“I had just brought my train from Kalyan, when the terrorists opened fire at VT station during the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack. I was among the lucky ones who weren’t hit and we returned after a few hours. The next day, I was back in the motormen’s cabin for regular duty. But the coronavirus lockdown has done what we could’ve never thought of,” said a motorman of Mumbai’s Central Railway (CR), who didn’t wish to be named.
History validates his astonishment as Mumbai’s lifeline — its local trains — has never ceased its operation for such an extended period. Not during the 26/11 terrorist attack (one of the attack sites was Mumbai’s CSMT station) or during the 1992 Mumbai riots. Even during the 2005 floods, the operations were suspended only for 72 hours.
“My father was in the Railways in 1974, when George Fernandes had called for the famous railway strike. He says the strike was called off after days of negotiation. But the current halt is the longest, and unprecedented,” said Vivek Shishodia, a motorman who has piloted local trains at Mumbai’s CR for 17 years now.
Mumbai’s suburban trains halted its operations on March 23. It has been over 40 days since the local trains throbbed its tracks. Its juddered rhythm has been inseparable with Mumbai’s symphony since 1853, when India’s first train took off from Bori Bunder (the predecessor of present-day Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) for Thane.
But this unprecedented halt has also brought an unprecedented break for over 1000 motormen, who tirelessly drive these trains 365 days a year.
“We are not entitled to weekly offs. The break between our shifts daily is the only leave we have. Even during the summer vacations or festivals, while our families go to the village, we stay and do our duty,” said Naga Bhushanam, chief loco inspector, who had been a motorman for 21 years in Mumbai’s Western Railway (WR)
“Sometimes our shifts have a gap of 20-40 hours, at other times it could be just a few hours. For a holiday, we apply for personal leave,” said Shishodia, who is also Divisional Chairman of Central Railway Mazdoor Sangh (CRMS).
Exhaustive work routine
Shishodia explains the hectic work-life of the drivers who run Mumbai’s lifeline: “We work 365 days a year. Daily we have to ‘sign on’ in our respective depot offices 30 minutes before going into the engine cabin. We need to check daily orders about speed limits and get updated with the daily dynamics of the route. Then we have to take a breath analyser test. We have to be strictly punctual. To give an idea, a station receives a local train every 2-3 minutes. As pilots, we have to complete about two return journeys every day. If a motorman drives a slow local from CSMT to Kalyan, it’s a journey of one and a half hours. Return makes it three. Then we take a half an hour break and complete the second trip. It’s a duty of 6-8 hours daily, with unwarranted challenges in between. Besides, our shift timings keep changing– from early morning to late night—messing up the natural sleep cycle. A motorman manages all of this, single-handedly, without any assistance in the cabin. We practically have a ‘machine-life’.”
About 800-1,000 motormen make about 1,700 trips per day on central, harbour line while 500 motormen of Western Railway run about 1,300 services every day. Altogether, these 1500 (approximately) motormen make over 3000 trips every day from Mumbai CSMT to Kalyan-Kasara-Karjat and Panvel and, Churchgate to Virar-Dahanu, ferrying about 8 million commuters daily.
“Like everyone else, motormen are getting to spend more time with their families. Many are doing yoga and maintaining a good diet, unlike the unscheduled meals on duty. Basically, they are following the schedule of a normal man, unlike the ‘railway schedule’ they followed before the lockdown,” said Bhushanam.
“Now that we have these many days at our hands, if we wish to go anywhere, we can’t step out of our homes. I am doing household chores these days, but I want to return to the chores of a train cabin, because that’s what I am used to for the last 18 years,’’ said the motorman who had dodged the bullets of terrorists at CST.
Shishodia summed up the situation. “Seconds me chalne wala aadmi, aaj itne dino se khali baitha hai (The person who ran on seconds, is sitting idle for days),” he said.
Impact on mental health
Some motormen are finding it difficult to adapt to the ‘lockdown-life’. “We are used to staying 100% vigilant on our duty. There are so many times that people are run over on the tracks. Then, we have to stop the train, clear the bodies off track, inform the nearest station and resume our journey without losing our concentration. It is not easy to keep calm after such accidents. Even during our outings with friends and family, there’s this constant concern about not getting enough rest at the back of our mind. We cannot join duty when we are exhausted or are not rested enough. For us, everything is linked to our duty.”
“The lockdown was relaxing in the initial days. But now we are eager to return to duty. We are not used to staying off duty for such an extended period. Sometimes, it’s difficult to get sleep,” he added.
One motorman from the Western Railway was infected with Covid-19. “He contracted the virus off duty. His wife was also infected. But he has recovered now,” said Bhushanam.
Getting back on track
Bhushanam said, “During these off days, we have started counseling of motormen via video conferencing. This also includes online programmes to keep them updated about new developments in the field.”
“Though local trains for the general public are closed, we run six services daily from Churchgate to Virar for the railway employees working on freight trains, railway doctors etc.” he added.
Shishodia said, “We have started a little movement of cars in the car-shed for maintenance purposes.”
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