India

'Custodians' of India's vast rail network

Ramdin, one of the trackmen interviewed by the BBC, speaks during his break in Allahabad Image copyright Ankit
Image caption Ramdin says trackmen are an integral part of India's vast railway network

It's sweltering hot as I walk along the railway tracks with Ramdin in the northern Indian city of Allahabad.

He talks passionately about his work, taking brisk steps to the spot where his colleagues are busy fixing a "minor problem" with the tracks.

They seem oblivious to the heat, and the trains passing by on the adjacent track.

Ramdin greets his co-workers and gets down to work alongside them.

The trackmen lift heavy iron sleepers - which hold the tracks in correct alignment - worn out from use and replace them with new ones.

Ramdin and his colleagues are a part of Indian railways' network of close to 200,000 workers who maintain more than 110,000km (68,000 miles) of tracks across the country.

"Trackmen are the backbone of Indian railways who work like soldiers in the army," says railways spokesperson Anil Saxena.

"A trackman's job requires him to be on duty even during extreme weather conditions to constantly monitor the railway lines," he adds.

After more than an hour of work, Ramdin and his colleagues decide to take a break and come over to talk to me.

'Years of practice'

Noting my anxiety at the trains passing on the adjacent track, Ramdin assures me that it is totally safe.

"We have years of practice. We know the areas that are safe and how the train runs on the track," he says.

"You people sleep happily in your coaches while travelling in trains. But not many of you know how hard we work to keep you safe," he adds.

Image copyright Ankit
Image caption These workers replace damaged tracks for smooth running of trains
Image copyright Ankit
Image caption Indian railway's 'track custodians' inspect every inch of the network's lines daily
Image copyright Ankit
Image caption Bachi Lal has spent more than two decades with the railways

His colleague Bachi Lal, who has the crucial responsibility of inspecting tracks, manning railway crossings and repairing damaged lines, says he often has to work for long hours in isolated places.

"I was once with a group repairing tracks in a forested area and we had to stay overnight. We could hear the animals."

Mr Lal says it is the "camaraderie among trackmen" that helps them get through difficult situations. "We stay away from our families for days but working in groups ensures that we don't become too sad," he says.

Eyes and ears

Railway officials say the department is fast modernising the way it maintains tracks and installs fresh ones, but the role of the trackmen remains crucial and is unlikely to change.

"No matter how modern we become, we cannot replace the trackmen. They are our eyes and ears on the ground. They inspect every inch of our tracks at least once in a day," an official says.

Despite the importance given to their work, the trackmen remain at the bottom of the pay structure - although they receive healthcare and housing, a new trackman earns around 15,000 rupees (£152;$243) a month.

"They are on the frontline of the railways' work and their job is dangerous. And they definitely don't earn good wages," says Jaigopal Mishra, a former administrator with the railways.

Prasad, one of Ramdin's colleagues, says he hopes for better pay and urges senior officials to meet the trackmen more often to know the tough conditions they work in.

"It's hard manual work and everybody cannot lift heavy weights and stand next to a fast approaching train. But we realise the importance of the job because millions of lives depend on us."

Image copyright Ankit
Image caption Trackmen often work in extremely hot conditions
Image copyright Indian Railways
Image caption Most of the signalling was done through "red" and "green" flags in old days

Some of the trackmen are also deployed to man railway crossings and handle manual signalling on less busy routes. The railway has automated most of its signalling but in some remote areas manual handling still exists.

I meet Arvind Kumar in one such area near Allahabad and ask him if weather impacts his work.

"Whenever it's too hot or rains heavily, we have to be extra alert because tracks are more likely to suffer damages during extreme weather conditions," he says.

The railways, however, have been beset with problems - there have been several train accidents in recent years in which hundreds have died.

"We do our best to maintain the tracks, but accidents still happen. But we always hope and pray that passengers are safe. Our job is connected to them," Mr Kumar says.

As I prepare to leave, he stops me to add a final thought.

"We too want to be respected and remembered like our soldiers. You never know when an accident can end my life. We adopt proper safety mechanisms, but it is still dangerous work. I just want people to remember this whenever they board a train," he says.

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