By Kamgar Ekta Committee (KEC) correspondent
The tragic railway accident near Bahanaga Bazaar Railway Station in Odisha on June 2, 2023, which claimed 288 lives, highlighted a pressing issue of safety in Indian Railways. While discussions on railway safety abound, the plight of railway workers remains overlooked. In this article we will look at the condition in which loco pilots (LPs) are made to work, We note that the plight of freight train LPs, who constitute a significant portion of the running staff, is even worse.
Despite an agreement limiting LPs’ shift to nine hours (which itself is excessive), these pilots are now compelled to work gruelling 12-hour shifts. The South East Central Railway reported that over a third of LPs worked more than 12 hours in a month. Additionally, consecutive night shifts have become routine, far exceeding recommended limits. LPs frequently face 72-hour working spells with mere 16-hour breaks at home, straining family life and exacerbating fatigue.
The mandated 16-hour breaks between shifts have been rendered ineffective due to inadequate rest conditions at their home stations. Commuting long distances, dilapidated railway colonies, and substandard accommodation further reduce LPs’ rest time. Periodical rest periods, essential for recuperation, are also insufficient. The Railway Ministry’s own Task Force on Safety (2017) acknowledged the inadequacy of home rest.
The exhaustion stemming from extended work shifts, ongoing night duties, and insufficient and quality sleep are significant contributors to railway accidents.
The proliferation of signals has added a new layer of stress for LPs. The irregular placement of signals, flouting established norms, and equipment backlog further challenge the LPs’ ability to respond. This increases the risk of Signal Passed At Danger (SPAD) incidents, which are often attributed to LP negligence.
In case of accidents LPs are among those categories that are the first to be blamed. If they die during the accident, it becomes easier for the authorities to do that. A simple question does not bother the authorities: why would the LPs be negligent about their own safety, first and foremost, apart from the excessive burden of guilt they carry for no fault of theirs even when anyone is run over?
The sub-contracting of train marshalling has led to the violation of train formation rules, escalating the risk of derailment and endangering the lives of LPs. For example, goods trains must incorporate empty wagons interspersed between loaded ones to mitigate the strain on loaded wagons during abrupt braking. Unfortunately, these empty wagons are often neglected, increasing the likelihood of loaded wagons lifting in the event of sudden braking, potentially resulting in derailment or even the overturning of the train.
Moreover, LPs assert that contractors frequently overload goods trains with materials like coal and iron ore, surpassing the prescribed weight limits on railway wagons. This can lead to axle breakage and, consequently, train derailments.
The sub-contracting of work in the Carriage and Wagon departments within loco sheds has compromised the maintenance of rolling stock. Previously, a train underwent inspection at a Carriage and Wagon depot every 400 km. Nowadays, trains often embark on lengthy journeys, such as from Mumbai to Kolkata, without a single inspection. In some cases, goods trains undertake many trips without undergoing the necessary checks.
Loco cabs lack temperature regulation, causing extreme discomfort. Noise levels exceed safe limits, contributing to stress and affecting concentration. Uncomfortable seating arrangements further strain LPs. LPs are often required to handle distressing situations, such as recovering and moving corpses from the tracks, without adequate safety equipment.
A significant number of categories of railway workers, including the LP category, are in dire need of additional workforce to reduce the excessive existing workload. They are being stretched to their limits, and even beyond, to compensate for the shortage in staff.
The Railway Board’s practice of reducing sanctioned posts without considering operational needs has worsened the situation. In the COVID-19 period alone, a staggering 80,000 sanctioned railway posts were surrendered. Over the past three decades, the railway workforce has dwindled by more than 4.4 lakhs, even as demands on the system have surged.
Source: Railway Year Book 2021-2022
The challenges faced by freight train LPs in India are huge and demand urgent attention. Lengthened work hours, inadequate rest periods, and compromised safety standards have created a hazardous working environment. It is imperative that the railway authorities and policymakers address these issues to ensure the well-being of LPs and, by extension, the safety of passengers.