Was the suburban motorman who averted a mishap by halting the train seconds before collapsing on the cabin floor a victim of a heavy workload?

S. Manohar was driving an EMU from Gummidipoondi to Chennai on Wednesday afternoon when he collapsed inside the cabin and died a few hours later at the Railway Hospital, Perambur. The incident has revived concerns about the stressful conditions under which motormen of Chennai Division operate.

While in this case, it is learnt that the motorman was working overtime to accumulate extra income to overcome financial constraints, sources say that there are many instances where overtime duty is thrust on loco pilots due to a chronic shortage of the cadre. “The number of motormen on overtime duty at any given point of time goes against Railway rules that forbid abuse of overtime duty in the system,” a motorman said.

According to V. Balachandran, divisional secretary of the All India Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA), there is a 20 per cent shortage of loco pilots on a conservative estimate. As against the 393 sanctioned posts of motormen, about 95 lie vacant as of December 2012 in Chennai Division. With authorities under pressure to increase train services to meet passenger demand — the Railways operates close to 450 services every day on Chennai’s suburban lines — many motormen have to put up with punishing schedules.

The contention of the AILRSA, which has been lobbying for improving working conditions of motormen, is that a lower workload for loco pilots has to be the starting point for the Railway’s efforts to improve safety. The AILRSA’s demands have included implementing the Railway Board recommendations to limit continuous night duty cycles to two and working hours to six and adoption of standardised and crew-friendly loco cabins. It also wants the 22-30 hours periodical rest system to be modified as calendar day rest and reduction of duty time of Mail / Express crews to six hours.

Sources say that though the Labour Ministry has stipulated six hours as the duty hours of motormen, the Railway Board is yet to act on this.

When contacted, Railway officials admitted that there was a shortage of loco pilots, but were optimistic of the situation improving soon with the intake of about 150 Assistant Loco Pilots. “Though it normally takes about 15 years of service for an ALP to graduate into a motorman and then a mail/express driver, recruitment of ALPs would have a cascading effect in promotions, including those to the posts of loco pilots,” an official said.

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