Most of these illegal crossings have been erected by government agencies
Over the past five years, there have been 111 deaths on the rail lines. Of them, 99 were killed when they were crossing the tracks.
Illegal rail crossings have further injured 151 people, out of 298 injuries in the same span of time.
While head-on collisions or derailments attract more attention, it is the level crossings which inflicted most casualties, according to Bangladesh Railway (BR) data.
After a recent train crash in Brahmabaria that killed 17 and injured 57, rail safety issues have come to the fore once again. A large number of unauthorized, unplanned, and unprotected level crossings have been tempting people to gamble their lives for the sake of urgency.
What is most shocking in the situation is that most of them are erected by government organizations – the Dhaka North and South city corporations, the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), the Tongi Municipality, and one by a private entity – Bonorupa Housing Project in Khilkhet, according to a list provided by Bangladesh Railway.
The Peyarabag level crossing in Moghbazar is one of the deadliest unauthorized level crossings in Dhaka. It is one of the 12 level crossings between Dhaka and Tongi. The level crossing was set up by by the Dhaka South City Corporation. Previously, a road ran across the rail tracks, connecting two lanes. But the road has since been demolished to prevent vehicles from crossing over illegally.
However, the lack of a road has not prevented pedestrians from crossing the tracks. The waist-high metal poles sunken into the sides of the tracks are no obstacle to the pedestrians. The crossing is perilous, with no gatekeeper, and further jeopardized by the visual impairment caused by the clusters of buildings stacked together.
Faruk, a local snack vendor, said he had witnessed two deaths this year; both victims were wearing headphones when crossing the tracks. A local resident called Tapan, who grew up in the area, said deaths were more frequent than injuries at the crossing.
Like Peyarabag, the other 11 unauthorized level crossings have no railway staff to control the pedestrians when a train comes around.
Regarding the illegal rail crossings, an engineer with Bangladesh Railway's Dhaka Division said: "We have tried to prevent pedestrians, but the demand from the local public is too high. Nobody asks for permissions to set up these level crossings."
The Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) denied establishing illegal level crossings.
“We would not take such risks. We are not authorized to set up rail crossings. Nonetheless, I will verify it,” said Md Sharif Uddin, acting additional chief engineer at the DNCC.
According to the existing rules, within 10 metres on both sides of the rail tracks, any kind of settlements and structure, and human and vehicular movement are prohibited. From Kamalapur to Joydebpur, the 53km long rail route has 85 level crossings – three in every two kilometres on average – according to the Bangladesh Railway.
These include unauthorized, authorized manned and unmanned level crossings. Of those, 15 are major level crossings.
Manned and unmanned level crossings
There are 1,468 authorized level crossings across the country – 564 manned and 904 unmanned, said Mia Jahan, assistant director general (operations) of Bangladesh Railway.
But the number of unauthorized level crossings far exceeds that of the authorized ones, numbering above 12,000.
The unmanned rail crossings, not having or needing gatekeepers to operate, are set by the BR in the roads where vehicles move less frequently. Pedestrians have to cross responsibly.
About 2,000 gatekeepers are recruited on a temporary basis for the unmanned gates, while 2,200 have yet to be recruited as per demand, Mia Jahan said.
“There is a backlog in recruiting manpower. But (in reality) we do not want these level crossings,” said Mostafizur Rahman, another engineer with the Dhaka Division of Bangladesh Railway.
At least 1,028 level crossings in the Bangladesh Railway's west zone have no gatekeeper. And no notifications have been issued for recruitment either, according to a media report.
Although a project was undertaken to restore and develop rail crossings in June 2015, only 77% has been competed as of June 2019.