At the time of writing, the train strike staged by the Locomotive Operating Engineers Union was still on and had entered its third day while President Ranil Wickremesinghe has issued a Gazette declaring the railways an Essential Service. The strike had caused the cancellation of 119 train journeys and the few that plied were so choked with passengers that saw travellers spilling out of the compartments, clinging on to the foot-boards or placed in precarious positions on the roofs and other parts of the train compartments. These high-risk journeys resulted in two deaths -one of them a Engineering student and the other a 41-year-old man. The student had been travelling on the roof of a compartment when his head had hit part of an overhead bridge and was thrown away while the other victim who was part of a mass foot-board travelling party had been knocked by an oncoming train. Another injured person was lying in a critical condition in hospital.
Cabinet spokesman Transport Minister Dr. Bandula Gunawardhana squarely placed the blame on the twin deaths on the 84 Locomotive operators who had struck work while the striking unions attributed fault on the Railway Department as a whole. The strike had entered its third day yesterday placing immense hardship on the commuters who in their thousands were seen languishing in railway stations hoping for the arrival of a train to take them to their workplaces, to hospitals and to attend to other emergencies while the Army was deployed at railway stations to prevent any untoward incident. Interviewed by television they all, in one voice, while heaping curses on the striking trade unions insisted on privatizing the Railways or taking other drastic steps to put a halt, once and for all, to the all too frequent rail strikes which has now become the norm. How many more deaths would the unions want before they decide to return to work was the question on the minds of all who spoke to TV.
Which now should make the authorities devise some drastic measures to put an end to this recurring problem affecting the railways. One such move should be to act strictly in terms of the Essential Services Gazette and take the strongest possible action to bring to heel the striking union members. No Government worth its salt will allow itself to be held hostage by a trade union who without doubt is working to a political agenda. Hence, concrete action is called for making all understand who is in control. Thus far, the Essential Services decree invoked on various occasions failed to act as a sufficient deterrent chiefly due to the fact that the authorities failed to take action in accordance. The last occasion when the Petroleum unions staged a strike similarly, Essential Service was declared and in fact, nine trade unions leaders were suspended from duties. However, the intervention of a powerful politician to whose party the union members belonged to saw them receiving a reprieve and getting reinstated in their jobs. It is such action that has made trade unions, all along, disregard the Essential Services order and stick to their demands. At least this time around the authorities should act differently and give all no leeway for the saboteurs to get away. If push comes to shove, the Minister should consider reemploying railway staff who had gone on retirement as suggested prior to this on the occasion of another rail strike. The travelling public cannot be allowed to be penalized in this fashion. In fact, alternative options should be found to deal with all other strike actions in the different sectors when they crop up.
The tourism industry which suffered a death blow during the pandemic is now showing signs of great promise with arrivals reverting to the pre-Corona days. All it needs is de-stability and chaos to once again turn the clock back. Train journeys in this country are immensely popular with tourists to get them to the famous tourist spots and any disruption to the service is certainly going to be frowned upon and make the foreign traveller think twice before making the trip again. We say this because on one occasion during a sudden work stoppage in the railways, a group of stranded tourists at the Fort station were seen showing their pre-paid ticket reservations for a journey to the hill country to the television cameras with helpless gestures. On another occasion, during a lightning rail strike, television showed another group of tourists walking along a rail track dejectedly in some remote corner of the country after being forced to do so while the train stood stationary on the track. Needless to say, such scenes certainly are not the best of advertisements to swell the numbers of tourists into the country. Neither will protest demonstrations or agitations help. Hence, the rail strikes if allowed to continue in such frequency would also have other repercussions that are going to affect the economy. This is besides the valuable man-hours lost due to the non-attendance of the bulk of the workforce in their offices and workplaces. The authorities should take all these factors into consideration in taking effective and drastic measures to curb what are after all politically driven trade union actions.