Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Having the ride of his life

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express

Loco pilot M.M. Roly encounters suicides, accidents and delays during his constant journeys

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 2.15 p.m. on a Friday, inside the cabin of the diesel engine of the Mumbai-bound 6346 Netravati Express at Ernakulam junction, loco pilot M.M. Roly, 44, has just been given the go-ahead on the walkie talkie by the guard, M. Balakrishnan.

Roly shifts the throttle handle and the train begins to move forward slowly. Inside, on the other side, sits C. Sateesh, 39, assistant loco pilot, and standing between them is loco inspector K.V. Mathew.

As the train gathers speed, through the glass, Roly can see people crossing the tracks all the time. He has no option but to keep pressing the horn. "What the people don't understand is that if they slip and fall, I am unable to do anything,” says Roly. “After applying the brakes, the engine takes 600m to come to a halt." He points at two boys, around eight years old, in khaki shorts, standing next to a bicycle, on the very edge of the track. "See, how close they are standing," he says, with a worried shake of his head.

Roly steadily increases the speed: from 40 to 50 to 60 kms. Inside the cabin, the sound of the engine is like the never-ending roar of a waterfall. You have to shout to have a conversation. The floor throbs with the swaying and the jerking. The wind blows in through the open windows. When the train takes a curve, Roly cannot see the other side, because of the length of the engine. Then Sateesh has to see if the upcoming signal is green. If it is so, he shouts, "Proceed," and Roly raises his hand, as if he is acknowledging a long lost friend, and shouts back, "Yes, proceed." They do this throughout the journey. When the signal is yellow, Sateesh will shout, "Caution", and Roly will reply, “Caution”, while for red, both will say, "Danger."

It is an extremely important job because if the pilot goes past a red signal, he faces an immediate dismissal from service. "I know of lots of drivers who have lost their jobs overnight," says Roly.

When you look around, the surprising discovery is that there is no bathroom. "Forget about the bathroom, we got a back rest for our seats only recently," says Roly, pointing at his seat that has seen better days. "In fact, the majority of the pilots suffer from backache." Mathew says that earlier, instead of seats, they had just wooden planks.

Since the cabin has large windows on both sides, the pilots are at the mercy of the elements. "We don't like the rainy season, as the water seeps in because the rubber webbing on the windows is loose," says Sateesh. "During the summer, the cabin gets very hot. The best season for us is a moderate climate, when it is neither hot or cold."

What about air-conditioning the cabin? "You won't believe it, but the reason the authorities give for not air-conditioning the cabin is because they feel we will go to sleep,” says Roly. All three of them laugh out aloud.

Suddenly, Sateesh says, "We are approaching Divine Nagar."

Both the pilots look forward to Divine Nagar. When the engine stops, the reason becomes clear. The elderly C. Selvin, wearing a blue security badge of the Divine Nagar Retreat Centre, approaches the engine and proffers a flask and some styrofoam cups. The tea is poured into the cups and everybody has a sip. It is rich, thick and sweet.

"The Centre is thankful the train is stopping here and this is their way of showing gratitude," says Mathew. Selvin takes the empty flask and waves goodbye. "We stop here on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays," says Roly. "You will be surprised to know that more people get on here than at Ernakulam." A peep through the window confirms what Roly is saying.

The journey continues. We have crossed Aluva and are now on the way to Thrissur.
Whenever the train is on a curve, Roly glances back. "I am looking to see if there are any sparks or fire or smoke coming out of any of the coaches," he says.

The train reaches Shoranur at 4.45 p.m., just five minutes behind schedule. Roly signs the log and passes on the responsibility to loco pilot Mathew Kurian. By the time the train reaches Mumbai, there will be six crew changes.

Roly meets up with other loco pilots and they go to a roadside tea shop to have vada and steaming cups of tea. Later, he sits on a bench in the pilots' rest room and tells his life story: he saw an advertisement in the newspaper asking for loco pilots. Since he had a diploma in engineering, he applied and was selected in 1986. For the first few years, he was an assistant loco pilot. Then he did a written test and underwent a five-month training before he became a goods train driver. Another seven years went by, before he became a mail/express driver. "This is the maximum I can go," he says. "But if a vacancy comes up for loco inspector, I can try for that." (The loco inspector has to travel in engines and evaluate pilots periodically).

