Bittersweet railway tales : The Tribune India

Bittersweet railway tales

Bittersweet railway tales

Photo for representation. File photo

NJ Ravi Chander

The steam locomotive evokes awe. The raw power generated by the interplay of water, air and coal produces a living entity that has, for generations, thrilled those fortunate enough to see it. My uncle’s father-in-law, who drove a steam-powered goods wagon, would recall that the colonial masters selected loco pilots on the basis of an eye test. The trial, repeated every six months, required threading a small needle! Indeed, a sharp eye and an alert mind were prerequisites for the job, considering the dangers lurking on the track.

Hilariously, our relative would polish off a plate of mutton biryani before the exercise as he thought this would enable him to pass the test with flying colours! He had a fireman as an assistant, who loaded the coal into the kiln to keep the engine alive and kicking. But the long grind skewed work-life balance.

On occasions when he left early for work, the family would send the lunch box tagged with his name through a railway employee departing by the early afternoon train. Then, the lunch box and its contents would reach the ‘Running Room’ at Jolarpet (Tamil Nadu), where the crew rested after completing its duty and before taking up the next task. Stories are rife about how the loco pilot used to prepare ragi balls using the boiling water in the engine and pilfer coal to use it as fuel back home.

In the pre-telephone era, train order hoops were an essential tool at railway stations. As it was impractical for passing trains to stop for messages, the poles were a simple way to convey orders and return messages. The hoop from a bamboo pole was heated and bent around a cylindrical object. Orders were attached to this hoop, and the bar was held up as the train rattled past. The crewman on the train would stick out his arm and ‘catch’ the hoop. After pulling off the order or message, the hoop was tossed off the train, and the stationmaster or the telegraph operator would recover the pole, and occasionally, a message.

In an age when conventional radio devices were unavailable, lanterns served as night-time communication tools from train to train or station to station. While flags worked during the day, a flagman at a level crossing used a lantern at night to stop traffic before a train arrived. Permanent coloured lamps were also installed on poles to signal trains about the operational status of the track ahead.

Railway tales never cease to amaze or shock. Another relative who also piloted a goods wagon was once involved in a horrific accident. His steam engine derailed and turned turtle. The boiler collapsed on him, resulting in third-degree burns. He survived to tell the tale, but the injuries affected his health. He died a few years later.

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