Can railway accidents be prevented?
Few months back it was reported that there had been a major train
accident where a train had crashed into the observation saloon of
another train, and the consequence of it had been disastrous.
Apart from the financial loss incurred by the government, lives have
been lost and many were injured including the driver and assistant of
one of the trains. This is not an isolated incident as far as train
accidents in Sri Lanka are concerned. Only major accidents are reported
in the local newspapers. There have been interviews from time to time
from various people in the media and if the information provided by them
is correct, there are at least eight to ten minor train accidents per
One would find these figures alarming and disturbing. In fact, if we
take into account the cost of suffering and heartbreak involved in such
accidents, the loss would be immeasurable.
Although such injuries are primarily the concern of the accident
victims and their families, the entire nation should be gravely
concerned over such serious tragedies of human and material resources.
When it is reported as an accident, the feeling that the general public
has is unpreventable. But most of these could be minimized and
preventable if precautionary measures are used and proper procedures are
Although a committee has been appointed to look into the railway
accident that happened sometime back, it might take some time for them
to study this matter and report back. At the same time, immediate
remedial measures have to be adopted in order to prevent such accidents
either in the railway, or for that matter on public roads.
The general cause of accidents are due to driver fatigue, failure in
the mechanical system of the engine, carelessness of the drivers, lack
of communication, improper signalling system, insufficient warning given
by the public authority etc. Therefore, every department must take this
criteria into consideration and address these issues in order to prevent
When we consider the railway, the signalling system plays a very
important role. Sometime back in our railways, we had a semaphore arms
signalling system, and in cities I have observed these have been
replaced by the colour light signalling system. Usually, signals are
spaced at sufficient distances so that, for instance, a train arriving
at a ‘Caution’ signal at the maximum speed for the section, can safely
brake to a halt before the next signal which is at ‘Stop'.
Older locos, especially hauling vacuum brakes rakes, can reach a
signal at ‘Attention’ at the maximum speed for the section, and proceed
through without slowing down and still brake safely if the next signal
is at ‘Caution’.
Therefore, spacing of signals is very important while at the same
time visibility also plays an important role. In railways, multiple
aspect signals providing several intermediate speed stages between
‘clear’ and ‘on’ allows high speed trains sufficient time to brake
safely if required.
This is very important as when the train speeds by without multiple
aspect signals, a ‘Stop’ signal has to be placed very far apart to allow
sufficient braking distance which reduced track utilization. As far as
the light signals are concerned, unless there is an electricity failure,
generally the visibility is better than the semaphore arms signals.
Therefore, a continuous electricity supply or a backup power system
has to be maintained. In the highway traffic light signal system, very
rarely is backup power provided to activate the signals when there is an
Apart from this, ironically the worst thing that could also happen is
actually when the signals are active, as quite often the traffic police
give manual signals incompatible with the light signals without
This could be quite dangerous as sometimes the traffic policeman is
not visible to road users, as no proper procedure is being adopted to
streamline the system.
In the aforesaid railway accident, it was reported that the driver
and the driver's assistant had died while 17 passengers had also
sustained serious injuries. At the same time the loss incurred by the
Sri Lanka Railways Department was in the order of several million
rupees. Although it is a fact that the railway lines and signalling
system have to be upgraded, the major cause of accidents is due to human
error and negligence. In our railway tracks as well as in the public
highways the aspect of safety has been badly overlooked.
The recently opened dual carriageway near the Parliament is a classic
example where it is connected to the Thalawathugoda/Pita Kotte Road and
a road running towards Pelawatte. In this road warning signs were
erected only after the occurrence of two accidents on both sides of the
road, due to excessive speed and lack of visibility while negotiating
the exit roads. Therefore, it is evident that the causes of accidents
are not solely due only to human error, but a combination of the
condition of the road or track.
In the railway accident mentioned earlier it has been reported that
the Engine Driver was driving at a speed higher than that which he
should have driven when the signal was at ‘Caution'.
We also have vehicles which are fairly old, and similarly vintage
railway engines with a fair amount of wear and tear. Therefore one of
the aspects that have to be looked into is to specify the number of
years of usage or to have a strict control regarding the mechanical
soundness of the vehicles.
It is also extremely important that in modern day travelling there
should be proper communication between the engine drivers and the train
controllers, guards, station masters etc., so that in case of
emergencies prompt action could be taken to avoid drastic accidents.
Presently, I have serious doubts whether we do have such proper
communication system in Sri Lanka for this purpose and therefore, it is
worthwhile investigating this and if necessary to introduce
communication equipment to facilitate this.
It is also a fact that some vehicles and also railway engines do not
have properly calibrated speedometers and in certain instances they do
not have speedometers at all. Therefore, the drivers have to assume
speed while driving and sometimes one may get a false impression that
one is driving at a slower speed whereas the actual speed that he is
driving could be much higher.
Therefore, this has to be monitored and strictly supervise and in
both cases, such as railway engines and motor cars, some controlling
system has to be introduced. In trains and sometimes in long vehicles
the driver has to depend on his assistant for support. Therefore, there
should be a proper way of communication between the driver and his
assistant as drivers do have to be heavily dependent on others when
there is a lack of visibility.
Our disciplinary standards have gone down drastically in most of the
institutions and our Railway Department is no exception to this.
Therefore, structural changes have to be imposed in order to create a
sense of responsibility by each person in the team, and it is worthwhile
introducing a quality assurance system for this purpose. In any railway,
or for that matter even in roads, one cannot maintain the same speed
throughout the journey. Depending on the track conditions, maintenance
work, seasonal changes etc, traffic speed limits may have to be
introduced and although this might be a Herculean task for highways, it
should be introduced to the railways without much difficulty.
In long distance railways there is a signal system built into the
railway engine in order to keep the driver alert, as otherwise he would
even fall asleep. Sometimes deliberately in order to catch a few winks,
in certain engines this signalling system is tampered with. Therefore,
it is the responsibility of the railway authority to check the proper
functioning of this feature at regular intervals in order to keep the
driver alert during the entire journey.
Although it might appear as common sense to maintain railway tracks,
visibility of the driver and lights etc. these should be inspected
before each and every journey, and even if there is the slightest doubt
with respect to the quality of this important criteria it should be
rectified before the journey. As the railway carries a large amount of
passengers, one should not risk the lives of passengers merely because
of the lack of finances or lack of technically suitable persons, spare
parts etc. Improvements have to be done to the entire system including
quality and discipline of the workers in order to have a safe railway
system for the users.
Accidents are unplanned and unintentional events that result in harm
or loss of life, property, production, or nearly anything that has some
inherent value. Accidents are rarely simple and almost never result from
a single cause. Most accidents involve multiple, interrelated causal
factors. Accidents can occur whenever significant deficiencies,
oversights, errors, omissions or unanticipated changes are present. Any
one of these conditions can be a precursor for an accident; the only
uncertainties are when the accident will occur and how severe its
consequences will be.
Who dies? - Over the years, pedestrians remain the highest victims in
road accidents and although this is not directly applicable to railways,
the victims are mostly the travellers and property. They will continue
to remain vulnerable in our country so long as factors affecting them
are not adequately addressed by the relevant authorities. Therefore I
wish, before waiting for an eye-opener to occur with another tragic
event, it is time to address these issues in a proper, professional and
(The writer is the President of the Institution of Engineers, Sri
Lanka (IESL). The views expressed herein are the personal views of the