Roly has a gross earning of Rs 23,000 and lives with his wife, Jaya, 42, and daughters Riya, 14, and Reeja, 10, in Kuravalingad. Asked about how society views his job, he says that most people are very curious, since it is an unusual job, but the most persistent question is about suicides.

Around 90 per cent of the deaths on the tracks are because of suicides, the rest being accidents at unmanned level crossings. "I know of one driver who has witnessed 165 cases," says Mathew. "In my own career, I have seen about 30 deaths. For a year, we are disturbed and the images keep coming back in the mind. But after a while, we get used to it."

He tells the story of travelling on a good train from Piravam Road. Just after the bridge, over the Muvattupuzha river, because there was a caution sign, they were going at 20km/hour. "At a distance, we saw a woman in a red saree lying on the track," he says. "Since the speed was slow, we were able to stop in time. But the woman did not get up."

After a while, he says, she looked up with a puzzled look on her face. She had wanted to die and here she was, still alive. "We were afraid to approach her, in case she threw some stones at us," he says. "Instead, we shouted and blew the horn and told her to move away. Finally, she got up and left. But later, I heard that she had walked a kilometre in the opposite direction, and when the next train came, she got herself killed."

Adds Roly: "Sometimes, there are cases when a man has been murdered and put on the track. This is usually on a curve, so we cannot see the body, except at the last minute. This is one way of getting rid of the evidence."

A loco pilot can work till 60, but around 10 per cent lose their jobs because of crossing red lights, while another 50 per cent lose their jobs between the ages of 50 and 55, when, because of health problems, they are unable to pass the A1 medical examination. "Either, they are shunted to a desk job or offered a VRS [Voluntary Retirement Scheme]," says Mathew. Roly is aware of the danger and says he often goes for morning walks and keeps a careful watch on his diet.

Asked about the problems facing pilots, Alex Thomas, safety counsellor of the Thiruvananthapuram division, says, “Most of the problems are faced by goods train pilots. Since there is a single line in several parts of the state, they have to wait for hours. To do 150 kms takes them 10-12 hours, instead of five to six hours, because other trains always get precedence over them.”

After a while, the pilots feel angry and start hating their jobs. “Sometimes, after a night of driving, they are still working and are unable to go to the toilet,” he says. Also, in remote stations, there are no facilities for eating food, so they go hungry for hours.

Just outside the Ernakulam Junction station, there is a rest house for pilots. There are neatly printed signs on the wall: 'A little care makes mishaps rare' or 'While on duty, concentrate on your job'. The dormitory has nine beds, with attached mosquito nets, and several pilots are sleeping. The place looks clean at first glance, and there is talk about providing cabins to give an element of privacy. In the dining room, around a large table, a few pilots are having lunch: fish, sambhar, vegetables and rice.

Mathew says, "If you have any complaint, now is the time to tell them."

"We don't have just one complaint," says one pilot. "We have several." There are mocking smiles all around. But, in the end, they feel it is prudent to remain silent.

From Shoranur, on the return journey, by the 6306 Inter-City Express, Roly gets green signals throughout the journey and hits 80km/hour, the maximum speed limit for this section, several times. Up and down gradients, sometimes turning left, sometimes right, sometimes just going straight as an arrow, the scenery whizzing past, it is a drive of high skill and confidence by Roly.

The train arrives on time at Ernakulam Town and then hits a man-made obstacle: there are no platforms free at Ernakulam Junction and the minutes tick by. After ten minutes, a group of irate passengers appear near the window and one of them shouts, "Why aren't you leaving? How long are you going to wait here?"

Roly politely tells them of the delay and adds, "Even I want to go home."

It is only after half an hour that the green signal is given and slowly and wearily, Roly moves the throttle handle, and embarks on the last lap of the journey...

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