Unused Railway Lines Posing Major Safety Hazard
By Thameenah Razeek
COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the economy in 2020, and now, in 2021, the pandemic has struck again with a new wave, taking a heavy toll on human life like never before. When the Government imposed a nationwide lockdown to prevent the virus from spreading, it appeared as if the entire country had come to a halt, forcing Sri Lankan Railways to suspend all passenger services, leaving overgrown bushes and grasses near and beside railway lines to become an eyesore.
A large number of wild plants and grasses were seen growing unchecked on railway tracks now unused by the usual passenger or cargo trains. Some grasses have grown to completely cover railway sleepers and tracks, obscuring any trace of a previous railway line. Uncontrolled invasive plants and grass on railroads, according to a top Transport Ministry source, pose a greater safety and operational issue, reducing sight for operators, posing a fire risk, or coming into contact with overhead catenary lines, causing passenger-train delays.
Who is in charge?
To keep vegetation growth under control, railroads have procedures in place to prevent bushes from sprouting, destroying those that have already sprouted and to control tree and bush development. When asked why this happens every lockdown, sources explained that when a lockdown is declared, railway management always reduces the crew by half, and the operation then resumes. He noted that there is a separate team called Way and Work sub department that is in charge of controlling grasses and vegetation alongside the railway track, but as far as he is aware, that team does not have a proper timetable or on how frequently they should clear the railway paths.
“When the workers report to work following the lockdown, the supervisor may be absent, and when the supervisor reports to work, the workers may be absent, and everyone knows that if neither the supervisor nor the worker is present, no job gets done,” sources added. However, during the pandemic, the railway management mechanism collapses, he added, because every employee in the Department was forced to deal with issues they had never dealt with before. He went on to say that, despite the COVID-19, workers at the Railway Department, which was known for getting paid higher wages than other workers, were well compensated, and that it is a well-known fact that train service is not very profitable because railway workers do not work as much as they are paid.
What is Department of Way and Works?
The sub-department of Way and Works has the most employees in the Department of Railways, followed by Transport, Mechanical, and Motive Power. A Way and Works sub department employee explained that their primary responsibility is to inspect the state of permanent railway tracks and line maintenance, as well as to ensure that the length of line and works under their supervision are properly maintained. He noted that the chief of the Way and Work sub department is responsible for interfering with train safety while also taking any necessary actions to prevent accidents.
“It is a little-discussed topic, but it is one of the most important in terms of the railroad’s foundation. The vast majority of people find it tedious and refuse to talk about it. It doesn’t get much attention or attention,” the source explained. The Way and Work employee must inspect the track immediately and take all reasonable steps to correct the defect. Another important responsibility of the sub department is to ensure the security of all rails, sleepers and other material under its control, as well as ensuring that unused items are appropriately piled clear off the line so that trains can run safely.
Why is the same thing going on again?
He went on to say that during previous lockdowns, they had encountered new challenges such as overgrown grass and vegetation along the railway line that had covered the rails and sleepers. Previously, once the lockdown was lifted, the Railways Department ran into major problems due to its failure to clean the growing grass that covered the railway tracks. Despite previous efforts to clear the grass, it was too late because those employed to clear the railway paths either began cleaning the paths 24 hours before the lockdown was lifted or on the day the lockdown was lifted. The source expressed regret that the same thing is happening again, and that the staff is not learning from their mistakes during the previous lockdown and is repeating them. The railway tracks in Kelani Valley were one of the clearest examples of how overgrown grass has taken over the tracks. He was unable to describe the damages caused by this neglect but did say that the risk is not insignificant and that a fire could result.
What threats are there?
Bush species that grow along the railway and obstruct operations and maintenance, especially power and signal lines. Furthermore, patches of bushes of various sizes can be seen growing in a variety of locations along railroad networks. The Station Masters’ Union (SLSMU) claimed that when the previous lockdown was lifted, the trains immediately began to run but they had to pass through railway lines covered in overgrown grass, causing them to halt at the point and then delay all trains until the grasses were cleared. According to Transport Ministry sources, trains can also derail and the metal driving wheels begin to spin in the same spot, causing sparks and massive fires to ignite. Furthermore, three years ago a special committee established by the Ministry of Transportation to prevent elephant deaths discovered that clearing shrubs up to 30 meters on both sides of the road can help prevent elephant deaths.
Steps previously taken
The SLSMU previously informed the former General Manager of Railways (GMR) in writing that the failure to remove overgrown grasses and bushes had caused a great deal of annoyance to passengers. The union claimed that during the previous lockdown, they informed the GMR about issues that could have been avoided, but no action had been taken. The letter, according to Kasun Chamara, SLSMU’s General Secretary, was written to avoid any hardship that might arise once the lockdown is lifted. They intend to send another letter to the current GMR, demanding that immediate safeguards be put in place before commuters are inconvenienced again.
Why does the sub department of Way and Work fail to function?
Current GMR, J.I.D. Jayasundara, stated that the sub department is not dysfunctional, but that work has been hampered due to the pandemic scenario, and that the Government’s primary goal is to eliminate gathering points and prevent the virus from spreading. As a result, he claimed, they have taken precautions to avoid engaging in activities that require a larger workforce. When asked what happens if the lockdown is lifted unexpectedly, he explained that the tracks are generally checked by the sub department, but the clearing process does not occur during the lockdown. He also stated that they will receive information from the Ministry before the lockdown is lifted and as a result, they will begin clearing some areas prior to the lockdown being lifted. He did admit, however, that the clearing process would take more than one day and that they might have to clean after the lockdown is lifted due to strict health regulations.
He explained that during the lockdown, their only goal is to avoid doing work that requires a large number of people and that they will have to excuse the workers because one of their primary goals is to protect the employees as well. When asked if the abrupt clean-up process incurs additional costs, he responded that no extra costs are incurred because the activity and clearing are handled by separate departments, adding that the only issue is that they will have to clean after the lockdown lifts on occasion. Lockdowns, curfews, and travel restrictions have become the new normal for us as a result of the pandemic and multiple COVID-19 waves. Sri Lanka faced a new dilemma a year ago, but it has now become the new normal. Rather than using the challenge as an excuse, we must now learn from it and learn to adapt to it. Therefore, the pandemic will have no effect on any individual, whether a commuter or a worker.
(Pix by Anuruddha Medawattegedara, Laksiri Rukman and Methmalie Dissanayake)