The phrase 'on track' is used to mean that everything is going right. But for loco pilots, who drive trains, there is a lot that can go wrong when they are behind the wheel. A minor mistake can cost the life of hundreds. Then there are factors that are beyond their control, leading to incidents that haunt them for the rest of their lives.
People dying before their eyes, throwing themselves in front of approaching trains. Mangled bodies, the smell of death.
These horror stories cause loco pilots severe stress and can even lead them to depression. But not many outside the profession are aware of the pain loco pilots go through.
Sitting in the courtyard of his house in Kollam, V Vijayakumar, a veteran who has served the Indian Railways for 33 years, says, "Once, we spotted some clothes on the track from a distance. When we drew close, we saw a girl suddenly getting up from the track. And then two girls lay down on it. The first girl jumped off the track and tried to save her friends but they were not ready to get up. In such circumstances, the loco pilot cannot do anything. Even if he applies the brake, the train cannot be stopped immediately. The train hit those girls while the one who had escaped was screaming. I was just a trainee then. For the first time in my life, I saw a death. That too, a horrible one."
Of the 33 years that Vijayakumar has spent in the railways, he has been a loco pilot for 25.
This incident from his early days disturbed him greatly.
"We had to collect all the body parts which were scattered across the track as the police would examine if all the parts are there. That day, I couldn't eat or sleep. I didn't even talk to anyone when I reached home. That was about 30 years ago...it was just the beginning," Vijayakumar says.
Vijayakumar has written down several such incidents which happened during his service. He hopes to publish a book sooner or later.
Recalling another incident, he says, "Years ago, when I was an assistant loco pilot in the Kerala Express that goes to New Delhi, the train started from Thiruvananthapuram and somebody pulled the emergency chain. A person who had tried to board the train had fallen down and I saw people searching the tracks below the train. Under the second last bogie, there was a dead body without a face. The face had been sliced off from the head by some sharp objects. Everyone started searching for his face. Then I saw the face splattered on a wall near the platform. I screamed. It was someone I knew personally. I detached the face from the wall and attached it to the body myself. The horror of it haunted me for many weeks."
For some, the railway tracks offer a way to commit suicide. Most times, loco pilots cannot see if someone has jumped in front of the train as people who kill themselves usually wait near the tracks and leap all of a sudden. The drivers remain unaware about the death. But sometimes, they know and it's never easy.
"I was near Tenkasi, driving the Thirunelveli - Kollam passenger," says Vijayakumar. "From far, I spotted a red splash on the tracks and thought that someone had put clothes on the rail track to dry. That's very common in some rural areas. But it turned out to be an elderly woman who was wearing a saree. She was sitting on the track. When the train was near her, she looked at us with a mild smile. Her face was full of satisfaction and she suddenly lay down on the track. We had to run over her. I can never forget that face. The train was stopped. Her body was cut into two pieces...her internal organs still had movement."
There are many more such gory incidents dotting Vijayakumar's career. While they may appeal to the ghoul within us, these stories have had a deep impact on him. Sometimes, the life of a loco pilot can even be at threat.
Once, a mentally ill woman got into his cabin in the middle of the night when he was the loco pilot for a goods train. She was naked and grabbed hold of the assistant pilot's neck.
Recounting this terrifying night, Vijayakumar says, "She sat near the armrest area of my assistant loco pilot and was holding his neck tightly. He was not able to speak out of fear. We have no idea how we reached next station."
When the train runs over someone, the staff have the unenviable duty of extracting the body. In Vijayakumar's long career, there was a time when the staff found the dead body of a woman stuck at the couplings of the train engine. He was driving an oil tanker and the discovery was made at the Kazhakoottam station. It was 2 AM and the state of the body - with its eyes open and tongue protruding - sent the station guard running in fear. "We took the body out using a pipe," he says.
But the job is not without some black humour.
Vijayakumar recalls, "We saw a man jumping into the track and lying down there, holding the track tightly. But we were passing through the other track, and that too at a low speed. When we looked back, he was smiling at us, his eyes full of tears."
Another time, the train was pulling to a stop. "We saw a man lying down in the tracks and I stopped at once. The train was going at a very low speed. He shouted at us, asking why we were not allowing him to die!" Vijayakumar says.
Hundreds of such experiences, Vijayakumar believes, led to the heart attack that he suffered ten years ago.
However, there have also been instances when Vijayakumar has been able to save lives.
"I remember breaking speed regulations and taking a heart patient to a station where better hospital facilities were available," he says.
Vijayakumar also speaks of how the tracks can be used to cover up deaths. Once, a group dropped a dead body on the tracks and was waiting nearby.
"They wanted to make the death look like an accident. But I saw them coming in a car and dropping the body. My train was moving very slowly and I was able to stop it. They waved currency notes at me and asked me to move the train. I did not do that and informed the control room instead. Police arrived on the spot and removed the body...they escaped by that time," he recounts.
C Raju, also from Kollam, retired as a loco pilot this year, after 39 years of service. He witnessed his assistant going up in flames in a terrifying accident while working in the Quilon-Madurai passenger train. The train dashed into an excavator-laden trailer lorry at a level-crossing near Thirunelveli in 2003 October. The lorry had broken down at the crossing and the driver was unable to move it.
The railway gatekeeper saw this when he came close to the gate and showed the danger signal to the train. However, Raju was not able to stop the train.
"After the collision, the engine caught fire. Santhosh Varghese, the assistant loco pilot, burnt to death right in front of me. He was just 30 years old. It took me years to recover from that shock," he says.
Although many others have died in front of him, Raju says he hardly remembers any of their faces.
"People who jump in front of the train do it in the fraction of a second, we won't even realise what has happened. We may think the train has dashed into a dog or a cow. Only later, when someone talks about it or we read it in the newspaper, we realise it was a person."
But there is a suicide that is burnt into his memory. A mother and her children.
"The train was in full speed and I could clearly see this mother with a baby on her shoulders standing on the rail track, pulling her other two children to the track. Such instances are when we really wish for a mechanism to stop the train immediately. One of the children somehow managed to escape. But the woman and the other two kids died. All those sights and memories will be with us till we die. Now the brake system is more developed than what it was in our times," he says.
These stories of death, darkness and despair are never-ending for loco pilots as they traverse their routes. For many, the chugging sound of a train sounds comforting. But for loco pilots, every day at the job comes with the possibility of an experience that may scar them forever.