V Ravi Shankar
I have always been fascinated by engines; the locomotive kind. The silent hum of the electric engine when finally it reaches its destination (mostly at Howrah station, where our journeys used to end) was awesome! So much power, so much life….
As a young kid, I wished to be a train driver. The thought of pulling so many coaches, at such speed made me wonder. When the train used to pull into the platform, I would crane my neck out and try to read the name ‘christened’ on the engine. To me, train drivers were godmen! No sleep, no rest and responsibility for so many lives. I used to envy, and pity, at the same time, the life of a driver. Their small iron boxes, at the end of the platform, their quiet nature, not interacting much with the public (unlike the guard, who used to speak a word or two; the small notes they used to make), all made them mysterious. The exchange of flags when trains crossed each other; the small prayers the drivers used to say before entering the cabin, only increased the mystique. The quaint instrument panels added to the overall aura.
When I reached high school, it dawned on me that the life of a train driver was not rosy at all. Odd hours, eight-hour nonstop duty, living out of a suitcase, immense responsibility, and a thankless job, ruined the charm of childhood. While a pilot proudly announces his name and welcomes you, do we know the name of a single ‘loco-pilot’ who has taken us on overnight journeys across India?
Once I got lucky. A driver indulged me and I went from end to end in a stationary electric loco. I became determined to know how it must be in a moving engine! The chance came years later, when finally in the Army, I was made Officer Commanding of a special military train. The joy was, however, short-lived: the running around I had to do, arranging the type of rake, tying up the train, speaking to the station master, getting over dimension clearance, overseeing the loading of goods and passenger wagons, learning railway terminology…while running against time to avoid demurrage charges…. Then, the unending wait for ‘power’, which invariably came in the dead of night, since that was the time slot for ‘special’ unscheduled trains.
However, nothing can compare to the thrill when it finally arrived. I was the first one to tell the driver to allow me a ride inside, which he graciously accommodated while shunting. I was privy to the effort the railways took to put wagons on road, on time, every time. Travelling in the engine was an out-of-the-world experience — moving on bridges, raising clouds of dust while crossing stations, side-to-side swaying on iron bridges, expectant look of people at level crossings, children waving, the maze of tracks and yet getting on to the right line. The icing on the cake was travelling in the guard van in the open! We have all travelled in coaches, but I would recommend a ride in either the engine or the guard van. Don’t miss it, if you get the chance!
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