It’s a maroon, coin-shaped object resting lightly in their kit. But as they set out on their nightly patrol, Kamal and Deepak Kumar of the Indian Railway’s Cold Weather Patrolling team at Ghaziabad station know that these ten “patakhas (detonators)” devised back in 1841 by a British inventor are their biggest weapon against north India’s notorious fog.
Kamal, 35, and Deepak, 29, are just recovering from 12 days of dense fog that has disrupted road, rail and air traffic. The weather is slightly better tonight, they observe.
It’s 10.37 pm and the 14724 Kalindi Express from Bhiwani has just arrived at the station. On another platform, Hw Bdts (Haridwar-Bandra) Superfast Express is slowly chugging out, making its way to Mumbai.
Dressed in grey trousers, fluorescent, light-reflective jackets and caps, mufflers and gloves, the two men make their way to Platform No. 3, to the station master’s office, to get the “plan” for the night. There is still time before their shift begins, at 11 pm.
The Ghaziabad station has an 11-member Cold Weather Patrolling (CWP) team, whose primary job is to alert train drivers about the fog situation before a signal.
After they sign in, Kamal and Deepak are given a paper with handwritten coordinates of their route for the night — a 9-km stretch (18 km going and coming) to be covered by 7 the next morning. Apart from keeping an eye on the fog, they must watch out for any track fishplate damage, screw displacement etc.
Their routes decided, the two head to an adjoining room to pick up their seven-item kit that has a torch, a spanner, a Hand Signal (HS) lamp with green, yellow and red light, a manual version of the HS lamp that runs on kerosene, the patakhas, a whistle and a CWP plate with the trackman’s number on it.
Hauling the kit up, Kamal says it weighs about 20 kg. “But our job cannot be done even if we leave a single equipment behind.”
A total of 206 trains halt at the Ghaziabad station and the men cover four tracks every night, generally in groups of three-four. They always move “towards traffic”, that is facing the trains — and soon it’s obvious why.
At 11 pm, Kamal and Deepak switch on their torches and take off. Walking gingerly, Kamal examines the fish plate, Deepak the screws. “The parts near the platform are the dirtiest because the train stops here and passengers throw out all kinds of things. There is human excreta too,” says Deepak.
By the time they reach the edge of the platform, the darkness of the night has started engulfing the tracks. The only light is from beaming train engines.
A few metres later, Deepak spots a loose screw. He takes out a spanner and tightens it. “We fix over 70 such screws sometimes in one night,” he says.
Kamal keeps an eye out for any approaching train. “It’s a very dicey. Today we do not have much fog, but… you never know when a train stealthily approaches from behind,” he says.
Their only link to the “panel” (the station-master’s office) is a mobile phone — there are no walkie-talkies like the Railway Protection Force has. “Though we have a rough idea of the route of the trains, there are diversions all the time, and I have had at least three close shaves just this month,” says Deepak. “The train drivers can spot us because of these light-reflective jackets, but that is not always the case.”
Pointing out the narrow gap between two tracks, Kamal adds, “Sometimes there are trains on both tracks and we can’t always move to the sides. Just last week, when the fog was very thick, we had two fast trains approaching on adjoining tracks. We just lay down in the space between the tracks till the trains passed.”
Both talk about Chhatarpal, a trackman crushed under a train while returning from work a foggy morning this December. “Chhatarpal just didn’t realise there was a train approaching,” says Kamal.
Laughing bitterly, the 35-year-old from Janjgir-Champa district in Chhattisgarh says this job once seemed like a good option. His father retired as a trackman and he studied until Class X in a government school before following in his footsteps. A member of the CWP for the second year, he lives in the railway colony in Madhopura, a short walk from the Ghaziabad station. “I took the Group D level railway zonal exam and got the job,” says Kamal.
Deepak is here all the way from Gaya in Bihar, having done his graduation as well as an ITI course while simultaneously taking coaching for the railway exam. “I cleared the exam in 2013. I didn’t know then this is what I would end up doing. My family was happy that I had got a government job,” says Deepak, whose father runs a clothes shop back home.
He now lives in a single room near the station — he didn’t take up the railway quarters because of their “poor condition”. All his family is in Gaya.
Their salary is Rs 14,000 a month. However, it’s not that which depresses Deepak. Moving towards track coordinates 18/25, he says, “Now I hear there are no promotions on this job, and I will have to continue doing this forever.”
The screw fixed, the men move ahead, their HS lamps with yellow lights now in their hand. If there is a ‘fracture (damage)’ in the tracks with little time to repair it, and there is a train approaching, the light is turned to red. CWP men then stand 30 m before the damage site to alert the driver.
The men can take their first break after covering 3 km (coordinates 15/5). There are six such stops through the night, where the trackmen take 15-20 minute breaks in small cabins.
Around 11.30 pm, it gets a little hazy. The trackmen contemplate whether to prepare for a fog alert. “There is hardly any fog today, but sometimes if it is difficult to spot a signal, we conduct the fog exercise,” explains Deepak.
The patakhas are fished out now. The trackmen usually put them first at 600 m and then at 270 m from the spot on the track. The detonators go off with a loud sound when a train runs over them, alerting the driver to slow down.
Kamal and Deepak have a brief discussion, and after a call to the main station, decide against a fog alert. Walking further away, they admit they are relieved that the weather may be improving. “We often fall ill during winters, sometimes crossing our allocation of 20 annual sick leaves. Our salaries are cut then,” says Deepak.
Their lamps now tiny flickers in the pitch-dark midnight, thought of other things found on the tracks spooks Kamal and Deepak. “Bodies are the most common. It scared me initially. I even threw up at times, but now I simply call up the control room,” says Kamal.
Then there are the drug addicts, adds Deepak. “They attack people and steal their money. They kill for even Rs 10. Once a few men tried to extort money from us, but we managed to wriggle out of the situation,” says Kamal. Since that day, they have stopped carrying money. “The only expensive item is our phone,” he adds.
Pointing at their mud-caked shoes, Deepak lashes out, “We work so hard, cover this distance on foot, yet when we return, our bosses say you must have slept on the way! Where will we sleep? On the dirty tracks?”
The job of a ‘key man’ is much “easier”, they contend. “They patrol during the day, just 4-5 km, and their routes are fixed,” says Deepak.
Deepak’s sights, however are set higher. He is preparing for the station master’s exam. “I hope to clear it next year,” he says.
As the two pick up their kits to walk on, gradually becoming just silhouettes in the dark, Kamal shrugs his shoulders. “What government job can a 10th pass get?”