The Pune-bound Duronto Express pulled out late by more than an hour from Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station in Delhi on August 22. And all along over 800 passengers waiting impatiently thought a technical glitch was causing the delay. Little did they know the holdup was because of an ugly spat in the driver’s cabin. Jagbhan Singh, the Duronto ‘loco pilot’—as train drivers are called since the British introduced the iron horses in India—from the Kota division, refused to start despite getting the green light at 11 am, the scheduled departure time.
Why? Singh won’t allow two drivers from the Delhi division—Jitender Jyoti and Raj Kapoor—to travel with him. But is it not dereliction of duty? Yes, of course. When it comes to an old fight between two railway divisions—Kota and Delhi—for control of the tracks and trains, and an unhealthy competition for an allowance (Rs 5.30 a km, to be precise), the rules are ransomed.
To understand the tussle, it is imperative to know how the Indian Railways operates—the world’s second largest network with more than 1 lakh km of tracks; more than 12,000 trains carrying 25 million passengers daily, equivalent of the entire population of Australia. Given the scale of operations, the railways has divided the country into 17 zones, with 68 divisions within these. Delhi falls in the Northern Railway zone, while Kota is under the West Central zone.
Now, a train crosses several divisions and zones, and drivers get paid a set amount as “running allowance” for a fixed number of km. “But if they drive beyond the fixed range, they get compensated for each extra km (from Rs 5.10 to Rs 5.30 a km, depending on the train type. Say a premium like Duronto will fetch the maximum). That’s why they fight over control of trains and tracks,” says Sanjay Pandhi, working president of the Indian Railways Loco Running Men’s Organisation. “But when I urge the railways to discontinue the system, I find myself at odds with people of my community,” says the man, himself a driver.
In 2003, the Railway Board came up with a peacekeeping formula. “Let’s say if A division’s drivers drive a train in B division, the B division’s driver will be allowed to drive almost a similar number of km that the A division has logged. This will be done mutually, amicably,” a railway official says. But no one allegedly follows this system. Kota has been accused of not allowing a single driver from Delhi and Agra divisions (between Delhi and Kota) to take control of a train running on this route. Now again, en route to Kota, Delhi’s jurisdiction ends at Palwal, from where till Mathura it’s under Agra (North-Central Railway). Kota division starts from Mathura.
Abdul Khalik, divisional secretary, West Central Railway Mazdoor Sangh, Kota division, says there is no such norm of the Railway Board and it was a “fair decision to give us” control of both Nanda Devi Express and Nizamuddin-Kota Jan Shatabdi Express. “If Delhi division drivers haven’t seen the routes, how will they drive? It’s is unsafe to allow them to drive the train,” Khalik contends. He has a point: drivers unfamiliar with routes might seriously compromise safety of passengers. But then, if drivers of other divisions are bullied and not allowed to acclimatise to certain routes, how will they learn?
Take for instance the Duronto case. Delhi drivers Jyoti and Kapoor were assigned to accompany Kota’s Singh so that they know the signals, speed limit et al between the two destinations. The training was necessary for Jyoti and Kapoor as they would be deployed on the Nanda Devi Express, whose run has been extended from Dehradun to Kota rather than Dehradun-Delhi, which was the case before. The Railway Board had assigned Delhi drivers for the Nanda Devi Express from the capital to Kota—a decision that has made Kota unhappy. And that’s why Singh refused the two Delhi drivers to acclimatise to the route, though railway rules state that a loco pilot must train colleagues from other divisions.
An official note confirms that the Duronto departed 65 minutes late, after the two Delhi drivers were evicted. The next day (August 23), the contest escalated as the chief traffic planning manager of Northern Railway directed loco pilots of Delhi to drive the Pune Duranto from Delhi to Kota. Accordingly, driver Virendra Kumar started from Delhi but when the train reached Bharatpur in the Kota division, the station master asked him to vacate. A Kota driver took control from then on.
“Of more than 2,500 loco pilots of Delhi division, none is familiar with the route from Delhi to Kota because all the trains running between the two divisions are under the control of Kota drivers,” alleges V. Prakash Narayan, joint secretary, Indian Railways Loco Running Men’s Organisation, Delhi Division. About 20 trains, among them several long-distance ones, run between Kota and Delhi (shortest 450 km apart) every day but, according to Narayan, only Kota drivers drive them. The fight has come to such a pass that S.C. Jain, divisional railway manager of Delhi, has requested the Railway Board’s intervention. It is said that Kota drivers log 1,652 km each day in the Delhi division, and the “rivals” earn a naught. “On account of this, there is resentment amongst the Delhi division staff,” Jain wrote and wondered if it would not be risky when a Delhi driver unaccustomed to the route is summoned to duty in an emergency.
The emergency he talked about reared its head when a fire broke out in two coaches of the Hyderabad-New Delhi Telangana Express in Palwal on August 29. Trains running behind it were halted at stations in the Delhi division for hours, wearing off the duty hours of Kota drivers on these trains. “A crisis almost emerged as no driver from Delhi was familiar with the route beyond Mathura. Trains would have been stranded for hours, but Kota made alternative arrangements. A situation like this can emerge any time,” says a Northern Railway official who does not wish to be named.
As the fight opened on various fronts, a letter contest ensued in which Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, the MP for Kota, was requested to put pressure on the Railway Board to assign Nanda Devi Express to the Kota division staff. The pressure tactics worked, perhaps, as letters from the chief traffic planning manager of West Central Railway in August assigned Kota drivers to run the train’s extended route from Delhi to the Rajasthan city. In protest, loco pilots of Delhi shouted slogans when the Nanda Devi Express pulled out of Delhi on August 25 on its maiden run to Kota. They are now planning a bigger protest. Contest or protest, if we are to believe the experts, the hostilities are against the railways’ interest. It’s time to pull the chain.