Power outages compromising level crossings

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The operation of 440 railway crossings equipped with bells and lights are jeopardised as a result of the long power outages.

Chief Engineer at Signal and Telecommunication, Chinthaka Jayasekara, at Sri Lanka Railways said the bell and light systems are not functioning properly as a result of frequent power outages while stressing that the systems are outfitted with batteries as well as generators to function in the event of a power outage.

“But the problem now is that we have no power for the generators,” he said.

Recalling the longest power outage of 13 hours, he expressed that the batteries were drained and that they did not receive enough power the next day to recharge them. He also highlighted that the inability to recharge has reduced the batteries’ functionality; making its use a pipe dream in long power outage.

Major risks

When asked if all railway crossings are protected by bell and light, he responded that only 440 are powered by the system, which is mostly found on the Coast and Puttalam lines. Others are protected and functioned by barriers.

The issue, as he points out, is that the bell and light system lacks a barrier or a gate to stop vehicles. Motorists must obey the bell and light signal and come to a complete stop.

“Once the power goes out and the batteries fail, there is no way of alerting the motorist. The train horn or the operational sound would not always be heard inside vehicles. But how can accidents be avoided if the only security option available is to avoid colliding with a train that is no longer operational?”

However, he expressed that signalling systems had previously worked flawlessly but are now experiencing difficulties as a result of the hours-long power outages. Once battery power is depleted, it requires some time to recharge, which is not possible during power outages.

Jayasekara said that the majority of the batteries connected to the bell and light system are malfunctioning and will only hold power for four hours or less. He noted that this is one of the major consequences of the lengthy power outages. “Despite the Government deciding to reduce the power outages to three to four hours, they are unable to operate the light and bell system due to battery failure”.

Battery price hike

When asked if the Railways Department is planning to buy new batteries to avoid the consequences, he replied that they are already on a tight budget. He emphasised that the Department received less funding and are unable to purchase batteries because battery prices have risen.

He claimed that a battery cost around Rs 25,000 a year ago, but is now more than Rs 50, 000, and that the Department had already placed two orders to purchase the batteries, but both orders were cancelled.

Jayasekara says the market quotation changes on a daily basis, and as a result, they cannot be stuck with a single quotation, which has caused purchasing batteries chaotic.

Diesel dearth

The Railway Department, on the other hand, is dealing with the consequences of a lack of diesel to power generators that power the signalling system.

“Even though we haven’t had any problems as a result of a lack of diesel, we occasionally struggle to get fuel, but it hasn’t had a significant impact on the signalling system. However, the issue we are currently dealing with is that of malfunctioning batteries, which can endanger human lives. We advise motorists and pedestrians to exercise caution when using railway crossings during power outages where the railway gates do not function. As a result, people are advised to exercise caution when using railway crossings during power outages,” he said.

In addition, he stated that signalling systems are designed in such a way that if something fails, such as a signal or a set of points, trains will stop before reaching that location. “If the power goes out, the signal goes black, and the driver knows not to pass a signal unless it has a green or yellow light. If a set of points fails, the last signal before it will automatically turn red, preventing trains from passing,” he said.

Concerning the same subject, Dhammika Jayasundara, General Manager of the Railway Department, stated that while the entire railway system did not collapse due to the power outage, many problems arose in various parts of the country due to a lack of diesel.

He stated that the generators are operating at full capacity during the longest power outages, and that the capacity of the generators as well as the batteries may no longer be functioning properly. He did say, however, that they are working hard to get systems up and running as soon as possible so that everyone can travel safely.

By Thameenah Razeek