Archive | January, 2017

DICKSON – THE RAILWAY GUARD

22 Jan

Just about half a century after his grandfather retired from the railways in 1957, Chris began his steady climb up the ladder of positions on the Indian Railways. Chris wasn’t around when his grandpa, Remigius Dickson, retired (after several years of service on the former Assam-Bengal Railways) as Station Master from the busy Assam railway junction, Pandu, on the Brahmaputra. Remigius chose to call it a day in this rather laid-back but fairly large railway junction, Bhusaval, on the Central Railway as he believed that he could, with his lifetime savings, cope with the cost of living in this semi-urban town in Maharashtra. He also found that, in his retirement, he would be close to some of his relatives who had settled there earlier. Chris’ Dad, Neo, in the late fifties, and an elder brother of Neo, also became railway employees, in Bhusaval, long before Chris came onto the scene.

Chris probably didn’t realize that he would one day enter the ranks of one of the largest public sector undertakings in India, the Railways, which began operating as early as 1853, on the first line, built by the British, Mumbai to Thane (in Maharashtra). Today, a little over 160 years later, Bhusaval (geographically not too distant from Mumbai or Thane) ranks among India’s leading goods and passenger hubs. Actually Bhusaval, which came to its own, in 1892, barely 40 years after the start of the Mumbai-Thane route, has one of the largest railway yards in the world. Moreover, the Indian Railways use a very profitable goods transportation business to subsidize the passenger traffic fares so that the common man can benefit from inexpensive travel. In fact, today the railways have improved and widened the railway network to inner and distant regions of this sprawling country offering ever greater numbers of people to travel by train.

Chris’s Mom, Caroline, was also a railway employee as she was a teacher in the railway school. When Chris’s Mom passed away in 1997, the railways offered him the vacant ‘railway position’. Chris took on the ‘Dickson Brand’ (-the diligence and commitment trade-marks of his grandpa and his father) and he soon climbed the ranks. We find him in the 2000s getting to the position of Guard, after doing his rounds in the (traffic) Controller’s office where he operated as a TNC (train clerk) from 2002 to 2008.

Adventures of a Guard
A Guard on a railway goods’ train is a lonely figure, sort of pigeon-holed in his brake van, with anything between 50 to 60 wagons (bogies) away from the driver of the train, who is the only other human being on this rather longish ‘moving juggernaut’. Goods’ trains carry freight varying from coal to petrol, from bananas to brinjals (both items being specialities of Bhusaval) and other utility items like onions, sugar, wheat, rice and heavy goods like iron rods, ballast and a variety of other materials.

On a goods’ train (or any train really) it is the driver who first sees the signals ahead and then links up with the guard (using walkie-talkie, and mobile phone, if necessary) to decide on when to stop and later start the train. The railways provide them with walkie-talkies and mobile phones. This communication usually works but there could be situations where the guard could still be left a lot on his own. The guard has to carry sufficient supplies of food and water because he often does not get to a ‘human’ station for a snack or a meal as a goods’ train does not always stop (or park) at a functioning railway station. Quite often the driver gets to stop closer to an actual station (where there may be a halt) while the guard is left about 50 wagons away often in not very friendly settings where security or human-support is concerned.

Living through the risks
Restricted by the narrow space within which he has to cope in his guard’s van Chris sometimes gets off his van to answer ‘nature’s calls’ when the train is stationary. However, this can prove risky if he is in some ‘wild-animal-infested’ areas. Many guards have had pretty narrow shaves from other unwelcome situations as well. On one occasion soon after a train had entered a yard a mad man climbed on to the brake van and beat up a guard. The poor man could not defend himself as he didn’t see it coming.

On another occasion when a train, going towards Khandwa (on the north, 124 km away from Bhusaval) stopped for a signal, a leopard was seen roaming around the train, near the guard’s brake. The driver who had got off the train for a break was alerted by the guard. In a sort of panic he ran for safety to a nearby hut. Linking up with the guard he was able to get back to the safety of his engine. However, leopards can jump huge distances, and could perhaps attack the driver or the guard if their cabin doors are not shut.

Chris had an experience once when he got off the guard’s van during a stop near a station. He got down to attend to his needs but soon had to get back quickly without having completed his job! He hadn’t washed up and, with one hand on the walkie-talkie and the other hand on the water tumbler, he scrambled back on to the safety of his guard’s van. On another occasion the driver who was annoyed with the railways because he had been not given relief (after he had completed his scheduled hours of work) started off the train without informing the guard. The guard, who had got off his van for a breather, literally had to cling on to the hand-rails to get back to the safety of the train he was responsible for. The driver, who always has the advantage of seeing the signals first, should have waited for the walkie-talkie message from the guard before taking off. Trains can be held up for long periods, from a few minutes to a few hours, and both driver and guard can often find their patience running out.

