one such unauthorised level crossing. It was set up when the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) made a road there a few years ago.

A car met with an accident there on 16 October when it was crossing the railway line. Five people died in the accident, including four members of a family.

The railway authorities closed the road after the accident, disrupting communication for people of eight villages of Abhoynagar upazila on either side of the river Bhairab. Businesses were affected too. The local business community then took responsibility of the level crossing, using bamboo poles to control the traffic.

The railway authorities have now taken money from LGED to make an authorised crossing there. Assistant executive engineer of the railways' western zone, Kazi Waliul Huq, told Prothom Alo on Wednesday that the crossing is underway.

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It took a serious accident for something to be done about the unauthorised crossing at Abhoynagar. But around 45 per cent of the level crossings around the country are unauthorised. According to Bangladesh Railway, there are 2,561 railways crossings in the country, of which 1,149 are unauthorised. Most of these crossings have been made due to roads constructed by LGED, the pourashavas, union parishads, the city corporation and the Roads and Highways Department.

Railways records show that from 2008 to 2019, a total of 281 persons died in 310 accidents that took place at the level crossings all over the country. In 2019 there were 13 accidents in which 18 persons were killed.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, railways minister Nurul Islam said it is difficult to prevent deaths on the railway crossings. The way that roads have been constructed over the railway lines all over the country, it will need massive investment to make all of these crossings safe. It will take time too. The railway authorities are trying to appoint guards at the crossings as far as possible. There are plans to avoid any crossings in the projects being prepared for new railway lines.

Exchange of letters for long

In 2013, the director general of railways at the time, Md Abu Taher, wrote a letter to the LGED chief engineer about the unauthorised level crossings and the accidents. He wrote that the railway authorities bear the expenses of making any crossing up to 10 years since the operation of a new train on a new railway track. If any other agencies make any crossings after ten years, they must bear the expenses including appointing gatemen.

The Bangladesh Railway has repeatedly issued letters to the concerned LGED engineers, but to no avail. The railway DG in these letters also said that, in view of the gravity of the matter, an urgent meeting should be called to discuss urgent measures in this regard.

Six years after these letters asking for urgent measures to be taken, the railway issued another letter to LGED's chief engineer. In the letter, the railway DG again gave an account of the accidents and urged for immediate action. Finally on 29 October this year, the railway authorities met with the senior secretary of the local government ministry and requested for a resolution to the matter.

Regarding these letters, additional director general (operations) of Bangladesh Railway, Md Mia Jahan, told Prothom Alo, after the accidents that took place between 2008 and 2010, the railway authorities filed cases against local officials of LGED. He said that this yielded no results.

He also said that there were 85 crossings in the 30 km of railway line from Narayanganj to Joydebpur. Letters had been sent to the concerned authorities to make overpasses or underpasses at 14 important crossings, but nothing was done.

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Bangladesh Railway has invested Tk 650 billion (Tk 65,000 crore) over the past decade in constructing railway lines and for other procurement purposes. The 2020-21 budget allocation for the local government and rural development was around Tk 400 billion (Tk 40,000 crore). But initiatives for level crossings have been negligible.

The railway authorities do not pay as much attention to railway crossing safety as they do to laying railway lines, procuring engines and coaches and constructing infrastructure

Senior secretary of the local government division, Helal Uddin Ahmed, told Prothom Alo on Wednesday that a meeting was recently held with the railway ministry about making the railway crossings safe. It had been decided that approval would be required from now on before constructing roads over railways lines. Safety measures would also be put in place. The existing unprotected crossings would be made safe.

However, sources in the railway ministry said that over Tk 10 billion (Tk 1000 crore) would be required for the infrastructure and appointment of guards to ensure safety of the existing unprotected level crossings. And appointing permanent guards would also take time. It would not be possible to get foreign funding for the purpose. And in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, such huge expenditure from the revenue sector would also not be feasible because the government was not funding any projects other than a few very essential ones. So it would be difficult to take measures any time soon to reduce deaths at the railway crossings.

82 per cent unprotected

The railway authorities do not pay as much attention to railway crossing safety as they do to laying railway lines, procuring engines and coaches and constructing infrastructure.

Railway records show that 82 per cent of the railway crossings in the country are unguarded. There are no facilities to lower any barrier to prevent vehicles from crossing and meeting accidents when a train comes along. Most of the guards are not on permanent duty. They work either on a daily wage basis or as part of a project. Other than a few old guards, most of these persons are untrained and inexperienced. Their negligence leads to accidents.

A guard who has long been in charge of a railway crossing in Dhaka said that a few years ago he won praise from the higher authorities for saving someone's life. The railway minister at the time gave him financial assistance too. He assured him that his job would be made permanent, but that never happened.

Five persons died in two accidents, one on 7 November at a crossing in Kaliakoir, Gazipur and the other on 11 October in Feni. And 15 others were injured. There were guards at both the crossings, both employed on a temporary basis. Both these accidents occurred early in the morning. Local people say the guards had been sleeping.

The Railways Act 1890 has provision for a two-year prison sentence for anyone moving along the railway tracks without permission. A vehicle driver is supposed to be extremely cautious when crossing the railway line. Where there is no guard or barrier, the agency to which the road belongs is responsible for any accident. The driver's carelessness is also held responsible.

The railway authorities are doing their 'duty' by merely hanging up a signboard at the unguarded crossings. These signboards state that there is no gateman at the crossing and so pedestrians and all types of vehicles will cross at their own risk and will be obliged to pay compensation in the case of any accident.

Billions of taka is being spent on laying railway lines and procuring engines and coaches, but people continue to die in accidents. The large number of unguarded railway crossings is responsible for this
Shamsul Hoque, mass transport expert and professor, BUET

When accidents do occur, the railway forms the perfunctory inquiry committee. Railway officials who have been involved in drawing up several inquiry reports, say that the wording, recommendations and accusation in all the reports are almost identical.

Railways gates, but no workforce

Two projects were taken up in 2015 for the development and round-the-clock guarding of 672 level crossings in the railway's eastern and western zones. The initial expenditure was around Tk 1 billion (Tk 100 crore) and this was later increased to Tk 1.97 billion (Tk 197 crore). Infrastructure was made under this project, but there remains a crisis in guards to control the traffic from crossing.

Sources related to the project said that 1,888 guards were supposed to have been appointed under these two projects. At present there are 1,590 guards in service, but their jobs are temporary. The project term ends next year and there is uncertainty over who will guard these crossings then.

No permanent guard has been appointed since 1984. Occasionally some of the temporary guards are made permanent. And due to certain complications in the appointment process in the railway, all appointments have been held up for the past two years.

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Mass transport expert and professor of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), Shamsul Hoque, speaking to Prothom Alo, said trains are considered safe and speedy transport all over the world. Outside of the developed countries, even compared to neighbouring countries Bangladesh's railway lags far behind. He said billions of taka is being spent on laying railway lines and procuring engines and coaches, but people continue to die in accidents. The large number of unguarded railway crossings is responsible for this.

Shamsul Hoque said that overpasses and underpasses at the crossings are costly, but the best solution. And before that is done, the guarding system must be strengthened.

*This report, appearing in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir.