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Labour

Pushed to the Limit: The Working Lives of India’s Freight Train Drivers

Loco pilots are being pushed to the limit to cover the work on the railways – through lengthening work hours, continuous night shifts and reduced rest times. These conditions go a long way in explaining the recent spate of fatal railway accidents.

On June 2, 2023, 288 people were killed in a railway crash near Bahanaga Bazaar Railway Station in Odisha, making this India’s worst train accident since 1995. The discussion on railway safety this has provoked has largely ignored the working conditions of railway workers, perhaps the largest public-sector workforce in the country. The following two articles consider the working conditions of railway train drivers, known in the Indian Railways as ‘loco pilots’ (LPs), particularly freight or goods LPs who constitute roughly 70% of the total LPs in the country. The information for these articles was collected through interviews with members of the Loco Running Staff Association (LRSA), a trade union of approximately 44,000 railway running staff.

The first article looks at LPs’ lengthening working hours, shrinking rest periods, and the impact this has on railway accidents.

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Today, India faces a severe unemployment crisis. Yet, state-sector jobs are being cut in large numbers, deepening this crisis – particularly in the railways, perhaps India’s largest formal-sector industrial employer.

Here, the scale of the problem is larger than commonly stated. Railway minister Ashwini Vaishnav said on February 3, 2023 in the Rajya Sabha that there were almost 3.15 lakh vacant posts out of the total sanctioned strength of the railway workforce. But this figure, alarming as it is, does not give us a true picture of the manpower crisis in the network.

The Railway Board has been reducing the total number of sanctioned posts (known as “surrendering”) in the railways over the years, without proper concerns for the operational needs of the system. In 2014, Frontline reported that a government order circulated by the Railways said that no post that had been vacant for a year or more should be revived and no new post should be created. The article quoted A.K. Padmanabhan of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions as saying: “They don’t hire people and then abolish the post saying that it has been vacant for a long time.” The LRSA claimed in a press release dated March 22, 2023 that in the Covid period no less than 80,000 sanctioned railway posts were surrendered. In recent instances, Group D workers of the Central Railways have found that examinations for positions they have been preparing for since 2019 have been surrendered; and the general manager, South Central Railways, has issued a letter on August 21, 2023 claiming 2,195 more posts are to be surrendered.

It is perhaps more instructive to consider the absolute decline in the size of the railway workforce over the past decades. According to railway ministry statistics, there has been a consistent decline in the number of railway workers since at least 1991:

Year Number of railway employees (in lakhs) Loss of railway jobs

(in lakhs)

1990-1991 16.52 N/A
2000-2001 15.45 – 1.07
2010-2011 13.32 – 2.13
2021-2022 12.12 – 1.20
Total decline from 1991-2022 – 4.40

Source: Railway Year Book 2021-2022

That is to say, over the past 31 years, more than a quarter of the workforce, or 4.4 lakh jobs, have been cut in the railways. And this has come at a time when the manpower requirements of the railways have often increased rather than decreased. In the same period, the total track length increased by almost 18%, the number of coaches by 21% and the number of locomotives by 57%.

This discrepancy is especially sharp if seen from the point of view of LPs. From 1991 to 2012, as the railway workforce was slashed by 3.2 lakhs, the number of trains increased fourfold and often their speed doubled. Moreover, as the railway ministry’s 2013 Report of High Power Committee to Review the Duty Hours of Running and other Safety Related Categories of Staff (HPC) put it, for running staff “the stress levels have apparently gone up many times due to higher speeds, heavier loads, continuous, sustained attention for viewing and acting upon the aspect of approach signals … requirement of latest technical knowledge and technique for trouble shooting”.

This article considers the impact of these developments on the working conditions of LPs, particularly those who pilot freight trains. LPs are being pushed to the limit to cover the work on the railways – through lengthening work hours, continuous night shifts and reduced rest times. These conditions go a long way in explaining the recent spate of fatal railway accidents.

Longer work hours and consecutive night shifts: “Bacche poochenge, hamara baap hai kya?

In 1973, the LRSA led a nationwide strike demanding that “running duty” (the portion of an LP’s shift in which the locomotive is being driven) be restricted to eight hours. The agreement signed between the Railway Board and the union stated that running staff will not be required to work for more than 10 hours at a stretch, and that this number would be reduced by half an hour every year until running time reached a maximum of eight hours.

Yet, half a century later, LPs are regularly being forced to work shifts of 12 hours and more. This is despite the fact that according to the Railway Board, LPs’ hours of duty are a maximum of nine hours running time, extendable to 11 hours in exceptional circumstances. To take just one example, The Hindu reported that more than a third of LPs in the South East Central Railway worked more than 12 hours in March, April and the first half of May this year. And LPs are systematically being forced to work these hours on pain of punishment – LRSA officials claims there are hundreds of cases in which LPs have been officially penalised for not agreeing to work beyond their stipulated working-hours.