On other occasions there could be problems arising from the way the actual train behaves or performs. If a train is not checked it can emit fire from wheel axles. If the brakes are not released properly the area near wheel (axle) can get red hot and can catch fire. Such trains cannot be kept standing. These wagons have to be detached because the heated areas could become rock-hard and the wagons could fall down. In such conditions the guard has to walk with the train till the nearest station which has loop lines, where such an operation can take place. Sometimes he may have to walk distances for up to 10 or 12 kms, which even in reasonably ‘safe’ times can be risky and unpredictable.

On another occasion, a guard returning to Bhusaval ‘spare’ (i.e. not actually ‘working’ on a train) was sleeping in a coach. He heard a train passing in the opposite direction giving off a peculiar noise. He immediately called up the Station Master of the nearby station to check the train. They found that one wagon was jumping off the tracks and making a huge noise. They were able to stop the train and prevent a serious accident. Another time a guard was attacked in the Bihar section of the railway. The train was standing by when a gang of 4 or 5 men attacked the lonely guard. A chance railway employee passing by noticed the injured employee. He called up the Station Master who discovered that the guard had been attacked and that his phone and his purse had been taken.

Another time, something happened when a train had reached the point just outside Bhusaval station where the guard usually has to get off and stand and wait there for motor-transport to take him to the yard. This happens when a train comes on to a mainline station. This van/car usually takes the driver first and then returns for the guard. This incident happened around 1.30 am when people are not around. Three drunkards came by on motor-bikes, beat up the guard and robbed him. They got little from him but he was badly beaten up and had to be hospitalised.

Another interesting incident took place again on the Bihar sector. After a train had been on the run for 10 hours a memo had to be passed on by the guard to the station master, who had to repeat the message on to the Controller. This was done so that he could make arrangements for a replacement guard. In this instance, quite unpredictably, and for no plausible reason, the station master and the points-men beat up the guard. They locked him up in his own small store room. The Assistant driver, when out to get a refill because his drinking water had got over, chanced to discover what had happened. He of course released the guard.

Climbing the ladder
Christopher Dickson, 44, who has now been a guard for around eight years, on the Central Railway based at Bhusaval Junction seems to take it all in his stride. He is the eldest of three boys of Neopole Dickson, his dad, who spent a lifetime, actually 36 years, in the railways in Bhusaval occupying different positions of responsibility. In 1958 Neo started off teaching in the senior section of Saint Aloysius’ High School, the local Convent School, before he got on to the Railways in 1959. Neo retired as Loco Inspector after spending several years in the DRM’s (Divisional Regional Manager) office. Sylvester, 40, Chris’ younger brother, now works in that office. Neo was highly regarded by the bosses and was always called for by those responsible especially when there was need for emergency preparations for inspections and things of the sort, as he was efficient both in assessing railway traffic as well as in issuing instructions in precise English. He was as good when working as a driver on goods trains, and spent many hours, and years, ‘on line’, facing all the hassles that train operators have to encounter –not least of all the hazards of lack of food and rest.

Chris met his wife Liliyan, a nurse, at her sister’s place. They have two children, Megan 11 and Regan 15 months. They live in a house Chris’ Dad, Neo, set up years back. Sylvester lives with him. Oliver, 35, Chris’ youngest brother, who got married in January 2017, has moved to Pune where he is an Events’ Manager. Chris, from the time he began working in Bhusaval got into the swing of events and has become quite a leader both in social as well as church circles. His Christian faith sustains him and his family (and his Dad too) must surely be proud of him keeping up the family traditions.

Facing the challenges
A guard is given a 12-hour rest if he has done less than 8 hours duty. If he does more than 8 hrs duty he gets 16 hrs at home or as per the requirements of the time depending on the trains that require guards and on the number of guards available for duty. If he goes to an ‘outstation’ (a station not in the vicinity of Bhusaval) he could get a maximum of 8 hours rest. There are other scenarios too. If he takes over a train that has come in from Nagpur (on the eastern side) to Badnera, he goes to Bhusaval with that train. If he goes on this run he could get a minimum break of 16 hours after a 12-hour shift, or longer perhaps. If there is a shortage of staff these runs come oftener. Now, with most guards’ vacancies filled up he gets more regular rest periods sometimes ranging from 30 to 60 hours. It is helpful to get an idea of distances. Bhusaval to Badnera is 220 kms, Bhusaval to Khandwa is 124 kms, Bhusaval to Nandgaon is 160 kms. Chris does line runs on all these sectors.

Chris usually has to take trains which have between 50 and 60 bogies (wagons). In his guard’s van, he has about enough space to sit and do his logs. He has just a hole for toilet and seldom gets to stop at a shop/civilized spot for a meal or a drink while he is with his train, travelling. Surprisingly, he does get WiFi on line and can access his emails or his Facebook or other social media sites or perhaps read a magazine or book which he may have brought along –that of course is if his work has not exhausted him. In addition, he has to be alert all the time, even if the train has to halt every hour. Each time the train has to stop or to move again the guard’s signal is required. If for any reason he is not alert (technically ‘caught napping’) he could be in trouble.

However, there seems to be some sort of silver lining showing up on the horizon. Some helpful changes seem to be coming his way. Without having to wait months or years for promotions, he could soon be functioning as a guard on passenger or mail trains, which in railway terms is an upgrade. But this won’t mean any difference to his salary. It will basically keep him a guard, for life perhaps, with just the annual increment to his pay. So, really the sky still seems to be somewhat fuzzy where his future is concerned.

His immediate boss is an Area Manager who reports to a senior DOM (Divisional Operations Manager) who reports to a COM (Chief OM) who is the head of operations of Central Railway and is based in Mumbai. He comes round for Inspections once or twice a year. He is also in charge of all Divisions. There are 5 Divisions: Mumbai, Bhusaval, Nagpur, Pune and Sholapur (closest to Daund). The highest official in Bhusaval is DRM (Divisional Railway Manager) who is in charge of all Bhusaval Division, which has 18 departments. There would roughly be 100 to 500 employees in each Division. So, Bhusaval division might have a total of around 5000 employees.

One of the developments taking place is that ‘performance-related-pay’ will enter the equation for increments in salaries. It’s a new ball game and employees are apprehensive about how this will work and how their lives could be affected.

The Indian Railways
The Indian Railways is one of the world’s largest railway networks comprising 115,000 km (71,000 mi) of track with over 7,100 stations. In 2015-16, Indian Railways carried more than 8 billion passengers, i.e. more than 22 million passengers a day. The Railways also carried over 1 billion tons of freight in the same period. While freight revenues are around ₹1.118 trillion (US$17 billion), passenger tickets account for only around ₹451.26 billion (US$6.7 billion), which is why the Railways use freight revenues to subsidize passenger travel fares.
The Railways today operate all over India and also have connectivity to Bangladesh and Pakistan. The organization also exports ‘railway expertise’ to other countries like Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam. In earlier days technical assistance was also given to Uganda.

The Indian Railways today run three gauges: broad, metre and narrow. Chris works on broad gauge. Today the Railways offer excellent service in state-of-the-art services like the Rajdhani Express (between Delhi and Kolkata) or the Shatabdi – Bhopal Express (between Agra and Faridabad), or the Gatimaan express (between Agra and Nizamuddin) which is the fastest train in India at 160 kmph. A few areas also have double-decker AC trains. Besides long-distance trains there are also very good local or suburban services in cities like Mumbai or Kolkata, with some cities (like Kolkata) now offering excellent ‘metro’ (overground-underground) services. The Indian Railways run steam, electric and diesel systems.

People who work for the railways in India enjoy privileges: they get housing and medicals, and free ‘pass’ travel, e.g. an annual family travel package on the Indian Railways. They also get some benefits for children’s education (-a maximum of ₹ 18,000, after bills are submitted) which was really introduced only about eight years back. They get 3 passes a year to anywhere in India, which is a 1st Class Pass (2 tier). They can also claim money in lieu of housing. It is calculated on 10% of the basic pay. However, they face the hassles of transfers, especially if they work in certain sectors.

The Railways have 18 departments, some of which are: operations, carriage and wagon, mechanical, electrical, lighting, engineering, personnel, budget and audit, traction (TRD –traction running department), overhead equipment, health and safety, medical, housing and training. The Zonal Training Institute (ZTRI) in Bhusaval is one of the leading Zonal Training Centres for the Indian Railways.

