Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Gateman at Getambe

The Gateman at Getambe
Gyan C A Fernando
Gateman at Getambe, Kandy, Sri Lanka, railway, signals,
Cartoon by N. Senthilkumaran

Every morning, from where I live in Kandy, I take a brisk walk for my health. That is what I always tell myself! Funnily, I always seem to end up at the railway level crossing at Getambe and this is where I first met an interesting character by the name of Jayantha, or Jayantha Aiya as he is known to all and sundry.
getambe, signal man, railway, Sri Lanka railway,
Jayantha the gateman with his signal lamp

Jayantha is the charismatic railway gateman and sage at this busy level crossing. His gate is between Peradeniya Junction and Kandy at the 13/4 m post on a busy stretch of railway track and a very busy roadway. His is a job that requires considerable patience, outward thinking, understanding of railway safety and signalling, and also considerable diplomacy. In fact, it needs a lot of diplomacy.
The normally impatient road users of Sri Lanka are not a very happy lot when they get stuck at level crossings and locomotive engineers (train drivers) and railway passengers are not exactly happy with delays caused by level crossings!
Working with basic and antiquated equipment and working from a totally isolated cabin measuring a mere 9ft by 5ft, his is a juggling act. 

Early Days
He is only 6 years younger than I am and so we do have a lot in common and a lot of knowledge to share about railways.
Born in Colombo in 1955, at an early age he moved to mist-shrouded Ambewala in the Hill Country where his father worked for the Sri Lankan railway. He recounts his early days in Ambewela (at an elevation of 6,064 ft (1,848 m)) and that of exploring Horton’s Plains and poaching trout in the icy cold streams on the high plains. The trout was of course a delight to eat especially when grilled with wild onions and wild black pepper, which he did.
Initially he worked for the well-known milk production facility at Ambewela and then in 1974 decided to join the railway at a very low level. His first railway job was that of weeding the railway track and verges. When later working at Talawakelle he got his first break as a relief gateman at St Clair’s level crossing. There were then only six trains a day on this stretch of track.
Jayantha now smiles broadly when he thinks of the good old days. Just six trains a day and he only did an eight-hour shift!
In 1989 he ended up at Gatembe, Kandy on the Peradeniya Junction-Kandy branch where he has continued to work to this day.
He is happily married and has produced six children who in turn have produced five grandchildren!

Getambe Crossing
There are now 46 scheduled train movements a day at this gate and Jayantha and his colleague do alternate 12hr shifts with a total lack of comfort. There is a derelict railway-owned squatting toilet down the steep embankment which has not seen running water in 17years and one of the first tasks of the day is to collect water for the toilet from the helpful local villagers. Jayantha also stores a supply of drinking water in the cabin. Fortunately, there are a couple of tea shacks not too far away and he relies on them for a cup of tea.
At one time his cabin was even more cramped because of the old-fashioned signal levers which operated the gates and the semaphore signals. Now the levers are gone providing him with a bit more space.
The old oil-burning signal lamps are still there and Jayantha proudly showed me how they are operated. He still has two detonators but they being at least 17years of age he doubts it if they will still work!
The cabin has no electricity as such. At night a battery powered, solitary, low-wattage bulb provides a dim light for a few hours. The furious road traffic does not cease at night.
Gateman at Getambe, Sri Lanka Railway, signal man,
The antique crank-handled Bakelite telephone
The gate is worked by a simple interlocked electric panel which is rather primitive and the gateman frequently has to contend with burnt out bulbs on the warning lights. There is no “train approaching” warning (although one could easily be installed using the track current, since this stretch has colour light signals). Instead he has to depend on telephoned warnings from fellow gate men and signal men on the ancient crank-handled Bakelite telephone. Frequently, the telephone lines come down and then the gate men are forced to use their private mobile phones to send “missed calls” to each other to warn of the impending arrival of a train. 

Gateman at Getambe, Sri Lanka Railway, signal man,
The electric interlocking control panel

Red Flags
His is a juggling act.
Trains don’t run on time and the train order frequently changes.
If he closes the gate too early, he faces the abuse of impatient road users.
If he is too late in closing the gate, the train comes to a grinding stop at the gate signal.

His main problem, however, is with the impatient and positively suicidal road users trying to beat the descending gate! The flashing red lights and the bells only seem to spur them on as a red flag does to an angry bull.
Road vehicles crashing through the gates are a common occurrence on this stretch of track and this complicates his life. The fail safe system will then not operate the gate signal which, quite rightly, remains red. Jayantha then has to sprint to the gate signal with a green flag to let the train through. He then has to sprint back to his cabin to switch off the bell and the warning lights for road users!
Still, Jayantha is happy with his lot. He recalls the discipline that went with the railway in his early days and is happy that he still keeps the trains running. His discipline still remains and is still obvious. He knows all the train numbers from memory and he doesn’t need to consult a manual. He knows all the railway telephone codes as well and still uses them and bemoans the fact that his fellow railway workers are totally ignorant of these.
He always carries a large red flag in his khaki trouser pocket, folded like a handkerchief.
It is his last resort in case of an emergency.
Gateman at Getambe, Sri Lanka Railway, signal man,
A juggling act!

Copyright: Gyan C A Fernando 2014. First published in the Lanka Railway Digest Vol 2, No 3

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