How random can your blog topics get? As random as ramdomness becomes a way of life.
We have a new railways minister in Dinesh Trivedi. His predecessor, junior minister Mukul Roy, who did not see a reason to visit the rail accident site near Kanpur as he was to accompany his political master Mamata Banerjee to some political meeting, had the audacity to snub prime minister by telling media rather dismissively, “I am not the railways minister, PM is.”
Anyways the topic of the blog is loco drivers, the real hero of Indian Railways. In this hour of doubt and skepticism about the manner in which railways is run in this country, my thoughts go to loco drivers.
Every day 8,000 trains, 7,500 locomotives, more than 280,000 coaches and wagons zigzag 80,000 kilometers of railway track carrying about 13 million passengers, 1.3 million tons of freight to 6,867 stations. That makes Indian Railways the lifeline of the nation.
Loco pilots lead extremely difficult and regimented lives to keep the iron wheels rolling, to keep the nation's lifeline alive. It is one of the most thankless and arduous profession. I had interacted with the loco drivers last year for a story that was never published. I was looking at some of the old notes and thought of writing a blog on the loco pilots/drivers.
Within the loco drivers community, the goods train drivers are the most depressed community. Their duty the toughest. They have a 72-hour-long duty at one go. A loco driver in Ghaziabad described his typical schedule: Ghaziabad to Ambala-12 hours, eight-hour rest, then, another ten hours to reach Tughlakabad. Eight hours of rest and then head to Panipat, rest again, and back to Ghaziabad.
"Our life is run by schedules set in hour-scale," says Sharma, a loco driver. They get a 30-hour rest after every tour which is technically one and a quarter day. Strange! This is the only time they get to spend with the family. Since delays are most given, duty hours always eat into the rest time. No holiday. No off. This schedule goes on mercilessly, unchanged, for years together. "Summer, winter, rain; day or night; duty means duty," asserts Sharma.
Quite understandably they do not have a social life outside their community of loco drivers. "I have not met friends and relatives for years," says Vinod, 55 years old electric loco driver. "If wives are educated and wise, children grow up well. Or else they get spoiled," says Ramesh. His son had taken to drugs, a frustrated youth struggling to get a job.
Life is slightly better for the passenger-train drivers as their duty is well defined. “We get a train allotted, and therefore have a fixed schedule," says Amresh, assists electric loco pilot. But it nevertheless remains a high-pressure job.
Two men: loco pilot and his assistant have a whole train at their disposal. Many a times they get off the train fixing minor faults. "If the train makes an unwarranted stop for more than half-an-hour, explanation is called for the headquarters," explains Gautam, a loco pilot. Presumably so as the whole system is so inter-related, delay in one train can unsettle the schedule for that route.
"What pangs us the most is that invariably we are held responsible for most of the rail accidents," says Hem Raj, a loco driver, he was about to retire in six months. "We are made scapegoats," he adds strongly refuting charges that accidents mostly are caused by human error. "We are not killers. Trains are not Maruti cars, you press brakes and they will come to a grinding halt. If somebody gets killed, even a cattle, I cannot eat meal the whole day," explains Raj.
Now the engine drivers have to, thankfully, undergo breathalyzer test before they get to drive the train.
"After all the trouble we take that comes with this job, it remains essentially a thankless job," says Devandra another loco driver. When the train arrives late, some passengers will walk up to the engine and abuse them, “as if we stopped the train to have tea or attend a party,” says Devandra, "We follow this unwritten law, see nothing, speak nothing other than what duty demands. It helps,” he adds.
“Long gone are the colonial days when we were treated like a hero; there were special incentives that came with the job, we were considered at par with soldiers fighting a war. We are now nuts and blots of the engine. It is no surprise therefore that the government and the people at large treat us like nuts and bolts," says Hemraj who is driving locomotives for thirty years now. He cannot chat more, the train whistle is blowing.