Thousands of innocent public and private sector employees have to suffer because of their fellow employees’ sudden and unreasonable trade union actions.These strikes around the world have taken thousands of commuters by surprise, leaving them to improvise a way to go to work as traffic also becomes paralyzed.
Thousands of commuters in and around the capital and other suburban cities were stranded by an unexpected strike (wildcat strike) that stopped services along train lines and the transit system. Passengers heading to office in the morning were the hardest hit by these types of strikes and thousands of commuters were stranded at various stations due to the sudden stir. In the event that services are cut, commuters want train operators to ensure that accurate and timely information is given to them so they can make an informed decision about their journey. Finally, passengers would be the innocent victims of these sudden and unexpected railway strikes.
In India an unexpected four hour strike by Western Railway (WR) motormen (train operators) on July 23, 2012 not only inconvenienced lakhs of commuters but was also responsible for injuries and a death on the tracks due to overcrowding. Railway Passenger Associations in the city filed a Public Interest Litigation case (PIL) on the entire episode, apart from lodging a criminal complaint against the train drivers for their erratic behaviour. On the same day, a fashion designer Reema Kulkarni (26) died in a stampede after falling on the tracks through the gap between the platform and a train at Borivli Station. She was boarding the Flying Ranee that goes up to Vadodara, which was being run by WR authorities to alleviate the crowd at railway stations. Six commuters suffered injuries at different stations while they were trying to board overcrowded trains. Similarly in Scotland, Poland and Thailand the rail passengers had to face the same situation because of sudden railway strikes and in one case the rail passengers were stuck in a railway tube tunnel for hours until a solution was found.
Sri Lanka Position
British colonial rulers introduced the railway to Ceylon in 1864 for the purpose of transportation of commercial crops such as coffee. In the 1880s tea replaced coffee that needed its railway transportation to be increased as a result of development of tea plantations in the high land. The production had to be sent to Colombo and Indian labourers, machinery, raw materials and food stuffs to high land had to be sent from Colombo. As a result of this several other railway lines were built by colonial authorities to Jaffna, Mannar, Puttalam, Yatiyantota, Opanayake, Matale, Badulla and Matara.
As a result of the development of provincial centres as administrative and commercial centres, people of the suburbs use railways for their transportation. As a result of development of road networks of the country and increase of transportation on land such as by lorry, the importance of railway decreased step by step.
Presently, Sri Lanka Railway has priotorised for public transportation rather than transportation of goods. Currently Sri Lanka Railway operates 310 trains daily which include 45 long distance and 12 intercity trains. About two hundred and ninety thousand passengers are transported by the Sri Lanka Railway daily. Sri Lanka Railway maintains 1420 km of railway tracks. The capacity of trains includes 1750 locomotives and 900 carriages. Presently there is a workforce of 14,400 for the Department of Railways.
Revenues and Expenditure
According to data this institution is a service oriented institution because expenditure is always higher than the income. Revenue from season tickets are gradually increasing due to public sector expansion.
Hardships faced by passengers because of sudden Rail Strikes
When a delay occurs as a result of a sudden railway strike there is no advance notification given and also no way of informing of a delay to passengers inside a train. Sometimes they have to spend hours inside the same train until a solution is reached. As a result of this innocent passengers who use these services are compelled to apply unexpected leave in their workplaces. When a train gets delayed, there’s no alternative. Properly arranged and managed bus and train services are not combined in most of these cases.
If a sudden train strike occurs season ticket holders have to face a great injustice. No further occasion is granted to them for use in place of one given occasion. Similarly the train ticket issued for a journey is valid only for one particular occasion of the same date. Because it is a season ticket and a refund is not given if it is not used because of a strike. Railway tickets cannot be returned. No extra days are given for the days covered by the season ticket. If a strike happens before the end of a train journey, the commuters face a great injustice. Once an intercity train scheduled to go to Kandy suddenly stopped its journey at Rambukkana Railway Station because of a sudden railway strike and as a result some foreign tourists on the train put their luggage on top of the train guard’s head demanding him to take their bags to Kandy Railway Station.
A sudden railway strike by Locomotive Engine Drivers Union in 2005 demanding a pay hike and a half-day strike in October 2013 over a morning meals issue with Railway Department Staff Assistants crippled the rail services for hours in Sri Lanka. In Israel a wildcat strike by locomotive drivers at Israel railways on August 08, 2013 led to the cancellation of 80 trains. The labour court declined to issue an injunction against the strike, and asked the drivers to return to work. The court stated that if no agreement was reached in the next few hours, it would hold another hearing. If so, the judge could either issue an injunction against the wildcat strike, or order the parties to negotiate, which would allow the labour disruptions to continue. Finally they negotiated and settled the matter. Occasionally in Sri Lanka if there is a delay in train service the agitated passengers gather before the railway officials’ rooms at the station and attempt to damage the property and assault these officers because of not announcing the cancellation of trains.
