Playing to the gallery can be injurious to rail safety

A heavy-handed approach in dealing with Indian Railway locomotive pilots can be counter productive

Updated - May 28, 2024 08:40 am IST

Published - May 28, 2024 01:03 am IST

“Of late, loco pilots and assistant pilots of the Indian Railways (earlier called drivers and assistant drivers), seem to be at the receiving end of an attitude of the management that can best be described as ‘playing to the gallery’.” 

“Of late, loco pilots and assistant pilots of the Indian Railways (earlier called drivers and assistant drivers), seem to be at the receiving end of an attitude of the management that can best be described as ‘playing to the gallery’.”  | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR/THE HINDU

Believe it or not, adhering to the rules can sometimes invite disciplinary action. A few weeks ago, in one of the zonal railways, disciplinary action was sought to be taken against the pilot of a “light engine”, i.e., a locomotive without a trailing load of coaches or wagons, who was tasked with clearing a train stranded in midsection as the locomotive had failed. The case was that the pilot had not spoken to his supervisor over the phone, but it was actually for not having run at a higher speed than 15 km that was permitted in the written authorisation given to him by the station master under the rules for operation in a section that is blocked by another train. Why was he asked to do this? It was to minimise the delay to passenger trains held up due to the disruption . Apparently, punctuality took priority over safety. Fortunately, with the incident gaining media attention, the proposed disciplinary action was withdrawn.

Of late, loco pilots and assistant pilots of the Indian Railways (earlier called drivers and assistant drivers), seem to be at the receiving end of an attitude of the management that can best be described as “playing to the gallery”. Let me explain with two more examples.

The runaway train

On February 25, 2024, a train formation, consisting of two diesel locomotives, both unmanned, and 53 wagons, that were loaded with stone ballast, with no brake van, rolled out of Kathua station of the Northern Railway unmanned. Because of the continuous falling gradient of the terrain, the “pilotless train’’ in both locomotives continued its journey for over 70 kilometres before it could be finally stopped . Fortunately, by routing the runaway train through unoccupied lines along the way a major disaster was averted.

Since access to a copy of the inquiry report in this case has been denied under a restrictive clause of the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005, this writer has had to go by the version put out in the media by one of the staff organisations . According to this version, the pilots, who were beyond their normal hours of duty, had requested to be relieved. But, instead of allowing them to proceed to their base station which was nearer, orders were issued to them to stable (park) the train and proceed by a passenger train (which had already arrived at the station) to another station further away from their base station. The insufficient time available to the pilots to ensure proper securing of the stabled load on a station with a gradient seems to have been a critical factor that led to the train rolling away. Yet, the most stringent provision of the discipline and appeal rules of the Railways was invoked in this case to summarily remove the pilots along with the station master and a pointsman from service.

The third case is a serious accident, a tragedy wrapped in a mystery. On October 29, 2023, at about 7 p.m., the Visakhapatnam-Rayagada Passenger collided with the rear of the Visakhapatnam-Palasa Passenger, also travelling on the same line, between Kantakapalle and Almanda stations on the Howrah-Chennai line. The collision led to the death of 14 passengers, apart from the pilot and assistant pilot of the rear train and the guard (train manager) of the train in front. Fifty passengers were injured.

There was a statutory inquiry after the accident, conducted by the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS), South Central Circle who functions under the Ministry of Civil Aviation. The Preliminary Report of the CRS/SC Circle, which was submitted in November 2023, a little over two weeks after the accident, had concluded that the accident was caused by “errors in train working” — essentially meaning that the station staff and the crew of the train in the rear had not followed the rules of operation on a section with automatic signalling in which some signals were also defective.

The case of ‘distractions’

Over four months after the accident, in early March 2024 and before the publication of the Final Report of the CRS, the Minister for Railways announced to the media (Eureka!) that an inquiry conducted by the Railway officials a day after the accident had revealed that the attention of the crew of one of the trains involved in the accident was distracted as they were watching a cricket match on a mobile phone. Based on this finding, the Minister added, for good measure, that the Indian Railways would now be installing systems which would be able to detect any distractions and ensure that the pilots and assistant pilots are focused on train working.

The Preliminary Report of the CRS, accessed by this writer through the RTI route, nowhere mentions that the attention of the crew was diverted due to their watching a cricket match on a mobile phone. On the contrary, the CRS has commented that during the 10 minutes preceding the collision, the loco pilot of the rear train had performed nine different operations testifying to his alertness.

The Final Report of the CRS, which was released recently, essentially reiterates the conclusion of the Preliminary Report. And now, according to a report published in this daily on May 3, 2024 , we are informed that “with no evidence forthcoming later in the mobile data usage to substantiate the allegation that the loco pilots were watching cricket’’ on mobile phone at the time of the collision, the Railways have recalled the safety circulars issued in this context. This sordid episode — which seems to be a classic case of first formulating a theory and then later looking for evidence to support it — raises a few questions.

Troubling questions

If, as it turns out now, no evidence was forthcoming from the mobile call records to substantiate the allegation that the pilots were watching a cricket match, on what basis was an announcement made four months after the CRS submitted his Preliminary Report, by the Union Minister for Railways to that effect? Was there an attempt at the lower levels to plant a red herring? After all, watching a cricket match on a mobile phone can be blamed on a reckless crew, whereas the flouting of rules of train operation in automatic signalling territory by the station staff and the loco crew partially reflects on the administration for improper training of the staff or ineffective monitoring of train working under abnormal conditions.

The episode, unfortunately, also exposes a surprising lack of professionalism in the Railways at various levels in dealing with the investigation of a serious accident. And, what is even worse, it also shows a deplorable lack of sensitivity in handling a matter involving two deceased railway employees.

Each case recounted above is vastly different from the other. Yet, there are some common threads running through all of them. All involved loco pilots. Each case was linked to rail safety. Each case showcased an over-weening eagerness at various levels of the hierarchy to punish or blame, almost expecting approbation from “the gallery’’ for a tough, no-nonsense approach. The gallery varies in each case: the immediate superior, the bosses in the Ministry, or the media and the public at large.

The cases also call for some serious introspection. With nearly 10% vacancies in the cadre of loco pilots and also ever increasing volumes of freight traffic handled each year, it is a no-brainer that such record-breaking performances are made possible only by the regular breach of the rules governing the duty hours of the running staff to a significant extent. There are also other issues such as continuous night working and inadequate rest at home stations, all of which point to the need for putting in place a mechanism to give focused attention to the major issues concerning loco pilots. Meanwhile, playing to the gallery can adversely impact rail safety.

K. Balakesari, formerly of the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers, was also Member Staff, Railway Board

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