First-hand account

Arduous work, little rest

Print edition : October 13, 2017

R.K. Sharma

Interview with R.K. Sharma, who worked as a guard with the Indian Railways for 36 years.

THE loco pilot, or engine driver, is the lifeline of a train. The key member of the running staff employed on a moving train, the pilot, along with assistants, guards and firemen, ensures the smooth and safe running of a mail, passenger or goods train. But the conditions under which they have to work can only be described as inhuman. Often required to work for 20 hours a day, they are provided little or no protection from extreme weather conditions like rain or heat. Until last year, there was not even a toilet in the engines. A driver lost his life when he got down to relieve himself on the tracks and got hit by an oncoming train in Assam. Though the facility of bio toilets was announced with much fanfare last year, it is expensive and there are not enough bio toilets to address the needs of 60,000 loco pilots in the country.

To better understand the pathetic conditions in which railway running staff work, Frontline spoke to R.K. Sharma, who worked as a guard with the Indian Railways for 36 years. His son has been working as a loco pilot/driver of passenger trains for 22 years. Sharma has completely lost hearing in his right ear and can only partially hear with his left. His condition might well be an outcome of his job where noise levels are beyond deafening. After retirement, Sharma devotes his time to union activities in the Northern Railway.

What is the nature of work of a guard and loco pilot?

The person who signals with a flag is the guard. He is responsible for all the passengers on a train, especially in case of accidents. The driver’s job is arduous. After many years of negotiations with the Railway Board, the total duty time is mandated at 10 hours with eight hours as running duty, even when trains are late. In reality, the driver ends up working for 15-20 hours. A typical scenario is like this: If a train arrives several hours late, the driver ends up waiting at the station in addition to his duty hours; then he drives 470 kilometres from Delhi to Amritsar where he has to make 300 signal exchanges—at the station, within the cabin, with the gateman—at 110 kmph [kilometres per hour] speed. Now, isn’t there fatigue? The driver cannot blink! He has to look left and right and be watchful of gate accidents. The eyes of the driver are always wide open, like that of an owl. A single blink can be costly, putting the lives of thousands of passengers in jeopardy. The physical exertion is tremendous, and heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure are common diseases among railway staff. The nature of the job is such that they become medically unfit and are asked to take up another job, which results in a monetary loss.

Is the compensation adequate?

It is all right, but the Fifth Pay Commission created an anomaly, which was continued in the Seventh Pay Commission as well. The Grade Pay for assistant drivers is Rs.1,900. After promotion they get Rs.2,400 as Grade Pay and then Rs.4,200 as shunting driver. The drivers for goods, passenger and mail, all get Rs.4,200 as Grade Pay. Our demand is to have separate Grade Pays. They get overtime but they don’t want OT, they want to be relieved on time so they can go home.

What about bullet trains?

Sounds like a good initiative. If it is on an elevated corridor, then it lessens the chance of accidents. What it would mean for Railway staff depends on the service conditions. We’ll have to wait and watch.

Does the running staff get enough holidays and rest?

We do not get calendar day rests like other employees of the Railways. The non-running staff, like parcel clerks, booking agents and station masters, all get 56-hour rest. We get five rests of 22 hours in one month [110 hours] or four rests of 30 hours [120 hours]. After completing a journey, we get an eight-hour break. If a driver has gone from Delhi to Amritsar overnight eight hours on the 9:30 p.m. Jhelum Express, he arrives at his destination at 5 in the morning. He would naturally use the washroom, eat some breakfast, drink some tea and then head to sleep. That would take two hours at least. His next duty is assigned at 1 p.m. for which he has to be up two hours before. So essentially, he gets four hours of sleep only. Is that enough to compensate for a full night’s duty?

Besides, there is no provision to wake him up on time. Alarm clocks don’t work because they tend to wake up everybody else in the running room as well. Even the trackman, who has a tough job, gets two hours’ break in the afternoon. The reservation clerk has duty for six hours. Why this discrepancy? We are demanding calendar day rests like other employees.

What should be done to improve the lot of the railway workers?

The infrastructure is seriously compromised owing to constant wear and tear and needs to be replaced urgently. The Lohe ka Pul [wrought iron bridge] in Old Delhi outlived its utility 20 years ago but is still in use. It was built in 1833. Trains ply on it at reduced speeds. The day it breaks, there will be a colossal tragedy. The private company L&T [Larsen & Toubro] was supposed to build a replacement bridge next to it. But the work is going nowhere because of differences between Ministries. But they have built the pillars. So there are pillars standing in a line but nothing else.

A parliamentary committee report stated that there were 1,41,396 vacancies in every category of loco running staff, out of which 18,633 are for loco pilots. These should be filled at the earliest.

The archaic rules and regulations also need to go. Back in the day when metre gauge was in use, a train derailed and 400 passengers died. Instead of owning up the mechanical defect, the Railway Board blamed the storm and released an order stating that all trains have to be stopped when they see a storm brewing and passengers are ordered to open the windows. The order still finds a place in the Indian Railways General & Subsidiary Rules (2010) manual. It is an absolutely foolish order and we have challenged it. Powerful hurricanes in the United States do not derail trains, and they want us to believe such [nonsense]?

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