Commuters thrown under train as station masters attack rail authorities | Print edition

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By Kasun Warakapitiya

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Repeated union strikes, harsh decisions by the authorities and administrative irregularities were the main causes of the derailment of the Sri Lankan railway service which, again this week, let down the population, including tourists and holidaymakers who planned to spend the long weekend in remote areas. .

Among those hard hit on Thursday were those planning to return home for the Thai Pongal festival, daily commuters, foreign tourists heading inland and local travelers who had made pre-bookings to travel on long distances over the long weekend. Above all, for tourists, it was a bad experience and for their local guides, it was a big annoyance at a time when new measures are underway to revive tourism. Trains carrying tourists stopped on the track at midnight on Thursday before reaching their final destination as station masters began their industrial action.

The station masters’ union justified their action by saying that it was the only language the authorities understood and this made them realize that if they took a firm stand, they would get a response in kind.

Stranded and angry: Commuters seen at Colombo Fort station and Koggala station. Photo of Kithsiri by Mel and Ranjith Rajapaksha

Chairman of the Railway Station Masters Union, Sumedha Somaratne, was forced to resume strike action on Friday in response to the railways general manager’s decision to suspend the union’s deputy chairman, Nuwan Ilangasinghe. However, Friday’s strike was called off after Mr Illangasinghe was reinstated within hours.

Mr Somaratne said they ended their token 24-hour strike on Thursday, but it appears the authorities made arbitrary decisions and decided to confront the unions.

The union leader said Thursday’s symbolic strike was aimed at protesting authorities’ decision to cancel several trains, including the overnight mail train, after tickets were issued to commuters. As a result, it was the station masters who faced the brunt of public anger when they also had to return the money.

He added that even if they called off the strike, they would decide on further action after a meeting next week.

Senior railway officials pointed to the difficulties they were having in meeting demand from station masters, saying the 160-year-old rail service that had been established under British rule had its own administrative system and its own labor and therefore the introduction of new payment systems. regimes and circulars would create complications.

Unions, however, said they were forced to take protest action because administrative problems and management’s arrogance towards workers had become stumbling blocks in resolving labor issues. work.

Head of the Ceylon Union of Railways, SP Vithanage said the Sunday Times commuters were paying a huge price for the sins of railroad management. He said if the ministry could correct its mistakes and manage properly, it could become a viable service without being a burden on the government and the people.

“When there is no control or targets set by the authorities, employees and managers turn to trade unions and struggle to meet their demands. However, it also causes more inconvenience to commuters,” he said.

He said their union was responsible and they would not put the service in trouble.

Meanwhile, locomotive drivers said they faced difficulties in carrying out their duties when stationmasters were on strike. They said they also had issues with management but would not resort to industrial action in inconveniencing commuters.

Locomotive Operating Engineers Union (LOEU) Secretary Indika Dodangoda said internal management issues that favored certain categories of employees over others were a major cause of the strike.

But the union leader said when station masters went on strike it affected other divisions within the department. Therefore, they could not provide satisfactory service to the people on Thursday.

“We are also unhappy with the events on Thursday which led to an attack by strike supporters. If they go on strike, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t sabotage the services,” he said.

Along the Way: Despite continual rumors in the Railway Department, a new luxury train was launched on January 9 from Mount Lavinia to Kankasanthurai. Here Transport Minister Pavitra Wanniarachchi is seen on the first ride

Mr. Dodangaoda said they would also not approve of the way the authorities reacted and the action of the police after the incident, but they had decided not to take industrial action and to further overload the commuters.

A senior rail operations official said frequent strikes disrupted their operations and caused losses to the department.

He said they couldn’t even implement contingency plans to run a few trains when unions resorted to sudden strikes.

The official said authorities faced a dilemma. If they gave in to one union’s demands, it encouraged other unions to also go on strike to win their case. Ultimately, it was the commuters who suffered, he said.

Transport Ministry Secretary Monti Ranatunga said the government plans to introduce automated ticketing and online ticket reservation systems as part of a solution.

He said they would go ahead with plans to better serve commuters despite protests from unions.

They were also considering recruiting more workers so they could deploy them in industrial action to keep the services running.

Mr Ranatunga said they had refurbished and rolled out new trains to attract tourists and earn more foreign exchange, but industrial actions had sabotaged their plans.

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