Bhusaval – the railway town
Bhusaval, the railway town (near Jalgaon in Maharashtra), is close to the famous Ajanta Caves, which are only about 60 km away. Bhusaval railway yard is the largest in the subcontinent, and Bhusaval stands at the cross-roads, if not the cross links of four railway networks –the Central, the South-Central, the Northern and the Western. So the junction offers connections to Delhi in the North, Mumbai in the West, Kolkata in the East and Hyderabad and Chennai in the South.

The famous 1956 American movie, Bhowani Junction, was shot around Bhusaval station. ‘27 Down’ a Bollywood movie was also created around Bhusaval junction. The Catholic graveyard, which is about 150 years old, is the largest one of its kind in the region. Families who have emigrated to Australia, Canada, UK, USA or elsewhere still visit Bhusaval graveyard to pray for the souls of their relatives who are buried there. Neo often called Bhusaval the ‘one-horse’ town probably influenced by the one-horse carry-vans (called ‘Jhatkas’ in Hindi) that were plentiful in his day, meaning of course the minimum facilities the town provided –i.e. market, railway station, church, police station, and basically just one big busy road link to towns and villages around. Today Bhusaval is a much bigger trading point as well with hotels, multi-storey buildings and quite of lot of entertainment as well.

Many Anglo-Indians and Christians (including several Catholics) who were employees largely on the Railways were based in Bhusaval. In the fifties and sixties there was a very large English-speaking population and they formed a strong supportive group both as part of a ‘railway-population’ and as part of the Catholic population. These families, who linked up informally and formally for several functions especially around Christmas time, are no longer around. Many of them have migrated but every so often some of their traditions and functions still see revivals in wedding and anniversary celebrations. Recently, in January 2017, Oliver, Chris’ youngest brother, got married to Priya Thomas (of Bhopal) in the Sacred Heart Church in Bhusaval where colourful celebrations were held both in Church and at the reception.

The Schedules
When Chris gets a call on his mobile he has to report to office promptly in about an hour. His office is about 20 minutes away on a motor-bike (in what is called the 15-Blocks area). There the Area Controller (ACOR) will inform him about which train he has to take. He has a lobby (a comfortable waiting room) where he has to wait till the train he has been allotted is brought to within a reasonable walking distance of 15 to 45 minutes. If the train is some distance away a motor-transport will take him there. The Mumbai-side trains are close to the Bhusaval station. The trains to Nagpur and Itarsi are usually close by in the yard.

To get an idea of destinations: Mumbai is on the west, Itarsi on the North, Nagpur on the East, and Badnera and Wardha on the South. Khandwa is the shortest distance that Chris does and is somewhat the easiest and fastest to reach. Badnera is the longest distance and so is the best paid. The payment is by kms multiplied by 10, 20, 30 & 40%. Khandwa e.g. is 124 km away. If Chris does over 125 to 150 km he gets a 10% bonus; if he does from 150 to 175km he gets 20% bonus. To Nandgaon e.g. which is 160km he gets paid for 191 km @ Rs.2.28 per km; or to Badnera, a distance of 220km he gets paid for 307 kms.

On Mail or Express trains he is paid less. So there is more money to be made on goods’ trains, and there’s more time for rest at home. But there could possibly be more runs on Mail trains and so the financial deficit is sort of made up for. Pay is regulated by the Government Pay Commissions, which takes place every 10 years. The last one was in 2016.

The Reality of the Job
Chris enjoys his job and takes it all in his stride. However, perhaps what would perhaps be a bother just now is that he has to spend so many hours away from his family –his loving wife Liliyan and his two lovely daughters –Megan and Regan. Sometimes he has to spend anything from 22 to 32 hours away from home. Sometimes he has to leave for work in the middle of the night. He has to be on call literally all day, when he has completed his scheduled rest period. He has to carry sufficient supplies of food and water and quite naturally his wife has to help with getting his travelling pack ready. He has to carry at least 8 kg of water and quite a pack of vegetables and ‘chappatis’ to last him possibly for about two days. Sometimes he has some unspecified delays caused by the priority given to Mail and Passenger traffic over goods’ trains. This naturally affects not just his health but also the anxiety of the family back home. His little one especially, Regan (just 15 months old now), misses him badly. When back home Chris just relaxes and mixes it all up with family joys and plentiful doses of TV, music and sleep! Chris probably prays with John Bunyan, ‘I am content with what I have, little be it or much; and, Lord, contentment still I crave, because thou savest such.’ He is indeed quite content with his lot as a ‘Railway Guard’ and stays close to his family and …to the Lord!
–(c)tds—most facts checked with Chris Dickson – Jan2017-
contact trodza@ymail.com for comments/corrections.

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