The Railway Department’s safety precautions are under sharp scrutiny after a head-on collision between two trains in Potuhera this week left 68 injured. After a series of train accidents as well as near collisions during the past few years, questions are being raised over how safe the country’s railways are for travel. The cause of [...]


Potuhera: Railway safety measures on shaky track

- Technical failure, human error, official lapses to be probed - Unions demand upgrade of signalling system

The Railway Department’s safety precautions are under sharp scrutiny after a head-on collision between two trains in Potuhera this week left 68 injured.

After a series of train accidents as well as near collisions during the past few years, questions are being raised over how safe the country’s railways are for travel. The cause of the accident on Wednesday between the Pallai-bound Deyata Kirula Intercity Express and the Matara-bound Rajarata Rajina trains is not yet known.

Pic by Pushpa Jayaratne

A four-member committee led by Deputy Transport Superintendent Gamini Seneviratne is tasked with producing a preliminary report on the incident. Five railway workers, including the driver and guard of the Pallai-bound train and the duty Station Master, have been interdicted. The fitness of the S11 engine with was pulling the Pallai-bound train is being examined. Deviation from procedure in assigning of personnel is under heavy criticism. The Sunday Times learns that a similar incident at the same location on June 6, 1994 has gone unnoticed with no measures being adopted to prevent a repetition in future.

With the latest accident, calls for an independent expert committee to investigate accidents and issues compromising the safety of railway travel gathered new momentum. Dr P. Sivakumar, Head of the Department of Transport and Logistics at Moratuwa University, highlighted the need for a competent and impartial investigation system. He said only such a process could prevent the reoccurrence of similar incidents.

“We need to identify all technical failures as well as human errors,” he said. “Our monitoring system should be thorough. There are many technical methods employed by experts to understand precisely what happened and this should be done in incidents like this.”
K. A.U Konthasinghe, Engine Drivers’ Association’s General Secretary, alleged that there has been no investigation of technical shortcomings and quality failures which contribute to accidents. This was resulting in continuous compromises in safety standards around the country.

According to Sri Lanka Railways General Manager B. A. P. Ariyaratne the ministry will appoint an independent committee once the internal investigation is completed. He also pointed out that suspending the employees who were involved in the accident is in keeping with departmental practices.

Signal issue

Mystery surrounds the events that led to the accident. Some quarters claim that the manual signalling system had been tampered with after the collision. The signalling system used by the Railway Department is an outdated manual one, used since the 1960s. The digital system has been installed only up to Polgahawela station. Beyond Polgahawela, on the Northern Line, the Department still uses the tablet system which has to be operated manually. Overuse and age have resulted in severe malfunctions.

According to eye witnesses, the go ahead was given for the train to proceed to Potuhera. However, the Rajarata Rajina train was halted on the platform track. The usual practice at this station is to send the oncoming express train (which does not stop at the station) through the loop line. A track change is effected from the signal box by pulling the relevant signal lever and moving the facing points to direct the train to the loop line which would pass the halted train and then enter the main line and proceed on its way.

The Railway Department had initially suspected that the driver of the Pallai-bound train had run past the upright signal which denoted the train could not proceed beyond that point . This is yet to be confirmed.

Trade unions have long been highlighting the sorry state of the existing signalling system. Action is yet to be taken to upgrade it to a modern one. Until then, the drivers have taken a trade union decision to wait till clear, precise signals are observed for any train to keep moving.

The investigation will also look into the speed at which the train was travelling. Mr. Ariyaratne said that any train needed to slow down when approaching a station under the regulations of the department.

Engine trouble

The engine used in the Pallai-bound express train was an Indian-made S11. The safety and rail-worthiness of this engine was in doubt after the Alawwa train accident of 2011 which also involved an S11 engine. Questions were raised about the effectiveness of the brakes and the quality of the fibreglass (not steel) facade of the engine. A panel of experts was appointed from the Moratuwa University to assess the technical competency and road worthiness of the engine. Its report, however, is yet to be released. The Engine Drivers’ Association in a letter to the Transport Minister has demanded that it be made public as soon as possible.

Mr. Ariyaratne said that he has no knowledge of the outcome of the committee as it was appointed at ministerial level. Further he insisted that the report is not relevant to the accident.

“The independent inquiry held on the Alawwa incident ruled out any brake malfunction in the engine concerned” he said. “Therefore I don’t see how this roadworthiness report is relevant in this particular incident either.”