When drivers change from one train to another, assumption of work by them gets delayed. In Galle, at the time of leaving for work in the morning, sometimes there’s no one manning the ticket counters. At that time those supposed to be at the counters are busy issuing warrants. This issue can be easily rectified by installing an automatic ticket vending machine near the railway station like in most other countries where this method is used to overcome delays in transportation. Another incident occasionally happening is those who usually purchase 3rd class tickets travelling in the 2nd class compartments. Checking is done only once at the beginning of the journey and not thereafter. In this case severe problems were faced by those who purchased 2nd class tickets.
"Public and private sector employees after work in the evening look forward to getting home as soon as possible. Sometimes they have to get off a train and catch several buses thereafter. For eg. sometimes an office train may have to travel on a single railway line on which an express train too has to run. Then the office train stops and waits till the express train passes."
Another separate incident not directly related to this subject matter hit the international news when Callum Macre and his Channel 4 team were travelling to Jaffna by north bound Yaldevi train. This train was forcibly stopped at Anuradhapura station because of a public protest and the train had to be stopped for hours at the same station which caused immense difficulty for the other passengers travelling by this train until the situation normalised.
Problems faced by single
railway track passengers
Public and private sector employees after work in the evening look forward to getting home as soon as possible. Sometimes they have to get off a train and catch several buses thereafter. For eg. sometimes an office train may have to travel on a single railway line on which an express train too has to run. Then the office train stops and waits till the express train passes. When this happens those who are on the office train reach home only by night. For eg. the Kurunagela via Ganewatta bound 5.10pm office train from Fort has to stop at Polgahawela junction (the last place on two railway lines) until the Vavuniya express train reaches Polgahawela.
Here priority is given to the Vauniya express train which comes from Fort. If somehow this express train is delayed by half an hour passengers on the office train may reach their normal station very late and by this time there would be no private buses available. Therefore, they have to walk long distances which may lead to several social problems. In the case of intercity trains the situation is very similar to this.
Also there are no toilet facilities on some trains that travel for about two to three hours. Similarly old rail signal posts must be replaced with latest modified systems because sometimes non-function of old signal lines may cause delay in transit.
Restructure Sri Lanka Railway (More to be Done)
Passengers on many routes serviced by trains have complained that the Central Bus Stand was unable to provide them with buses even after several hours and have made repeated requests. Most commuters who usually travel by train had to travel by bus due to the last train strike. These commuters had to wait for hours to get on board packed buses and travel through the night to reach their homes. They have appealed to the SLTB and private bus authorities to deploy additional buses. These passengers had to face various hardships at the packed bus stands. Some SLTB officials said they were stretched to the limit and had to wait until some buses returned from outstations to deploy them again. Passengers bound to destinations such as Kurunegala were asked to board buses leaving for remote destinations. Many passengers who went over to private bus stands also faced the same situation.
Time for Rail Passenger Charter
Finally there must be an acceptable concrete solution for this type of unethical and illegal activities in the perspective of innocent passengers who duly pay their fares for transport services. In this country, joining a trade union is a fundamental human right but strike is not a fundamental right like in some other countries. No democratic country by their legal system is supportive of sudden and uninformed strikes which are ethically and legally wrong. This is also the position according to Sri Lanka trade union ordinance. Therefore, victims of such a strike must take legal action like in the case of the recent health sector strike which was restrained by courts after a complaint lodged by a patient undergoing treatment for heart ailment. The Colombo District Court issued an interim injunction (restraining order) on 27th November 2013 against 16 Nurses’ Trade Unions suspending their 48 hour strike till 2013 December 11th.
Even the trade unions had informed and reported to the relevant authorities that they had planned a 48 hour island wide strike. This new trend of law is now in action after a Supreme Court judgment delivered in India against a planned strike in the light of national interest. Another solution is to introduce a Rail Passenger Charter which recognizes passengers’ rights and give frustrated passengers affected by a railway strike legal powers to sue and claim for compensation like in Australia. Therefore it is a timely needed requirement for the Ministry of Transport and Highways to introduce a relevant passenger charter considering economic and social aspects in Sri Lanka. This is also one of the tasks of United Nations New Millennium Development goal 2015 which was accepted by its member States.