Rajendra B. Aklekar
Imagine a Western Railway Mumbai local train with just two to three commuters getting in the train at Mira Road, the east side of which was just a wide expanse of plain land with fresh green vegetables transported every morning to the Dadar market, fisherwomen getting onboard at Naigaon, the days when local trains had a leisure run with lesser frequency and hassle. The story of 60-year-old Arvind Vishnu Bapat is the story of growth of Mumbai’s suburban railway network. Retiring this weekend after a 43-year-old service, including four years of training, Bapat has seen it grow all in the front of his two eyes over the passing rails!
The textile mill shut down, the growth of suburbs beyond Borivli, the bandhs, the rains, the level crossings, the bomb blasts, local trains and platforms growing longer, the new class of trains and all. I have experienced and see it all, growing with this city, said Bapat, born on February 18, 1961 in the city of Gwalior. He has been one of the few motormen in Mumbai who has zero train overshooting, zero signal passing, unsafe driving or train late record.
Taking us through his kaleidoscopic memories of Mumbai, “I came to Mumbai when I was in 5th standard and l joined the Western Railway in 1978 at the age of 17 after my father, a senior divisional medical officer Dr Vishnu Bapat, passed away due to heart attack. Joining on compassionate grounds, I completed my four years of training as a motorman in 1982 and tool charge of train. Those days, we had English electric trains from the Metropolitan Cammell Carriage and Wagon Company. It was a pleasure driving in those days,” he said.
“The Metro Cammell local trains were replaced by Jesop company Indian train and then new Jessop class and then the ones from Integral Coach Factory. All these used to work on the old Direct Current technology, which was subsequently replaced by Siemens class and now the Bombardier ones. It is much safer and quite advanced technology in newer trains,” he said, posing at Churchgate station in the driving cab of the latest train.
“A job of a motorman is very hectic and needs a disciplined life. We do not have a regular type of weekly off but are given rest days as per schedule due to which we do not have much social life. Our life is trains, no festivals or family much,” he said.
“Let me tell you something about the working life. In those days, there were Virar trains after every half an hour and Borivli trains after every five minutes. We used to get time in that half hour gap, but now things have changed, there is a Virar local every five to ten minutes and the driving time is of continuous three hours. A motorman has to be alert of two most things, the fast-pacing signals that pass by and the stop mark at stations, which requires very high concentration,” he explained.
“A few years after I joined it was Western Railway in 1986 to first introduce 12-car trains. Trains became longer and so did platforms. In the initial days, 12-car trains did not go beyond Bombay Central due to limitations. While working we have to be very alert about signals. Also there were just two lines beyond Borivli, putting limitations on traffic. If you have seen the old Bhayander creek bridge that is now being demolished, I have had the honour of driving trains on that between 1982 to 1985,” he recalls proudly.
“I remember the earlier days when just one or two passengers used to board Mira Road, the east side of which was a vast expanse of plain salt pan land and most of the vegetable growers used to board it for Dadar market at 3:30am in the morning. At Naigaon, it was known for fisherwomen. There were very few people who stayed beyond Borivli and crowds were lesser,” he says.
“Monsoons are another memory. Those days, there was more water logging at Grant Road, Parel and Matunga like it is at Nalasopara and Vasai today. We used to get struck in the driving cab three to four hours alone at one place till water receded. I remember, once in 1992 l was stuck near Bandra station for two hours. After that with much difficulty we reached Churchgate but could not go home as train services of both CR and WR were again down due to monsoon. Those days there were no mobiles and whats app and it was very difficult to inform the family too,” he added.
“Those days between Matunga and Dahisar, there were eighteen to nineteen level crossing gates which used to detain trains for road traffic leading to delays. Now there are none. Public used to be angry with us and during agitations and bands, we were the first target of stone throwing. It was more difficult in case of Bharat bandh or Maharashtra bandh. We cannot stay away on such days, but since it was difficult to drive under pressure, we were given protection. Initially, the windshield of old trains used to shatter, but then railways switched to bullet-proof look out glass which was sturdy. During one such bandh, at Vasai a huge mob came in front of my train and started throwing stones and broke the windshield. A RPF inspector standing near the driving cab fired in the air. After the mob had dispersed, we took the train to Churchgate slowly, all with shattered windshield,” he said.
“Trespassing and runovers are another harsh memory for us. During the textile strike of 1980s, a lot of mill workers attempted suicide between Lower Parel and Dadar stations. It was very painful. Once, I was working a Borivli-Churchgate train and a person was walking on the tracks near Kandivli level crossing and did not see the train. I hooted hard and due to Grace of God, he thought of lying down flat on the tracks. I braked hard, two coaches had passed over him, but he came out without a scratch. About 25 years ago, a suicidal lady with a small child in her arms suddenly jumped in front of train at Bhayander level crossing. Both of the died on the spot. I felt so bad for the child who died due to the mother’s decision, but we are all helpless. In another incident during the 1980s when I was driving under supervision, a young schoolboy in uniform and bag on his back committed suicide. We feel so sorry but are helpless. My driving guru, a senior Parsi motorman at that time, Karsi Kapadia, had taught me to remain bold and not to get drained emotionally.
Bomb blasts are another harsh memory. That day, I was waiting at a signal on a local at Kandivli carshed to take a train to Churchgate, but the controller told me that the train had been cancelled and I spent a night at the carshed. Next morning, it was a horrified sight of all those battered local trains coming at the shed, full of blood, mud, strewn with sleepers, sandals and shoes, a sight I cannot forget,” he said.
But all said and done, as I retire this week, it has been a roller coaster ride of my life and I have grown with this city and its local trains.