Was it the fault of the engine driver, the 40 year-old signal system, failure of emergency brakes, the power-sets from India or miscommunication at the control room?
|The locomotives from India arrived in Sri Lanka amidst much fanfare. (File pic)
These are the questions that nag Railway authorities, passengers and public alike who want answers to the deadly train accident in Alawwa that killed three and injured 18 others on September 17. Transport Minister Kumara Welgama has appointed a three-member committee headed by former Supreme Court Judge Nimal Dissanayake to probe the crash and submit a report to him within two weeks.
However, Railway unions say they have little faith in these committees and demand that this time at least the committee report becomes a reality and technical defects be identified to prevent future accidents.
Union for the Protection of Properties and Rights of Railway Employees spokesman Sumathipala Manawadu charged that not a single report on other train accidents has seen the light of day and authorities find the easy way out by appointing committees.
|Mark of respect: Trains running with death notice of the deceased driver.
Pix by Susantha Liyanawatte
“There have been train accidents in Kadugannawa, Alawwa, Ganemulla, Peraliya and a number of other places but not a single report has been issued either by internal or independent committees that were appointed. We demand that authorities do justice to those who died and those who were injured, at least in this accident,” he said.
He said railway engineers have often complained about defects in emergency brakes of the locomotives imported from India while engine drivers have raised concerns about the use of fibre for the outer finish of the trains.Pointing out that the most appropriate materials were metal or stainless steel and not fibre he said the Alawwa accident caused severe damage to the trains because of the lack of a strong outer casing.
These aspects should be looked into when trains are imported to the country, he said.
He charged that officers and union members who pointed out these defects were given one to two months training to India which in reality were paid vacations.
According to Mr. Manawadu, the Indian firm, from where the trains were imported had informed that these locomotives were only meant to run on the Coast Line. About 15 power-sets from India are used to transport a majority of the 300,000 commuters who use the Railway as their daily mode of transport.
Railway Technicians Association General Secretary M.A.Ratnasiri said authorities have a tendency to blame the engine drivers and employees when an accident occurs rather than look into the technical defects.
|Were defective signals a cause for the accident:One of the areas the report will look into
He said the deceased engine driver Lal Ajith Kaluarachchi (51) had over 25 years of experience and had earned a reputation of being a responsible driver. Sri Lanka imports locomotives from Canada, China, France and India and each engine has to be operated differently and sometimes handling technical failures prove a hard task.
“Previously some power-sets were brought from France despite protestations from our engineers that the engines would not suit the country’s geography. But 10 power-sets each costing Rs. 300 million were brought to the country because of political influence. Out of the 10, nine had many technical problems,” he said.
He also said engine drivers have complained about the 40 year-old signal system but little has been done to rectify it. “We have received complaints that when the control room sets the signal light to amber it has changed to green. This has been reported in Ragama and Hunupitiya areas where passenger density is high. Engine drivers have lost trust in these signal systems. Likewise they have also lost trust in the brake system of the trains. In the case of the Alawwa tragedy he said, it was because the drivers had no faith in the brakes that their bodies were found towards the rear of the engine.
However, Railways General Manager B.A.P. Ariyaratne said, “I cannot comment until the report is out. An internal inquiry is also being conducted by top officers of the Department. We will look into the charges by the unions that the Indian power sets are of inferior quality. If it is proved we will discuss with the relevant Indian company. Brake defects have not been proved yet.”
He said the inquiry team was recording statements from the passengers and employees. Mr. Ariyaratne also said that the family of the French tourist who died in the accident would receive Rs. 150,000 as compensation, while the families of the deceased engine driver and his assistant were given Rs. 20,000 each as funeral expenses. “Compensation for those who died while on duty will be decided after the inquiry which will reveal whether the accident was beyond the driver’s control,” he said.
The Sunday Times learns that the loss incurred from this accident was approximately Rs. 70 million.On that fateful September 17, the Rambukkana-bound train left Colombo at 4.02 p.m. and had halted in Alawwa due to a technical difficulty. The control room had then informed the Kandy-bound inter-city express train which followed to couple the broken down train and take it up to Polgahawela. The inter-city train had been stationary for almost 20 minutes and it was when the two trains were being coupled, that the Polgahawela-bound Indian power-set hit the Kandy inter-city train around 5.05 p.m, a Railway source said.
Among the dead were the engine driver Lal Ajith Kaluarachchi (51), at the controls of the power-set that rammed into the Kandy inter-city and his assistant K.A.D.Sunil (49). Fifty-one -year old Remie Claude, a French national was the only passenger who died in the tragedy. He was travelling in the inter-city’s observation saloon.
“We have contacted the family of the deceased, a resident of the eastern part of France and are making arrangements to airlift the body. This was his first trip to Sri Lanka and he had been to Colombo and Galle and this was his first trip to Kandy,” Pierre Rannou, Deputy Consul at the Embassy of France said.
Thushyanthi Muththusivan (45), vice principal of Ranabima Royal College in Peradeniya who was reading for a Master’s degree was on her way home with her husband after an exam in Colombo when the accident occurred. Sharing her horrifying experience Mrs. Muththusivan said, “I realized there was something wrong and everybody was shouting and running towards the back. I saw my husband falling and I too fell.
I faintly recollect rescue workers dragging me from the rammed compartment. My body was covered with blood and later at the hospital they told me it was that of the French tourist’s. I was shocked to hear about his demise as he was enjoying the journey, capturing the scenery on his camcorder,” she said.