Consecutive night shift duty has also been extended (night working is defined as working between 10 pm and 6 am). LPs today claim that working five or six consecutive night shifts has become routine. This is despite the fact that the HPC recommended LPs work at most two nights in a row, citing an Indian Railways Design and Standards Organisation study, Psycho-Technology on Indian Railways that found that working on a second consecutive night shift has been found to dampen mental alertness, making drivers vulnerable to operational lapses.

And LPs must often work a series of 12-hour days and night shifts while being away from their homes for up to three days at a stretch, with eight rather than the usual 16-hour breaks between shifts. During these spells of “outstation duty”, LPs live in dormitory-style “running rooms” which are not conducive to the good and uninterrupted sleep that they require. For instance, 25 beds for railwaymen are often put in one dormitory – since different crews have different working times, when one crew awakes for work, the sleep of all the others is disturbed. These 72-hour working periods are sometimes worked with just a 16-hour break between them – giving LPs only 16 hours at home with their family in six days.

When asked about the impact of this on family life, an LP I interviewed replied: “Bacche poochenge, hamara baap hai kya (Our children will ask, do we have a father)?”

All India Loco Running Staff Association’s meeting of around 500 running staff near Jantar Mantar protesting against the monetisation of the Railways and to seek remedies to the grievances faced by running staff. Photo: Zaen Alkazi

Shrinking rest periods: “Sola ghante kha gae

While single, continuous and night shifts have lengthened, changes to railway housing and manipulations of the periodical break periods LPs are entitled to have been chipping away at their time for rest.

Although LPs should have a 16-hour break between shifts at their home stations, they cannot properly relax in these periods. They must always be ready to report to work – they are only given two hours to report for duty, sometimes even less – and if they are even five minutes late to work penalised and their pay and increments are cut. On the other hand, LPs claim that due to the mismanagement of rosters after signing on for work, they are sometimes kept waiting for up to four hours while the train is being prepared, a period when they could be home and resting.

These 16-hour rest periods are curtailed by the fact that many railway workers who used to live in railway colonies a short distance from their home stations now live at a distance from them and must commute to and from work. Over the years, LPs report that conditions in railway colonies have been deteriorating, an issue railway unions have raised complaints about. To take just one example, Delhi’s large Tughlakabad Railway Colony which is connected by overbridge to Tughlakabad station (an important goods terminus, being situated next to the Container Corporation of India’s Inland Container Depot, advertised as “India’s biggest dry port”), is situated just a few hundred metres from the enormous Okhla landfill rubbish heap. Here many buildings are in an advanced state of disrepair, while many rooms are clearly long deserted. In recent years, rather than live in these conditions, some LPs have moved out to privately rented accommodation or started paying EMIs on flats. This means they now have to commute, sometimes for over an hour, to and from work, further curtailing their rest period. This is apart from the fact that in some instances, LPs have long lived far from their ‘home stations’ – for instance, living in Pune, while their ‘home station’ is at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus in Mumbai.

LPs are also entitled to “periodical rest” of either four periods of 30 hours each (120 hours) or five periods of 22 hours each (110 hours) in a month. LRSA officials claim that this is called “periodical” rather than “weekly” rest to remove any obligation on the part of the Indian Railways to give LPs time off every seven days. Nevertheless, these rest periods are insufficient for LPs to get proper breaks from work – the HPC itself recommended four periods of 40 hours (160 hours) break a month to ensure proper rest for LPs.

However, even these short periodical break periods have been manipulated to shorten them even further. Clearly, after their last shift before a periodical break, LPs should get their regular 16 hours off and then begin their period of 30 or 22 hours periodical break, giving them a total break of 46 (30+16) or 38 (22+16) hours rest. But in practice, the railway administration does not add any time to the 30 or 22 hours rest. These 16 hours are disregarded by the railway management – as one LRSA official put it: “Sola ghante kha gae (They ate 16 hours).”

This means that LPs get only (22 x 5 x 12 or 30 x 4 x 12) 55-60 24-hour rest periods off over a year. In comparison, K.C. James, secretary general of AILRSA, has calculated in his book Plight of Locomen: A Study on Grievances of Loco Running Staff that staff with Saturday-Sunday rest get 147 days of rest in a year, or around two and a half times more than LPs.

