April 10 to 16 is Railway Week in India. Here's an essay I had written in that context almost 50 years ago -- sketching the essential character of the Railwayman, which still remains basically the same all over the world in spite of the spectacular transformation which has since materialized in the whole business of mass transport!
10 April 1965
THE RAILWAYMAN enjoys an unusual degree of publicity, not only because he is indispensable, but because he's everywhere; in this, perhaps, he's rivaled only by the postman and the policeman. I wonder whether there can be a single soul among our teeming millions who has not at one time or another come into contact with a railwayman. Even the placid peasant, who might have spent a lifetime without once boarding a train, is bound to have come across some gang or other at work on the line. It's true that thousands of railwaymen do remain cooped up within the narrow walls of their office, or of their shed or workshop; but thousands of their colleagues are daily engaged in projecting the image of the railwayman in the minds of people at large; these are the staff who man the stations, and the teams which run the trains.
Naturally enough, the railwayman whom the public knows well is a romantic character. There's something incurably sentimental in all of us, and few things excite our fancy more than a railway journey. You never know whom you might meet next in a railway compartment, nor what destiny awaits the hundreds of strangers who share your destination. It might require the genius of a Graham Green to explore all the drama latent in a train's progress; but even the common man seldom fails to be conscious of it. Is it any wonder that the engine driver and the guard -- and maybe even the ticket-checker -- whom the passenger sees as a part and parcel of the train itself, instantly acquire a romantic significance in his eyes? Is it surprising, too, that boys will always grow up wanting to be a railway engineer or that grown-up men will repent sometimes that they never became one? But hardly less appealing to the public imagination is the picture of the Station Master, leading a lonely and mysterious existence at wayside stations; there's an ironic (if not tragic) element in his apparent exile from civilization, for he happens to be a cell in the very blood-stream of civilization.
But while the public's romantic vision of the railwayman is no doubt superficial, the discerning observer cannot fail to recognize something intrinsically heroic in the vital role he plays in the country's progress, and in the lives of its people. Every railwayman, whether he's an out-door bird or sits at his desk, has a legitimate share in this distinction. By the way, he's as proud of his performance as he is of his profession; for the railwayman has to be, and generally is, an efficient worker. Even the simple shuntman must know all about an intricate operation, and usually does; even the illiterate gangman can talk to you intelligently about gauge and alignment, about ballast and super-elevation. There's a tremendous fund of common sense in the railwayman, whose ultimate merit cannot be gainsaid by his human failings, which do occasionally impair his fair name.
The railwayman's career is not merely a profession, but a way of life. He often lives in a colony of his own, and even his family gets to absorb some of the railway culture and vocabulary. Perhaps only a railway child will tell you that his daddy is out "on line", or a railway matron telephone that tomorrow's party is at "19-30 hours." The railway wives have a touching faith in their husbands' trains, and will often set their time-piece by the whistle of the morning mail. But the railwayman does not live in an isolated world; while he openly belongs to a brotherhood, he makes no fetish of it. Running a railroad is a business as well as an art; and while the railwayman posseses many of the artist's gifts, he seldom suffers from the latter's aberrations. He's an outstanding sportsman, too, as the headlines in the papers often remind us.
The man who invented the wheel was no less a genius than the one who perfected the wing; the scientist w ho discovered the prowess of steam was no less a pioneer than those who are ushering in the nuclear age. Each of them has, in his own right and in his own day, fathered a revolution. By the same token, one might well say that the men who manage the trains are no less enterprising than those who will steer the space-ships. Perhaps, in a future century, when more fantastic modes of transport would have made the railways obsolete, the railwayman too might become an anachronism, if not quite cease to exist; but till then, we can be sure he will remain one of the nation's most familiar heroes.
Taking a critical look at this classic essay I wrote so long ago (when I happened to be a Railwayman myself), I am glad to find there isn't a single word of the text I would like to delete today. But there are so many annotations and fresh ideas I wish to add now, that I must just let them follow one by one, in due course!