Friday, November 30, 2007

On the right track

Station Master N. Rajeev keeps a cool head, as 80 trains pass through Ernakulam South every day

By Shevlin Sebastian

A surprising discovery is that the office of the Ernakulam South station master -- the Route Relay Interlocking Cabin -- is 300 metres away from the station and close to the South bridge. On the second floor, in a large, spacious room, standing in front of a panel, which consists of shiny red knobs, numerous switches and lines, embedded with tiny bulbs, is station master N. Rajeev, 45.

He has just got a call from the station master at Kumbalam, Saratchandra Babu, asking whether he can send the Netravati Express to South station. Rajeev gives the go-ahead and a few minutes later, the Netravati goes past under the glass-paned cabin windows and comes to a halt on Platform No 1.

“For the Netravati Express, the scheduled halt is ten minutes,” says Rajeev. “Once I get the clearance from the station master at Ernakulam North, Roy Thomas, I will give the go-ahead.”

When the Netravati Express is waiting at the platform, it is represented by yellow lights on the panel. When the train starts moving, the yellow lights turn to red. So, just by staring at the panel, you can chart the progress of the train, till it reaches the North station. “At a single glance, I can also know whether there are any trains on the five platforms or the nine tracks at the South station,” he says.

Rajeev is a soft-spoken man, who smiles easily, even though he is doing a high-pressure job. On an average, 80 trains pass through the South station every day and he cannot afford to make a mistake. So, he looks alert all the time. Asked to give a schedule of trains, from 3 p.m., for the next few hours, he says, “One passenger train will come from Allapuzha to Ernakulam. Then, there is the Delhi-bound Kerala Express, which is coming from Kottayam. This will go to North. At the same time, the Guruvayur Passenger from North will be coming to South.”

He goes on and on, naming several trains, which will be coming and going, till he stops, with the Allapuzha-Ernakulam passenger, which arrives at 7.25 p.m.

His by-rote knowledge is impressive and it shows how deeply Rajeev is involved in his work. Since it is a 24-hour job, he is always working on a shift, but the working hours are unusual. He comes to work at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning and works till 8 p.m., a shift of ten hours He goes home and returns at 6 a.m. on Tuesday and does a shift for four hours. Then he leaves and comes back at 8 p.m. for a night shift, which will finish at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

“It works out to 10 + 4 + 10 = 24 hours, with a ten hour gap between the three shifts,” he says. “On Wednesday, I have an off day and I will report for work on Thursday at 10 a.m.” But after he finishes the second round of shifts, again at 6 a.m., he gets that day off, the next day also, and has to join duty only on the third day at 10 a.m.

Despite Rajeev’s sincerity and hard work, and one is sure his colleagues in other sections must be equally focused, passengers continue to complain about the late running of trains.

”I don’t think trains run late these days,” he says. “There is an enormous improvement in communications and efficiency. Engine speeds have also increased. On some sections, trains travel at 100 km per hour.”

Usually, he says, trains are late because of unforeseen events: a tree falls on the track or it is submerged under flood waters. Or, as it happened near South station some time ago: an advertising board, fixed on the terrace of a building, was blown off, because of fierce winds, and it fell on electricity lines near the tracks, cutting off the power supply. “When these things happen, trains will be late,” he says.

But he admits that on single-line tracks from Ernakulam to Kottayam and beyond, there will always be a delay because of ‘crossings’. “These are not major delays,” says Rajeev. “But I can understand that in the view of a short-distance traveler, it is a long wait.”

So, how does he tackle the wrath of passengers? “It is difficult to placate them,” he says. “They have a mass mentality. Even if I try to explain the reasons for the delay as honestly as possible, my lone voice is silenced by the voice of the angry mass.”

P. Jayakumar, a regular commuter from Kottayam, says, “A public address system inside the train could enable the driver to inform passengers why the train is late.” When Rajeev is told about this, he says, “There are plans to set up such a system.”

Nevertheless, despite the discontent of passengers, Rajeev, who lives at Tripunithara, with wife, Snusha, 38 and son, Abhijith, 3 ½, enjoys the thrill of doing his job without causing any accidents. “Sometimes, when I am sleeping, I dream of the control panel and I see myself making moves smoothly,” he says, with a smile.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)


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