Journey of the railway guards | Sunday Observer

Journey of the railway guards

Semaphore signals system
Semaphore signals system

In our continuing series of the Sri Lanka Railways, today we highlight the role of the Railway Guard. These men represent a long and proud tradition from as far back as 1864. They have and continue to work on every single train that runs across the country. Their main operating office is located at the Maradana Railway Station, Platform No 5. I met up with the Guards Inspector Janaka Fernando, who counts 33 years of service. He is the senior officer responsible for the 528 guards operating throughout the island. 300 guards are stationed in Colombo and the rest operate from 12 unit offices.

Janaka Fernando explains: “We are one of the first branches of the Ceylon Railway. Since its inception the railway guards have been an integral part of the train services. At the outset, the posts of guards were held by the British, as were the engine drivers. Towards the 1950s the Head Guards were Burghers and Tamils. Today, we have a good mix from every community working as a team. I joined the railways three decades ago. Since then we have undergone many improvements.

“The post of railway guard was a lucrative government job decades ago, as people were drawn to the immaculate white uniform, black velvet coat and firm white pith hat. The pith hat was discontinued years ago, but the uniform remains and dazzles many young men who have joined the service.

“The men are selected from those who have passed Maths subjects at the GCE A/L exam. In addition, they must have the NDT, while some also have Degrees to their credit. The new recruits are absorbed as Class 3 Guards, and follow two years of training. During this time they spend three months at the German Technical School, where they learn practical skills.

“A guard is taught about train engines, compartments, signals, block regulations (rail safety), train operating systems, responding to emergencies such as fire, collision and derailment. They are also trained in first aid. A guard checks the entire train at the Main Yard before it is ready to enter the Station. After they show a consistent good performance they are promoted as Class 2/B Guards. It is only after serving for three years that the Under Guards are taken for training on the Upcountry Main Lines”.

Fernando explains further, “Working on the upcountry tracks is totally different. A guard must get an understanding of the steep inclines, the impact of the gradient on the speed of the train. Also the weight of parcels and baggage on a train impacts the upward push to far away stations on the Colombo - Badulla line. The guards are competent in using the hand brake, to assist the engine driver when required. The hand brake is located in the rear guard’s carriage. After four years they can be promoted as Class 1 guards”.

Trains come and leave Maradana, and their horns at times muffle our conversation. By 4.15 pm office workers can be seen assembling at the platforms. Guards return from long runs and hand over their journals to an officer. Every train journey is documented in detail. The Guards Booking Office is a busy place. This is where the 300 guards change shifts. Some take a break before taking over the next shift. H. U. Rajapaksa is the Chief in Charge (CIC) of Guards Booking, a British system. He has a massive ledger which is actually a duty roster. It is his task to assign guards to the trains. As per the rail regulations each train has a Head Guard and an Under Guard. Rajapaksa explains, “As the train is ready the guard will sound the first whistle, indicating to the passengers that the train is about to move. The second whistle indicates to the passengers and the Station Master that the train is moving. On our way we have to monitor the signals. Some signals are controlled (semaphore system) others are automatic”. Watching the signals is a prime duty. Before a train nears a level crossing (700 metres in advance) the signals will indicate if the rail crossing is secured by the gate man, if not the train will come to a complete halt.

Railway guards also get involved in “shunting” the process of attaching or detaching compartments at some stations.

Apart from these duties the guard is responsible for the parcels and mail bags in his custody. These have to be dropped off and collected at various stations. They perform another key task by collecting cash from smaller stations (ticket sales revenue). On some lines the guards monitor the exchange of the tablet between Station Master and engine driver. Janaka Fernando adds, “Guards are often seen by passengers waving either a red or a green flag. This is a key signal to the engine driver, as some trains have up to a dozen compartments and these visual signals come from the rear compartment. Both men must work as a team. We used red and green signal lamps at night, which was stopped in 1990. Since then we use flashlights with red and green lights’.

Despite the responsibility entrusted with the railway guards, they have the chance to enjoy some of the finest natural scenery on every line. Occasionally, they have to deal with a suicide victim, who decides to take his/her life on the rail track. The train is halted and the victim’s body handed over to the nearest railway station. Over the past few weeks another crisis has plagued some trains - wild elephants crossing rail tracks at night. Some senior guards aired their views:

“It is obvious that visibility is less at night, in comparison to daylight. A diesel locomotive has a bright light that reaches 100 metres. But it depends on the curves and bends of the tracks. Often wild elephants suddenly appear at bends and the result would be fatal. You can’t halt a big train as quickly as a car. During these tragedies trains also derail. The engine drivers always uphold safety compliance and they take their jobs very seriously”. I understood that in the recent past certain traditional ‘elephant passes’ have been encroached by humans who extend their cultivations. At times they put up electric fences thereby disturbing the normal crossing routes of elephants. Elephant calves are confused and cross onto the track, and the jumbo mothers have no choice but to follow them. It is a difficult situation for the oncoming train. The myth about seeing ghosts at night from a moving train was denied by the guards, and we shared a round of laughter.

For more than 150 years the Railway Guards have sustained a vital duty on all trains. Their black and white uniform is a reassuring sign to engine drivers, station masters and to passengers.