Indeed, LRSA officials point out that the Ministry of Railways’ Report of Task Force on Safety (2017) found that the majority of ‘Signal Passed At Danger’ (SPAD) cases happened after home rest, proving that home rest is inadequate.

Disaster waiting to happen: “Neend nahin aayegi kya?

The fatigue caused by long working hours, continuous night shifts, and lack of good and accumulated sleep are major factors which lead to railway accidents. As one clearly underslept LP, angry and agitated after describing the long shifts of railway workers replied when I asked him about the experience of piloting a train after inadequate sleep: “Ham insaan hai … hame neend nahin aayegi kya (We are human, will we not feel sleepy)?”

For instance, consider some examples of accidents from the previous decade:

On May 22, 2012, the Hampi Express crashed into a stationary freight train at Penukonda, Andhra Pradesh, killing 25 people. The LP had recently worked seven straight nights in a row. Moreover, out of the 28 trips he had piloted in the previous month, 23 involved night working, including three periods of seven, five and three continuous nights. Instead of four periods of periodical rests, he had only had three.

On September 30, 2014, the Manduadih-Lucknow Krishak Express collided with the Lucknow-Barauni Express near Gorakhpur Cantonment yard killing 12 people. LPs interviewed by the Times of India at the time stated, “We get less than 10 hours of rest after 12-14 hour shifts … Sometimes we end up doing double shifts.” All Indian Railwaymen’s Federation officials claimed that there was a 25-26% shortage of LPs and in some instances, LPs were working 23-hour shifts at the time.

On August 8, 2019 at the Veppagunta station of the Chennai-Renigunta section of Southern Railways, an inter-departmental inquiry into a SPAD case found that it was induced by long hours of work. The LP had been working 14-hour shifts and an average of 140 hours/fortnight against the statutory limit of 104 hours/fortnight for the previous five fortnights.

In 2023, the overwork of LPs seems to be reaching a point where accidents are becoming a regular occurrence:

On April 19, 2023, in Singhpur, Madhya Pradesh, two coal-loaded freight trains collided and hit a third. One LP was instantly killed, while five other LPs were seriously injured. The LP Rajesh Prasad Gupta and ALP had passed 14-15 hours of duty at a stretch when the accident took place. The Commissioner of Railway Safety Report found that the LP was most likely in a daze or “micro-sleep” due to exhaustion and made no conscious effort to apply the brakes – hence the collision took place at speed, at 56 km/hour.

The site of the Balasore train clash. Photo: Video screengrab from Twitter/@RailMinIndia.

On June 2, 2023 near Bahanaga Bazaar Railway Station, Odisha a passenger train hit a stationary goods train, the fallout of which hit a third train. At least 288 people were killed, making it India’s worst train accident since 1995. The LP Gunanidhi Mohanty and ALP Hajari Behera had been on outstation duty, with their last rest being outstation.

On June 25, 2023, in Adra, West Bengal, two goods trains collided. According to an AILRSA Press Release on July 6, 2023, out of the 18 trips LP Swarup Singha had completed in the previous month, 14 trips were during the night, 10 trips exceeded 10 hours and eight trips exceeded 12 hours. Out of 22 trips ALP G.S Kumar had completed in the previous month, 17 trips were during the night, 13 trips exceeded 10 hours duty and eight trips exceeded 12 hours duty. In addition to that, he had been forced to work continuously for 19.56 hours from 5:24 am to 1:20 am and on another occasion 16.50 hours continuously from 5 pm to 9:50 am. In this case, extreme fatigue and accumulated sleep debt seemed to have induced “micro sleep” in both LPs. Despite these gruelling work schedules, both Singha and Kumar have been blamed for the accident and removed from service.

Railway workers and the unemployed: common interests

Today, on the one hand, millions of Indian railway workers need more workers to share the existing work with. Railway workers are being pushed to – and beyond – the limit of endurance to make up for the shortfall in the workforce.

On the other hand, millions of Indian youth who are applying for railway jobs are being denied them. For instance, in January 2019, more than 12.5 million youth applied for 35,000 railway jobs. The Railway board took three years to hold the examination and publish the results, which were full of irregularities. When the results were released, railway aspirants spent a week trying to make themselves heard, tweeting at the government in thousands. When this failed to have any effect, their anger exploded. On January 24, 2022, in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar thousands of unemployed youth demonstrated at railway stations, blocked tracks and set fire to trains in what were perhaps India’s first large-scale unemployment riots. In response, the police attacked the protestors with lathis. The railway ministry threatened to ban the protestors from railway jobs for life. But this didn’t stop the protests, which continued for four days.

The railways needs more workers, and the unemployed need work. Who is benefitting from standing in their way?

Zaen Alkazi is a labour historian and journalist.