Guilt, Fear & Duty: Train Drivers Open Up After Amritsar Accident
For train drivers in India, the tragedy in Amritsar is one of their worst nightmares.
While the Ministry of Railways has ruled out taking any action against Arvind Kumar, the driver of train that mowed down at least 60 and injured almost 80 on Dussehra, the incident has scarred many.
Sudden Deaths and Mind Games
"Three to four times I’ve seen people jump in front of the train to commit suicide. They do this when the train is only 10-20 metres away, making it impossible for us to press brakes," Paramveer Singh, 36, said without betraying emotion. He has been a train driver for over a decade now and was once again prepping to take charge of the train scheduled for next morning.
Singh said drivers apply brakes when they can. "I know someone who pulled the brakes to save the life of a stray dog recently. We do our bit," he said earnestly.
The team in a train includes a driver, an assistant driver and a guard. The guard is responsible for the train. When someone comes under the wheels, they have to submit in writing at the next station where the accident happened, what speed the train was running at and any other ancillary details.
The guard goes and checks on the person who came under the train, and if he/she has any chance of survival they are rushed to the nearest hospital. Even if the person dies, the body is not left unattended and unclaimed on the tracks.
"An inquiry is initiated if the the accident happened at the signal or gate," he added.
Lot of drivers said people on rail tracks instigate drivers for fun. Sanjay Kumar, a 27-year-old assistant driver, said, "We keep honking but they do not move, pretending like they cannot hear the horn. Then they'll move and come back on the track again briefly. All this is very unsettling."
Many a time, during these mind games, people fail to judge the speed of the train, often losing their lives.
Subsequent Guilt and Anger
Singh said the first person to die on his watch was an old woman. She was walking along the tracks. Singh couldn't anticipate from her body language what she was about to do next. When the train was 15-20 metres away, she laid down on the tracks. "What can you do? What can I do?" Singh asked.
Both Singh and Sanjay said they felt acutely terrible the first time someone came in front of their train and died. Now, however, they understand it is an occupational hazard they have very little control over. While some reflect like Singh, many other drivers just get angry with the games the locals play with them.
"It is a train and the tracks are not a place to hang out. That should be amply clear to everyone," a 38-year-old train driver said. His train was due to leave Jalandhar city railway station in another three hours. "Mazze lene ke liye aayenge, pathar maarke chale jayenge (They come to have fun, hurl stones at us and go away). They treat us like we are a joke. There is no respect or sympathy for a railway driver. If nothing happens we are insignificant and if something happens we are to blame," he said.
Fear of Petty Thieves
Three drivers told us how they have gotten mugged by people, while others nodded. When the train is moving at a slow pace in areas where slums are built adjacent to railway tracks, drivers are wary, they explained. "Petty thieves and local people get on the train and pull the chain," they told The Quint.
Once someone pulls the chain, the train stops and pressure is built from both ends to restart it. The re-starting takes about 15 to 20 minutes. The assistant driver or guard has to go to the compartment where the chain was pulled and reset the valve, which opens when the chain is pulled.
"When we go down, we are often mugged. They take our phones and watches. Or when we come back to the stand we find that our belongings, including our bag, are taken. I was also beaten up once. They do this for jest without any reason," the 38-year-old driver said. Cases against those guilty of pulling the chain without good case are booked under Section 141 of the Railways Act. A fine of Rs 1,000 or/and imprisonment up to a month can be imposed. "That rarely happens, and Rs 500 is generally taken as fine. That is if they are caught, but our belongings are gone," he said.
A Counselling Department No Train Driver Visits
“Humaara kaam hain samay, saraksha aur suraksha. (This is our work, puntuality, security and protection),” the 38-year-old driver who has just finished his dinner said. "See my job is to keep an eye on the tracks, the wires and the signal. To safeguard the train and passengers is my first responsibility," he said, adding that it is only after that that he looks at other things.
The Indian Railways has a Safety Department, responsible for 'regular counselling and monitoring of staff involved in maintenance and operation'. However, of the eight drivers The Quint met, not one had visited these counsellors yet. "There are, however, counselling sessions that are conducted for seven days every three years where they teach us how to carry out operations in a safe manner," a young train driver said.
Looking back at what happened in Amritsar, Singh asked, "If out of thoughtfulness or shock, the Amritsar driver had stopped the train, what do you think would have happened?”
After moments of silence he provided the answer, “He would have been pulled out and lynched at the spot. There is no value for train drivers."
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