The Indian Railways—the 1.4-million strong behemoth—has over 7,000 freight trains originating daily on its 65,000-km-long network. Keeping the 58-wagon train intact on the run is crucial to IR’s safety, for which the guard who rides on the last vehicle (the guard van), or in railway parlance the brake van, plays a significant role.
He is required to exchange signals with the station master (SM) when passing through a station by displaying a green flag in the day, or a green light at night, establishing that his train is intact. This allows the SM to clear the section and allow the next train to enter it, essential to avoid any mid-section collision with a parted load accidentally left behind on the section. In case of a mid-section mishap such as derailment or collision, the guard is also required to protect the train at the rear by displaying a red flag or placing detonators on the track in case the weather is foggy and visibility is poor, for alerting the driver of an oncoming train on the other line on a double-line section.
Taking into account leave reserve and home rest mandatory under the HER (Hours of Employment Regulations), over 20,000 guards are required to man these brake vans. Now, a Last Vehicle Device (LVD) also known as the End of Train Telemetry (EOTT) being proposed by the Railway Board intends to eliminate these, but only on freight trains.
Consisting of a gadget that is placed on the coupler of the last wagon, it has a red flashing light that indicates to the SM that the train passing through his station is intact, enabling him to clear the section for another train.
The EOTT device constantly monitors the brake line pressure of the last wagon and is triggered in case of accidental separation, transmitting the data via telemetry link on radio frequency to the Head-of-Train Device (HTD) in the locomotive. A typical EOTT system will also monitor the flashing light, battery life, status of radio frequency communication, emergency valve, etc. On the cost-conscious US railroads, EOTT has been in use for over half a century now.
However, in the case of a mid-section mishap, the assistant driver would now be required to protect the rear of the train as was being done by the guard.
There are two major players in the field, one in the US and the other in South Africa, from whom a limited number of EOTT sets are proposed to be procured for extensive trials on the South Eastern Railway and the East Coast Railway.
Train examiners may not be required to issue a certificate for air pressure on the last vehicle, as it would be automatically indicated on the locomotive itself. The G&SR (General and Subsidiary Rules), the ‘bible’ that details the SOP for train operations, will need to be suitably amended as duties of the guard to protect train at the rear will now devolve on the assistant locomotive driver.
This isn’t the first time such a trial is being carried out. In 2008, an initiative was taken when an EOTT unit from a South African company was put on trial on the Konkan Railway.
As usual, the possible shrinking of the turf that this step would involve found the concerned department not very enthused. Railway unions also chipped in as it would reduce employment opportunities, even though there was no question of any redundancy as the existing guards were to be retrained for undertaking other tasks such as travelling ticket examiners and booking clerks, etc.
However, as often happens, the in-built systemic resistance to any new idea heralding a change coupled with years of tradition killed the new initiative.
Even though the elimination of 20,000-odd posts of guards may be a drop in the ocean, this baby step by the IR’s drive to cut its flab, by inducting new technology wherever possible, is vital to its financial health. Hopefully, this time, Piyush Goyal will not allow innovation to be scuttled and push it through to attain higher staff productivity.
The writer is Former member, Railway Board. Views are personal