Before they were assigned to the Turna Nishita Express train, its loco master and assistant loco master had driven the Mahanagar Provati Express from Dhaka to Chattogram on Monday. The Mahanagar Provati left Dhaka at 7:45am and reached Chattogram at 3:50pm. Then the two operators had a break for seven hours.
They started the eight-hour journey back to Dhaka on the Turna Nishita around 11pm.
The train met the tragic accident at Mondobhag of Brahmanbaria around 3am on Tuesday.
Train operators often complain that the break is not sufficient especially before such a long journey – they often feel drowsy at night. Besides, the unhealthy environment at most stations does not help the rest. The derelict condition of the resting rooms without enough fans and toilet facilities makes the resting hours difficult.
Also, there is an unhealthy competition among loco masters for working extra hours to get extra money.
If anyone works more than eight hours a day, they get money double their basic salaries. Working more than eight hours a day means overtime on the basic salary.
Loco masters said they are "emergency staff" – they have no holidays, they have to work every day in the month.
"We do not have enough time to rest. We are emergency staff. We have to be prepared for work at any time of a day. We have to work 30 days a month. Sometimes we have to drive for over 12 hours at a stretch. We get overtimes for that, though. But we need rest, too," said a train driver.
Locomotive masters said the most important requirement for operating trains is ensuring sufficient numbers of drivers and proper resting condition. A lack of these results in drivers feeling tired and discomfort during a trip, which may lead to fatal accidents like that in Kasba.
On December 10, 2010, a head-on collision between the Mahanagar Godhuli and the Chattala Express in Narsingdi claimed 12 lives. The Chattala Express ignored a signal and got on the track the Mahanagar Godhuli was using.
The accidents in Kasba and Narsingdi happened for almost the same reason. In both cases, the two trains from opposite directions entered the same track.
After thousands of litres of furnace oil had been spilled into a canal after three tank wagons of a train derailed in Hathazari upazila of Chattogram on April 29, 2019, a probe committee of the Bangladesh Railway said a lack of proper rest was one of the reasons behind the accident. It recommended making an arrangement of refreshment for loco masters, assistant loco masters and guards after a certain period.
"We have been long demanding for an arrangement so that crew members on a train can take rest in the middle of their trips. We have also demanded introduction of a system to change shifts of the crew at Akhaura Railway Station," Mohammad Ali, general secretary of the Bangladesh Railway Running Staff and Sramik Karmachari Samity, told The Business Standard.
Ali said sometimes trips take extra time. "But the crew have to go on another trip without sufficient rest," he added.
A number of loco masters said, on condition of anonymity, that they and the guards require training and health checks regularly, but this regimen is not always maintained.
Borhan Uddin, divisional manager of the Bangladesh Railway, Chattogram, agreed that the demand for changing shifts at Akhaura is logical. "It will reduce the risk of accidents," he said.
"However, we are also struggling with a manpower shortage," said Borhan.
"The resting room for the train crew in Chattogram is in quite a good condition. We are now sending assistant drivers for training," he added.
The Bangladesh Railway has around 27,000 workers and employees.
"As there is a huge manpower shortage, the railway has proposed appointing 21,000 people in different posts. It is now being processed for approval," said Md Shafiqur Rahman, director (Media) of the Bangladesh Railway.
At present, the East Zone of the Bangladesh Railway has 647 loco masters, sub-loco masters and assistant loco masters against 980 posts.
The basic salary of a senior loco master is Tk18,000, and that of a loco master is about Tk15,000. A sub-loco master's basic salary is about Tk14,000, a senior assistant loco master gets about Tk12,000 and an assistant loco master gets about Tk10,000.