Life off-track for railway workers in Kerala

Track maintainers, gatekeepers, loco pilots, train guards, and travelling ticket examiners are all key to ensuring the safety of trains. However, they work in hostile environments without basic facilities, which often put their health and sometimes their life at risk

Updated - April 19, 2024 10:31 am IST

Published - April 19, 2024 12:02 am IST

Travelling ticket examiners often face unruly behaviour from intoxicated passengers.

Travelling ticket examiners often face unruly behaviour from intoxicated passengers. | Photo Credit: H VIBHU

Earlier in April, hundreds of people turned up for the funeral of V. Vinod, in Ernakulam, in central Kerala. A travelling ticked examiner (TTE), he was allegedly pushed off the Ernakulam-Patna Express a fortnight ago by a man travelling ticketless as it was passing through Thrissur district. Vinod and his mother had just moved into their new home in February. He was due to return from his trip and attend a temple festival.

“Vinod and I worked together for 20 years,” says Justin J., a fellow TTE and the Kochi branch secretary of the Southern Railway Mazdoor Union (SRMU), a recognised union in Railways. Vinod was the treasurer. “He was committed to duty always, but above all he was an artist. He had done some but notable roles in more than a dozen movies alongside superstars such as Mammootty and Mohanlal,” Joseph remembers.

“TTEs face intimidation by ticketless and intoxicated travellers; people pressure them for the train to stop at non-designated stations, and waitlisted passengers and those with RAC (reservation against cancellation) tickets often harass them,” says V. Anilkumar, general secretary of SRMU, which has over 70,000 employees as members. He says while most TTEs, including women, are mandated to verify credentials of passengers on three coaches, there are 24-coach trains with just one TTE.

SRMU, a recognised union, organised demonstrations and commemoration meetings at Ernakulam Junction railway station and at other stations in Kerala and Tamil Nadu seeking steps to ensure the safety of TTEs across the two States, where the South Railway’s jurisdiction extends. 

It’s not just TTEs though. The working conditions of track maintainers, gatekeepers, loco pilots, train guards (now called train managers), in all over one lakh employees — all engaged in operational and safety duties — need an overhaul of working conditions, for their own health and safety.

Health and safety compromised

Ligi (name changed), 35, among the around 30,000 track maintainers of the Southern Railway, walks up to 20 km each day. Like her colleagues in Kottayam, she keeps a close watch on the condition of tracks and tightens fish-plate bolts and other track components, come rain or shine.

She carries a pair of red flags, a green flag, and 10 detonators to attract the attention of colleagues/train crew in case of an emergency, apart from the tools needed to maintain the track for smooth service. She is often at the mercy of local residents when she feels like using the restroom, since the ‘gang room’, a shelter for track maintainers to rest, is almost always far away.

TTEs often face unruly behaviour from intoxicated passengers.

TTEs often face unruly behaviour from intoxicated passengers. | Photo Credit: H VIBHU

“Many residents turn away track maintainers and those engaged in ‘keyman’ jobs, telling them it is the Railway’s duty to provide them with toilets. So many of us have urinary and other health problems,” she says. “The worst part is that the condition of toilets attached to most gang rooms is worse than that of cattle sheds, with water in short supply. Personnel deployed for keyman duty along the track have to bear the additional burden of heavy bags [for equipment].” She adds that the engineering wing she is a part of is the lifeline of Railways, vested with the prime task of ensuring the safe movement of trains.

Many like her rue that railway doctors are most often reluctant to issue a ‘sick certificate’ and instead recommend ‘medication while on duty’ to avoid granting them leave. While seeking promotion opportunities for track-maintenance workers — comprising even post-graduates — Sarathkumar S., chairperson of the engineering council of SRMU, laments that those who complain about working conditions, extended hours of work, and the unwillingness to grant sick leave, are often unduly punished by their supervisory officials.

Track maintenance personnel have the added risk of being mowed down by unexpected arrival of trains, mainly during inclement weather. “Around 300 of our colleagues die each year due to this reason alone. Our demand for walkie-talkies to get live alerts on train movement and contact personnel from remote areas in case of emergency has fallen on deaf ears,” says Sarathkumar. 

Worrying working conditions

Even the newly-launched Vande Bharat trains do not have toilets for loco pilots and train guards, says Priya (name changed), a loco pilot. This, despite the National Human Rights Commission directing Railways in 2016 to provide air-conditioning and toilets in the engine room.

Photos of V. Vinod, a TTE who was fatally pushed out of a moving train at Thrissur adorn the walls of the office of the Chief Ticket Inspector, Ernakulam.

Photos of V. Vinod, a TTE who was fatally pushed out of a moving train at Thrissur adorn the walls of the office of the Chief Ticket Inspector, Ernakulam. | Photo Credit: H VIBHU

“We are posted on goods trains during our early days in service. There have been occasions when I have worked 15 hours and served in excess of the 72-hour outstation duty, since there is major delay in filling vacancies. The situation is only a little better on passenger trains. The child-care leave that women personnel can avail themselves of for up to two years is seldom given,” she rues, having faced a similar situation herself.