Under guard under the weather

It is learned that the Pallai-bound train was running without an underguard. According to experts, this is a serious violation of standard operational practices, especially regarding an intercity express train which is in high demand. They say the under guard also has the ability to control the train from his cabin.

The under guard assigned to travel on the train had reported sick on Wednesday morning, and the Pallai bound train left without a replacement under the directive of high-ranking officials in the Department. In an emergency, the under guard can apply the brakes, contributing towards halting a moving train.

“There are two brake vans in a train,” said a former railway official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Had the under guard been there, he would have been able to apply the brakes, thereby lessening the impact of the accident to a great extent.”

S. P. Withanage, President of the All Ceylon Railway Employees’ General Union alleged that the guard on board was a retired railway employee hired on contract. The Sunday Times learns that there are over 100 railway guard positions still vacant.

“Even though the guard has also been interdicted, it carries no weight as he is not an employee and therefore carries no responsibility,” he said.

Mr. Ariyaratne admitted that there is a severe shortage of guards and under guards in the department and that the higher officials on rare occasions approve the trains to run without the under guard as otherwise they have to cancel the running of the train.

Added to this, the stationmaster on duty at the Potuhera station was a newly-appointed Grade III trainee officer who should have been supervised by the chief stationmaster at all times.

Unions demand action

Trade unions have demanded an independent committee should be appointed to investigate the accident instead of appointing an in-house committee comprising of senior officials from within the department itself.

“The current committee will only fault the lower ranks,” said Mr Withanage. “None of the seniors who are responsible for the issue will face punitive action.

The Engine Drivers’ Association has sent a letter outlining its position and demanding an impartial probe. The association has also highlighted the lack of a proper communication system within the Department which has impacted adversely on safety. They have insisted on a mechanism that will enable better communication between engine drivers and station staff and also a train traffic optimising system.

GPS tracking system for railway loses direction : Three competitors in the fray

By Namini Wijedasa

The Treasury has passed funds for the Railway Department to instal satellite tracking for trains, a proposal that has been pending for some years. But intense lobbying for the project, predominantly by two government sector institutions, has placed officials in a quandary.
Internal sources said that decision-makers are getting “sandwiched” between competitors that include the Ministry of Defence. The MOD’s Centre for Research and Development (CRD) recently submitted a prototype for recording the path of trains using Global Position System (GPS) and mobile phones.

“There are three organisations that have started train tracking,” confirmed B.A.P Ariyaratne, General Manager Railways. “We have to select the fastest, more suitable and economical one. We are working on it now.”

Developed by a tri-services team, the CRD’s model was successfully tested on the train that took Britain’s Prince Charles and other VIPs from Kandy to Colombo on the sidelines of the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Authoritative sources said the MOD team was authorised this week to install GPS tracking on ten locomotives.

However, 15 other trains have already been fitted with GPS tracking devices under a joint initiative between the National Research Council (NRC) and A.P. Kasthoori, an officer of the Railway Department’s own Research and Development wing. They have rented a server from Sri Lanka Telecom and are monitoring the movement of trains on the Coast Line.

The third competitor is a leading private sector mobile service provider. For the past year, this company has also had trains installed with GPS tracking devices as a pilot project. Department sources said that each party had influential lobbyists and that it was “a complicated task” to select one.

Advocates of the new technology say that GPS tracking of trains will greatly increase the convenience of passengers and the efficiency of rail transport, while enhancing security to some extent. Monitors can be fixed at strategic locations, including on trains, enabling engine drivers to see if there is an obstruction in their path.

At present, only a red signal tells a driver that a train is ahead. But when a signal fails, that too appears as a red light. Meanwhile, station masters are still informed of a train approaching a station through a buzzer that sounds in the control room of each station. With GPS tracking, they would be able to see its movement on a monitor.

Commuters would be able to check the location of the train on their computers or mobile phones and to leave for the station on time. It will also help planners calculate the time taken by each train during its journey and at stations and to improve efficiency. 

“We will start the project this year,” said a senior Railways Department official, on condition of anonymity. “The money has been passed by the Treasury, a Technical Evaluation Committee will examine the proposals and we will go for procurement.”

Meanwhile, experts warned that train tracking was not infallible. It depended on continuous mobile phone and GPS coverage as well as uninterrupted power supply. Installation would take some months and there was no guarantee of a great increase in safety because many accidents occurring in Sri Lanka were caused by human factors and signal errors.

“GPS technology will not help to stop the engine,” said a railway official. “If you want an engine driver to know that there is a train ahead, a signal does the same thing. GPS tracking does not prevent a driver from knowingly running a red signal.”

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