After decades of trauma faced by loco pilots on the job, Indian Railways is finally addressing the mental health issues experienced by them. The Railway Board has recommended appointing full-time psychologists in their hospitals to provide counselling to the loco pilots in need. The move, initially reported by Times of India, which was welcomed by loco pilots, came after the Railway Board studied the system in Germany and submitted their observations.
Loco pilots face tremendous pressure on the jobs due to staff shortages and gruelling working hours, which disrupts their body clocks. A lesser-known fact, however, is the debilitating mental trauma they suffer due to casualties that occur on the track, such as running over cattle, or worse, a person.
“Right now we do not have any qualified medical professional to help us during such incidents,” begins Guru*, who has worked as a loco pilot for 10 years. The helplessness associated with the accident can have a crippling effect on the driver's mental health. “After we reach the destination, we have a few procedural stuff to get done, but the impact of the incident stays with us for a few days,” he adds.
Though Indian Railways has made the recommendation, the final decision to appoint a full-time psychologist lies with the individual divisions.
Until now, Guru says loco pilots have only had each other to lean on. “Once we reach our destination, we talk it out to other loco pilots and trusted colleagues. This is the only way we tide over the stress born out of such issues. Our colleagues are our support system as of now."
Many loco pilots, however, learn to put the trauma behind them. Murugan*, a loco pilot covering routes in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, says that the impact of any accident stays in his mind for two to three days. “We then learn to move on,” he says.
“When I was training to be a loco pilot, my trainer used to tell me that whenever you feel that the trauma of running someone over is getting to your head, think of the 2,000 passengers in the train who have put their faith in you. That is what I follow till date,” Murugan explains. However, he says that people have different coping mechanisms and over the course of the job, one learns not to get affected by these things.
V Balachandran, zonal president of All India Loco Running Staff Association, says welcomed the news news that top level officials have paid heed to the long-standing demand of the workers. He noted that the step arose from observations made by many accident inquiry committees appointed by the Railway Board to probe railway accidents.
“If the recommendation is adopted, then loco pilots can seek help to tide over the trauma caused by a range of incidents like derailments, running past signals etc. which is great,” he says. “Loco pilots are in a sticky situation. They cannot share such unfortunate incidents to their family members because of the fear of judgment by them. Hence there is an increased tendency by the loco pilots to bury the emotions somewhere inside and go on with their work,” he explains.
Balachandran adds burying those emotions have the potential to hit the loco pilots harder later. He refused to accept the trauma as an occupational hazard is incidental to the job.
“Occupational hazard which cannot be rectified can be accepted, but if those hazards can be rectified and addressed, then why can’t we address the issues? What is the need to accept something really wrong, despite knowing that the wrong can be righted?” he asks.
Railways officials and a doctor working in Indian Railways did not respond to requests for comment.
*Names changed on request