20th January 2002

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How to avoid Railway disasters

Track down the bureaucrats

By Nilika de Silva
While a probe is now on over the last Sunday's train crash in which 15 persons were killed and 180 injured, Railway sources said the department had not acted on the recommendations made after the August disaster last year in which 14 were killed and many injured. 

They said in spite of boards and commissions being appointed to probe railway accidents, no positive attempt had been made to rectify defective equipment.

On August 18, 2001 a derailment similar to last Sunday's occurred when the Udarata Menike was derailed at Buthgamuwa, near Nittambuwa. Three coaches went off the track killing 14 persons, sources said.

However, the Railway Department had so far not taken any action to implement the recommendations, they said.

Railway Chief Priyal de Silva said the report on the previous accident was with him but was being held over because there were some "improper things written" in it and he needed to query them. 

The interdicted Engine Driver of the Udarata Menike, K. K. L. Ranjith (41) in an interview with The Sunday Times claimed many of the engines and coaches were not in a suitable condition to run. 

Mr. Ranjith said if not for the decayed sleepers, the train would not have gone off the track. "The day after the accident, I learnt that the night mail 48 had a similar problem. The engine driver was unable to stop the train at the Great Western Station. He was able to do so only at the next station.

He said he and his assistant G. B. Kapukotuwa had to struggle with a runaway train. 

Mr. Ranjith said the engine had been taken to the railway yard where it might be repaired. He said new conditions had been made for testing purposes. 

He said contacting the Controller in an emergency was a time consuming job. Usually the Station Master informed the Controller of an impending danger and the latter was expected to ask for help from his superiors. However, in nine out of ten cases they were not in their seats, he said.

"While trying to control the train in an emergency we have no time to track down bureaucrats," Mr. Ranjith said.

A Railway official said the worst train crash experienced in Sri Lanka since the Mirigama disaster in the mid-1960s was the Rambukkana tragedy preceded by the Nittambuwa crash on August 18 last year. 

He said a few days later Yaldevi was derailed at Polgahawela due to bad tracks but once again no action had been taken over the incident. Another derailment took place between Fort and Maradana due to the track being badly wasted, but no action was taken, he claimed. 

Sources said the 1,038 km-long railway tracks in the country had 375 points where speed restrictions had been introduced due to faults in the track. Although Rs. 1.5 bn was spent on the tracks last year, track conditions remained the same, they said. Railway sources said about 100 derailments had been occurring on an average in the past few years. In 2000 there had been 107 derailments while the figure for last year remained at 95. Several derailments had taken place in the first few weeks of this year, they said.

Sources said apart from the human element, derailments had been occurring due to poor conditions in tracks, carriages and locomotives. They said the Railway Department had been trying to cover up all such lapses, particularly where the poor track conditions were concerned. 

Railway sources said coaches should be serviced every two years.They said the coaches of the Udarata Menike train involved in the August crash were defective. They also said over 260 coaches needed repairs today.

Although three to four service trains had been operating daily, the rate of railway accidents was on the increase, they said.

While sources claimed that there was a severe shortage of engine drivers Railway Chief denied the claim. He said engine drivers volunteered to forego their eight-hour 8-hour break following a turn to earn more over time. At present engine drivers are the best paid among government servants drawing Rs. 35,000 to Rs. 40,000 a month, he said. 

Engine driver K.K.L. Ranjith was produced in the Kegalle Magistrate's Courts by the Rambukkana Police on Thursday over the Sunday crash.

Meanwhile, the Railway Chief said the engine driver had failed to enter any defects pertaining to the locomotive engine that was involved in Sunday's crash in the trip chart prior to leaving from Colombo to Kandy. 

He said the engine driver had detected the defective brakes on his trip back to Colombo. 

He also said engine drivers were now required to fill out the check list and exercise sheet and hand them over to the locomotive foreman prior to leaving the shed. 

Meanwhile, in a shocking move, the engine involved in last Sunday's accident had been put into service again, a committee investigating the crash was told.

The committee ordered Railway authorities to keep the engine under police protection until the probe is over. The brake-blocks of the engine is in police custody.

Tragedy averted: now they pass the baby

A young couple returning after a Sunday buffet at a leading hotel in Bentota who almost faced a fatal accident at a Railway crossing near the hotel has sounded warning bells on the safety of guests.

They claimed the incident occurred last Sunday when they were returning home after spending a day at the hotel. They said the railway track which was a few miles from the hotel entrance had been cleared. However, when the vehicle was about to cross the railway track, the front barrier was shut and within minutes the other too was closed. 

They said the driver of the vehicle with the help of hotel drivers managed to raise the barrier minutes before the train passed the car.

The couple claimed the moment they went back to the hotel to lodge a complaint the authorities had ignored it and the drivers had allegedly assaulted the guests.

Bentota Beach Hotel manager Rohan Amerasinghe told The Sunday Times the hotel was not responsible for the incident as there was a warning sign near the railway crossing.

'There are a lot of other hotels down the road and it is up to each individual to be careful. In addition, the car driver who ignored the warning given by the people around the area had crossed the railway track in a hurry. Having done so he returned to the hotel accusing others for the nearly fatal incident. Then the couple got assaulted by others," he said.

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