She narrates the harrowing time women loco pilots have, especially during their menstrual cycle. “There have been occasions during my two-decade stint when I soiled my clothes. Railways must build staff-only toilets at signal points, to end this misery.” 

A train guard with about five years of service remembers an incident from 10 years ago, when a woman who was five months pregnant fell unconscious while on duty at a railway yard in Kerala. “Things have not improved since then,” she says.

“It is tough to seek help from the RPF [Railway Protection Force] and police personnel on board, unless they give us their phone number when boarding the train,” she adds.

Another train guard cites the urgent need for a weekly day off, adequate rest, family time, and leave for the operational staff, especially since they have extended working hours (up to 72 hours a week) and also witness suicides and deaths on rail tracks. “The silver lining is that we now have AC rest rooms, that were readied after years of agitation.”

Anilkumar says it’s tough for women gatekeepers in remote locations, as they have to be vigilant against sexual assaults. “There have been occasions when some of them were accompanied by their husbands until their duty hours got over. Both men and women track-maintaining staff are highly vulnerable to attacks by inebriated people too. Those who seek safety measures from Railways are often termed as anti-government,” he laments.

Asking in many different ways

For decades, railway engineering wing officials have been crying foul, through memoranda and strikes, about the sub-human working conditions and the delay in filling vacancies, including of track-maintenance staff, despite its direct implication on the safety of trains.

A keyman attempted suicide in Kollam in 2022, alleging in a suicide note that he was being forced to do additional work and harassed by an official who supervised the people on track-upkeep duty.

Railway personnel have been expressing alarm internally and through the media, at how being continuously deployed for track upkeep for 20 km could lead to reduced alertness levels. They also flag the delay in filling vacancies, despite the increase in track length and the number of trains. 

The working conditions of catering staff, most hailing from other States, is even worse, mainly because most of them are contract personnel. 

The All India Loco Running Staff Association (AILRSA) has warned of strengthening its agitation that began last year demanding a weekly rest and recuperation day, a toilet in the engine room, and rationalisation of working hours. “The non-availability of toilet often prompts loco pilots, including women, from drinking adequate water, despite the sweltering heat in the engine room. Railways must also fill the 16,000 loco pilot vacancies, since extended working hours could result in fatigue,” says Harish P.K., zonal organising secretary of AILRSA.

Optimal use of manpower: Railways

Terming most of the concerns of operational and safety personnel as ‘part of their job, railway sources say the emphasis has been on optimal use of manpower in order to prevent escalation of operational expenses. That does not mean that vacancies will remain unfilled. There is an action plan, including to fill vacancies and build more number of crew-only toilets along rail corridors.“

All personnel are well paid and there are forums within Railways where they can redress their grievances regarding working conditions. It is a known fact that the workload, especially of loco pilots and guards, increases and they might have to work on their weekly off day, especially during Sabarimala pilgrimage season when more special trains operate to Kerala. They can avail themselves of compensatory off later on, while their demand to return to the base station within two days will have to be looked into.

They get extra allowance if they have to work away from their base station for more than two days. With tracks being strengthened in order to increase the speed of trains in Kerala, personnel will get the benefit of more hours of rest when trains reach their destination faster. On the demand for toilet within the loco engine, the sources say loco pilots can well use the toilets at major railway stations , where trains halt for approximately five minutes, while passing through Kerala.

On track maintainers

On incidents of track maintainers being fatally knocked down by trains – the latest at the Piravom Road section a week ago, they say most track maintainers can make out a train coming from afar, from sounds and vibrations. “Accidents occur mostly when they are absentminded or when a train comes unexpected, even as another is crossing a point,” they say, quoting safety officers.

Likewise, track maintainers now have a relatively better working atmosphere since trains now have biotoilets and tracks are much cleaner. Understandably, many operational and safety personnel are unable to cope with the stress triggered when they witness death and accidents on the tracks. They join the job after being trained in managing and coping with such situations. But it will be difficult to heed to their demand not to deploy them during noon time in the summer season as this will have implications on rail safety, say the sources.

They say the workload of TTEs has lessened, post the introduction of hand-held tablets. This is quite a change from the days when they used to carry paper reservation charts having details of passengers. Taking into account frequent incidents of stand-off with migrant workers and unruly passengers, there is now better awareness about how to tackle such situations. This has been re-emphasised following the recent death of a TTE who was pushed out of a moving train. Both the RPF and Government Railway Police personnel have stepped up vigil.

Railways have also lessened duty hours of gatekeepers at level-crossings from 12 hours to eight hours, considering the increased work load due to operation of more trains after track doubling was completed through Kottayam, among other places, they say.

If in distress, please reach out to these 24x7 helplines: KIRAN 1800-599-0019 or DISHA 1056, 0471-2552056.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.