Two kids along with their mothers met the end of their lives when they were on their way to their school on the first day. All of them along with the driver of the car they were travelling with were mangled beyond recognition under the speedy Kolkata-bound Moitree Express train at Gazipur the other day. It was the first day of school for Rufaida Lozhat Rizza, aged 4 and for her six-year-old cousin Talha. Their mothers -- Nusrat Jahan Lucky, 28 and pregnant Tahmina Khatun, 32 -- were taking them to their school in Kaliakoir of Gazipur in their family car in the morning. The car was passing unmanned Shonakhali level crossing in Kaliakoir at around 9:15am when it was hit by the Moitree Express.
The ghastly accident was too shocking for description. The locomotive of the train pushed the twisted pieces of the car about 500 metres until the train reached Shonakhali Rail Bridge. The pieces of the car then fell from the bridge to the ground below. Tahmina was five months' pregnant; yet she decided to take their son to school on his first day in nursery class. Talha had awakened his father to say good bye. Rizza's father said, "As it was the first day of school for my daughter, my wife and daughter skipped breakfast and hurried to school, lest they were late." He said he was not eager to get his daughter in school at such a young age but his wife insisted on it.
The deaths triggered a storm in the media. This led to formation of inquiry committees. Then suddenly, all the hue and cry ended in grim silence. After a few months, possibly all will forget the accident leaving the Bangladesh Railways (BR) to come clean once again as it did in the past. The BR and for that matter the Railway Ministry have to take full responsibility for the deaths as it could have been avoided had there been adequate safety measures to guard the level crossing. Surprisingly, there is no gate at 2,170 rail crossings which are about 85 per cent of the total 2,541 on an estimated 2,877 kilometre railway tracks. On these unguarded crossings, there is no guard or no signal light.
Statistics of the Dhaka division of the Railway Police revealed that from 2010 to September last year, a total of 950 pedestrians were killed by running trains while they carelessly attempted to cross the tracks. It means, 12 persons were killed a month due to the death-traps created by the BR. The annual death toll due to speeding trains at unguarded level crossings comes to 20 on an average. Experts ask, how could the BR remain a mute spectator to these deaths which could be termed plain murders?
The BR has miserably failed to solve a weird problem that has kept the level crossings unguarded. "It's not possible to keep a gateman or build a rail gate for each one of them," said an official of the BR. "We aren't informed of a large number of roads built by the Roads and Highway Department (RHD). We have written several letters to them regarding rail gates and gatemen, but unfortunately there is a communication gap," he added.
Railway officials justify their helplessness in this regard. They say, the process of appointing a gateman at a new crossing is also cumbersome. After the RHD makes a road, it is their duty to come to the BR and pay it the required amount of money for building a rail gate and appointing an officer. However, that doesn't happen because nobody follows the law.
Also lack of cooperation among government agencies has created a large number of unmanned level crossings, thereby increasing the risk of accidents. Sources say, over 40 per cent of the land belonging to the BR has been encroached upon over the years, proper use of which could make the railway a very profitable sector. The railway sector has the potential to be developed as the cheapest and most convenient mass transport system of the country. Out of a total 63,127 acres, 25,456 acres of land belonging to the railway authority has been encroached upon.
Sadly, negligence of the railway sector in the country is nothing new. It has been largely ignored and neglected since the independence of the country. Different organisations owe over Tk 120 billion to the BR in unpaid costs for carriage of goods. Along with budget constraints the railway is also weighed down with various other problems which diminish the immense possibility of this sector.
Experts are gravely concerned about the unguarded rail crossings. It is not really understandable why the BR could allow such crossings to remain hazardous at a time when the government allocated Tk 116.77 billion for the railway for 2016-17 fiscal year. How much money the BR requires to construct gates and guards in 2,170 level crossings is indeed a million-dollar question.
Professor Shamsul Huq of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) is deeply worried at looming deaths in future as the railway network will rise with the passage of time. Nowhere in the world do trains cross roads in the manner they do in Bangladesh, Dr Alamgir Hossain, a teacher of a private university says. Safety and security of people passing through the level crossings have to be ensured first before any further expansion of the railway in the days ahead, he said.