Inside the realm of railway security | Sunday Observer

Inside the realm of railway security

27 October, 2019
Railway Band
Railway Band

The railway continues to be one busy network as more and more people commute to the city of Colombo. Since the journey of the first train that began in December 1864 the rail service has undergone tremendous growth. Today the Sri Lanka Railway operates 390 trains a day covering a total track distance of almost 1,567 kilometres.

The railway transports 92 million passengers a year. The safety of all passengers, railway staff and property are a key element in this massive operation.

I made my way to the operating headquarters of the Railway Protection Force (RPF), commonly referred to by passengers as the “railway police”. The RPF office is situated within the premises of the Fort Railway Station, across the tracks. The buildings painted in light yellow still have the swinging salon style wooden doors. Security personnel clad in khaki uniforms were busy with their routine duties.

The man leading this 500 strong security force is the Superintendent of Railways, Anura Premeratne. He explained, “The security arm of the railway department was established in 1946 under the command of retired Lieutenant Colonel H.J.F.Vanlangemberg, who was appointed Chief Security Officer. The initial batch had 120 men recruited into service. One reason for the establishment of the railway security branch was to combat the menace of thieves who stole from the goods trains. Since then we have made much progress and have served the nation for more than 70 years”.

The RPF is empowered with the task of protecting passengers, railway stations (176 of them), the railway yards such as those in Ratmalana and Maradana in addition to the railway stores. The structure is made up of a Superintendent of Railways with 4 Assistant Security Officers, 13 Inspectors, 41 Sub Inspectors, 245 Sergeants and 117 Security Officers. Also, there are 48 female Security Officers. In the railway service the term ‘guard’ is not used in the RPF as it is used for Railway Guards (attired in full white with black coats), which is a separate branch that works closely with the engine drivers on running trains.

Sub Inspector Jayantha de Silva, attached to the administration unit spoke about the selection of Security Officers. He said, “We recruit candidates by advertising the post in the gazette. Once they pass the written exam, we conduct three months of training, where they engage in physical training and learn the railway regulations and the Ordinance. We also have weapons training. In the past we used shot guns. Today our officers are issued pistols and repeater shot guns. The first batch of 60 women were recruited in 2001. The women also engage in all duties similar to their male counterparts.”

As we sat, the Kandy train reached the Fort Station and some armed security officers brought in bags of cash. This is another important task carried out by the RPF. Cash in transit was common those days when salaries of the station staff were paid in cash, although this system has changed now. The cash protection squads take the cash collection from ticket sales, from a few main stations in the city to the Railway Head Office. The RPF personnel are deployed on all long distance trains - Badulla, Talaimannar, Kankesanthurai, Beliatta, Kandy, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Polonnaruwa. The night mail trains have armed officers, as they traverse through the dark night. It is on these journeys that at times the train unfortunately encounters wild elephants crossing the tracks.

Sub Inspector de Silva continues, “Another of our task is to protect the goods trains. Priority is given to the oil train that runs between the Kolonnawa Oil Refinery and the Katunayake Airport. This run is always done with armed officers. During national religious festivals we increase our roster to cover the Poson season in Anuradhapura and the Kandy Esala perehera when passengers increase’. RPF members wield authority to arrest anyone suspected of unwarranted behaviour within the railway premises and produce them to the local police. When serving on the trains they are empowered to check passengers’ bags and tickets if required (the ticket checkers are from a separate branch). This security presence is further augmented by a Flying Squad that swings into action on the orders of the General Manager Railways (GMR). The railway watchmen have their own brass band headed by Sergeant S.A.L. Dissanayake. He said, “The concept of the band was initiated somewhere in 1997 and was fully ready by year 2000. We are thankful for the training given by the Army band. Today, we have 18 active band members, who work as security sergeants and officers. With our busy rosters we practise four days a month. Recently we started a beat band. Our brass band has taken part in three Independence Day parades.” During their leisure railway security officers engage in cricket and badminton forming their own teams.

Superintendent of Railways Anura Premeratne said, “Railway security is unique. We are talking about moving trains. The four staff on a train (2 drivers and 2 guards) are in the engine room and guards van. They don’t interact with passengers. It is our staff that protects the commuters. We patrol platforms at all main stations. We cover 420 stations, including the sub-stations. We respond to train derailments and level crossing accidents.

“We have officers in civil on some station platforms. The common crimes on trains are women losing gold chains to snatch thieves, forms of verbal sexual abuse and loss of mobile phones.We ask commuters to be careful when placing bags on the rack, and then falling asleep on office trains. We get complaints of lost laptops in this manner. We also request young people not to travel on the footboard and take selfies. This is dangerous and can lead to disability or death. We can prosecute people taking selfies in this manner.

“The Railway Department has got new trains. Please don’t draw images on the compartments or cut the seats. These are your trains. Finally, don’t rush to hold seats by jumping into trains that are coming to the platform. We have many accidents caused by such acts. Why do you want to lose a limb for a seat? The train stops and waits, so don’t run and jump to grab seats.”

The railway has plans to fix CCTV on all major stations with a centralized control room. The men and women of the RPF do a silent service working day and night to enrich train travel in Sri Lanka.