The Ministry of Railways wants to analyse call records of its engine drivers and their assistants across India to see if they used mobile phones while driving trains — a decision that has prompted around 70,000 train drivers to call for a two-day hunger strike in December to protest against what they call invasion of privacy.
The ministry has ordered all its loco pilots and assistant loco pilots to furnish details of phones and numbers given to them by the organisation as part of its Closed User Group plan. The signalling and telecom departments of respective railways across the country are to provide the details to the telecom service provider, which would get back with a monthly report of the calls made and received by each number.
Details like which number was called, the time and the duration will be available for officers to analyse. The idea is to see if phones were used while loco pilots and their assistants were on duty. As per the rules, an engine driver and his assistant are supposed to keep their phones switched off while running trains.
This has prompted loco pilots to unite under their unions and submit a memorandum to zonal railways against it. The matter reached a flashpoint recently when a loco pilot was suspended in Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh, over phone usage.
The punishment can include being chargesheeted, increments being stopped or suspension.
Loco pilots claim this exercise is contrary to a safety circular from the ministry, according to which they need to be available on phone so they can be contacted by the control room in case of an emergency.
“No one is saying that using phones during train operations should be allowed. But this kind of exercise is anti-privacy and victimises the drivers. If phones are used to exchange news with family members in an emergency, that cannot be held against a staff who stays away from home for days while on duty,” said M N Prasad of the All India Loco Running Staff Association.
The loco pilots have decided to observe a hunger strike against the move on December 14-15. Some of them have also returned their official phones in protest. “In some places, we have not furnished mobile phone numbers in protest against this exercise,” Prasad said.
With increase in train speeds and also in the number of signal posts, a train driver has to be alert to around 300 signals during a run. Several Signal Passing at Danger (SPAD) cases have reportedly taken place because drivers failed to spot the signals, possibly because they were distracted. The ministry wants to ensure that mobile phones are not contributing to the problem.
A senior Railway Ministry official said: “It is an exercise as per a joint procedure order. There is no invasion of privacy or rights. Loco pilots are cooperating. This is only to ensure adherence to rules keeping safety in mind.”