On February 1, Milind Sonar blew his train’s horn several times while entering Mumbai Central platform number 4. Moments later, the motorman applied emergency brakes and started saying a prayer, eyes wide open.
“It was a man in his 50s who was on the tracks picking up something. He froze, watching the train approach him head on. I was at 35 km/h. The man did not move an inch but fortunately, the train stopped less than fifteen feet before him,” Sonar said recalling the reason for his prayers.
Pedestrians on railway tracks are routine for motormen across the vast suburban railway network. The Western Railway head office at Churchgate claims to receive at least four handwritten letters from motormen on a daily basis, notifying their superiors of such incidents. A majority of them is about the lives they saved.
Senior railway officials claim that more than a thousand persons died last year in “knockdowns”, which account for nearly a third of the total accidents involving suburban locals.
Sonar said whenever there are close shaves, his first knockdown flashes in his mind.
Narrating his first knockdown in 1999, Sonar said he was an assistant driver in a locomotive and a little before Surat, he had mowed down a minor girl.
Jeevan Kanojiya (40) another motorman, admits his nerves shake every time he passes the stretch between Ville Parle and Santacruz where his first knockdown took place. “Hum uss hadse ko bhool nahi pate hain,” he said.
“We get counselled every fortnight by supervisors. Some of us share our experience, which helps. But we have to pilot the same train on the same tracks, there is no escaping it,” said Kanojiya.
Kanojiya late last month saved a senior citizen’s life while he was crossing the tracks in Jogeshwari. About 400 meters from the man, Kanojiya started applying brakes as the train was running at 100 km per hour and halted barely twenty steps from the elderly, he claimed.
“In those moments I am leaning forward, standing and my face continues to cringe till I halt. The person on the track feels their life is over and by accepting that fact they don’t get off the tracks even if we are 400 meters away,” Kanojiya added.
Divisional Railway Manager of the Western Railway, Shailendra Kumar said “saving lives” is now part of the motorman’s job description, given the high frequency of railway accidents.
“The margin of error depends on the speed of train for each motorman. But regardless, they have to be alert especially with people jumping before trains as a common way to commit suicide,” Kumar said.
Railway officials will now start to keep tabs on the number of lives each motorman will save, in order to motivate these “unsung heroes”.
“Any accident takes a toll on us. We get appreciated at the station and we come home to tell our family the success stories but all the high spirits come crashing down after one accident. We know that all accidents are not our fault and not in our hands but it is not easy to shake off the guilt,” Kanojiya said.