CHENNAI: They are also called pilots, but glide rapidly across the land than soaring high above it. They also transport stranded Indians to their homes, but remain unsung because they are locomotive/train pilots and the railway officials do not position them before the media unlike the media-savvy airline officials.
With much reluctance and on the condition of anonymity of name and his location, a train pilot spoke on his experience of operating a Shramik Express, one of special trains operated by the Indian Railways to carry thousands of stranded Indians, motly migrant labourers, to their homes from different parts of the country.
"When I operated a Shramik train for the first time, it felt good, as I was taking people who wanted to be with their families in their home town during testing times.
"I could have spoken to a couple of them, but they were busy boarding the train maintaining social distance and I didn't want to disturb them," the pilot said with a tinge of regret.
"Whether people are young or old, every time they board a train a range of emotions would run through their minds. The memories of their childhood train journeys, the interesting people met, the eatables they had bought in a hurry at the stations en route and enjoying them slowly, the tension they felt when their father got down the train to fill some water, the anticipated joy of meeting their relatives and others," the train pilot said partly reliving his own journeys during his younger days.
Queried on the difference between piloting a regular passenger train and the Shramik Special, he said: "It was like operating a high-speed express train. There are no stops and no signals to prevent people boarding enroute. It was a smooth ride akin to high speed prestigious trains like Rajdhani Express, Shatabdi Express or Duronto Express."
"Truly I never thought I would be piloting the Express trains during my school or college days," he added.
However, unlike the high-speed passenger trains, the Shramik trains are longer with 22 coaches as they carry about 1,140 passengers, with each coach having only 54 passengers.
"The lesser the number of coaches, the easier it is to apply brakes to stop and also get faster speed pick-up. For instance, Shatabdi Express has 11 coaches and it is easy to slow down and accelerate," he said.
According to him, in the case of long trains like Shramik Specials, brakes have to be activated at a minimum distance of about 730 metres so that the train can stop at a particular point.
Before starting a train, the pilots are given data about: the number of coaches; brake power certificate stating the condition of the brakes and its distance validity; and the weather report.
"Normally train pilots will check out the brakes soon after rolling out of a station. We will inform the status of the train and its brakes to our reliever. Normally the duty time is about six or six-and-half hours," he said.
In view of the tragedy in Maharashtra where 16 migrants, sleeping on railway tracks, were run over, the train pilot, queried about their psychological condition in case of such incidents and how long it would take for them to come out of it, said the initial hours after an accident would be very painful.
Generally, it will take a train pilot three days to become normal, he said, adding the pilot will be at home and a recluse. The family members will be a major moral support.
"One would not like to eat or speak with others," he said.
Broadly, accidents are of two types; where the train pilot is at fault and where he is not at fault.
"In the case of former, apart from the psychological impact of knowing that several people have lost lives or limbs, there is the pressure of a departmental inquiry and other actions," he remarked.
Unlike people in other professions, train pilots have to forgo the pleasures of celebrating festivals like Diwali with family.
"Our body systems will get tuned to our duty schedule. For instance, many times, our duty will start early in the morning. So even nature call routine will get altered in line with our duty chart. There are no toilets in locomotives," the pilot said.
According to him, during weddings or functions, train pilots attract many people as they are curious to know about our profession and our lives.
Asked as to how he would feel while travelling in a train like a normal passenger, the pilot said: "To some extent we can recognise the general problems faced by the pilot of that train by the speed, braking, unscheduled stops and others. We can also lend a helping hand in case of chain pull incidents so that train delay can be reduced."