November 01, 2009

The Chuk-chuk-chuk men

.
Once a driver takes over his locomotive he is, for all practical purposes, the master of ceremonies; nothing else really matters. In this superb piece, K R Vaidyanathan, retired senior Commercial Officer of Central Railway, gives us a fast moving account, telling us about the romance of manning a locomotive cab, and equally fascinating, how the man up there on the footplate came to occupy his place as ENGINE DRIVER.
.
“OF ALL THE CENTRES OF ATTRACTION in a train,” an English writer once said, “the chief place belongs to the narrow space where handles and gauges are manipulated by two men in overalls.”
.
A footplate (driver and fireman’s platform in locomotive) journey is no doubt dirty and uncomfortable. But the sense of being there, of nearness to the power of the giant as it hurtles along, of ability to control the movement of so many people sitting meek as sheep in their compartments is something exciting and is the cherished dream of many a school boy.
.
The driver’s job, however, is not as enviable as it appears. His work is hard, fraught with difficulties and dangers. Irregular hours and overtime duty are the features of his life on the rails. He has to be literally on his toes, right from the time he takes over to when he books off—which may stretch to 12 hours at a time. His is indeed a role which begs our understanding and sympathy.
.
There was a time when domiciled Europeans or Anglo-Indians filled the posts of firemen and drivers on most company-managed railways. We have the picture of a typical, senior, Anglo-Indian driver in John Masters’ Bhowani Junction: “Mr. Jones looked pale and a bit grey and lined and bent in the shoulders, and his eyes were ringed and tired, but, my God, he was the man on the footplate, the driver of the engine and he had brought 98 UP Express from Muttra and would take it on to Gondwara…. He was wearing the red and white spotted bandanna handkerchief he always wore on his head when he was driving, tied at the back into a little tail, and he had a mass of cotton waste in his hands…”
.
Corpulent drivers were the rule in those days. Such men in charge of mail trains depended absolutely on their firemen for physical comfort. Then there were the cantankerous ones to whose rantings the firemen humbly submitted. They made life a veritable hell as they nagged and used indecent language. Firemen of those days used to joke that it was generally the henpecked husbands who were bullies outside the home.
.
There were more drivers, however, who were fatherly, considerate, and keenly interested in the welfare of the young men. They shared food with their firemen.
.
All this has changed radically since independence. The number of Anglo-Indians on our railways is infinitesimally small. The fabled ‘iron horse’ is no longer the monarch of the rail. The more powerful, sleek, diesel and electric locomotives are gradually taking their place.
.
Educated men are taking to driving railway engines in increasing numbers, thanks to the adventure involved in the job and the attractive pay. Good physique and medical fitness is a must. They are put through their paces in the departmental schools and in the loco-sheds by veterans in the line.
.
Normally, one starts as a cleaner. The driver-to-be, during his work of cleaning and oiling first learns the names of all the engine parts, and next their functions. As he becomes more familiar with the mechanism of an engine he is gradually introduced to the shovel and the fire-grate as a second fireman. The handling of a shovel is an art and the shoveling of coal in even layers involves a special technique. The work is hazardous and difficult.
.
The next stage is promotion as first fireman. Now he learns the management of the locomotive by watching his driver at work. He is taught to be vigilant by watching the gauges, injectors and regulators. At the same time he becomes acquainted by degrees with the characteristics of the lines—the signals and the gradients.
.
The fireman has to be very efficient to be recommended for training in the departmental school. Here he is taught loco theory in detail and the railway rules for working trains. In between sessions, he is given practical training on the foot-plate and taught the rules of the ‘road’. The initial training lasts seven months which is followed by short-term promotion and refresher courses at intervals.
.
There is also conversion training conducted at large diesel sheds to switch over steam drivers to work on diesels. Electric drivers have their training separately in major electric loco-sheds.
.
The promotion of firemen to assistant drivers to drivers is the most romantic period in a driver’s career. He experiences high speed. He is now paid around Rs 1000 per month. The driver of Rajdhani Express – India’s fastest train – carries home a Rs 1600 pay packet. Further, the foot-plate job has its own thrills and adventure.
.
Take for instance the picking up of the line-clear token by a speeding driver. Gripping firmly the engine stanchion with his left hand, how dexterously he inserts his other arm into the loop holding the pouch and swings back to the cab! Woe betide the driver who misses the token. He is taken to task severely as the train has to be stopped for picking up the token.
.
Then there are veterans who, by their steady running, make up lost time. They act promptly in an emergency – bringing a sluggish engine round, curing a choked fire, diagnosing trouble in the engine, or locating a failure. And they are as cool and collected on the engine traveling at 60 miles an hour as in the quiet of the home.
.
The Up Toofan Express had derailed near Jaminia station of Eastern Railways. The passengers who got down from the train were crowding the adjoining down track. It suddenly occurred to the driver after the accident that the down Assam Mail was to pass shortly. He immediately drove his engine to Jaminia to stop the train. But the speeding Mail had already crossed the signal point. By continued whistling and showing of the red light he managed to attract the attention of the driver of the Assam Mail, who stopped the train and averted another major accident.
.
Such alertness and foresight displayed by drivers are well known in railway lore.
.
The ace driver of today is the divisional mechanical engineer of tomorrow. Starting from cleaning, the first rung of the ladder, the driver-to-be works his way up slowly from shunting engines to express trains. This is a long road and it knows no short cuts.
.