CHENNAI: It is 4 p.m. Rush hour traffic has started to flow through the railway level crossing at Korukkupet. The gatekeeper, D.Velayuthan, receives a call on the fixed line magneto phone, a British-era device that has to be wound to place a call.
He immediately rushes towards ‘Point 62.' In Railways terminology, that is one of the locations near the level crossing where a direction changing point exists. “Children regularly throw stones in the small gaps between the regular track and the track that can be moved to alter direction,” says Mr.Velayuthan.
Until the track position can be pneumatically shifted, the train has to wait at the level crossing. That is one of the many duties that gatekeepers perform everyday.
“Sometimes, I have to run more than a kilometre to reach a track position that cannot be shifted,” he says. “Employees of nearby industrial units intentionally fill the gap with stones to catch their train home if they leave the office a bit late.”
A gatekeeper usually does five 12-hour shifts every week, two of which are in the night. Apart from shunting yard or station work, they are the ones responsible for regulating traffic through the level crossing.
“We regularly get verbally abused by motorists when we bring down the gate just before they could pass,” says V.R.Vishwanathan, a gatekeeper. “What many do not understand is that a key has to be inserted to open or close the gate. This key can be used only when the signal is given by the Station Manager.”
Men like Vishwanathan and Velayuthan belong to a vanishing tribe. The few level crossings within the city are being replaced by either over-bridges or under-passes. But considering the wide array of duties that they perform, they will be reassigned another some other work.
As Mr.Vishwanathan points out, their daily roster of duties is the same as it was in 1926 “when two or three trains passed through during a 12-hour shift.” The gates that they man are not just dividing barriers between two columns of vehicles. It represents the divide between unchanging mindsets and futuristic visions.
As Mr.Velayuthan explained his possession of an exact replica of a colonial-era kerosene lamp, “What if the LED flash light fails during the night?”
He will be retiring in a few months. Most likely, no one will replace him. An under-pass has been sanctioned to replace the level crossing. He represents India in slow motion — a system that simultaneously holds on to the past and struggles towards the future.