Turns out the Central Railway also dabbles in some nail-biting close calls in cliffs and valleys in its own little version of Vertical Limit, but not for the thrill of adventure or an adrenaline rush, but a purely functional need. As the trains traverse through the treacherous heights of the Bhor Ghat (between Kasara and Karjat) and the Thul Ghat (between Kasara and Igatpuri) the Central Railway Hill Gang, rock climb and rappel to undertake the most ultimate challenge in railway safety.
Working all around the year, these ‘safety soldiers’ ensure trains smoothly head towards Pune, South India, Nashik and Northern India. While appearing to be professional stuntmen straight out of a Hollywood action thriller, these members while rappelling and rock climbing, remove loose and dangerous boulders that usually hurtle down from the heights onto the tracks, clear the mud likely to cause landslides and drain the water collected in catchments areas.
Between January to March each year, the hill gang members first scale the steep mountains along the tracks and then rappel down to identify loose and vulnerable boulders, before marking them with red paint. Then between April and May, they drop the marked rocks by blocking railway movement for 4 to 5 hours every day. These boulders are then cleared through a ‘Boulder Special’ train, run exclusively for the purpose. Over 650 loose boulders were identified and dropped both in Bhor Ghat and Thul Ghat in this fashion this year alone, before being carted off by a 3-wagon Boulder Special in a 4-5 hour block for 60 days.
There are 10 members in each of the two Hill Gangs in Bhor Ghat and in Thul Ghat, who use gears like safety helmet, safety shoes, safety belt (harness), binocular, 100 metre rope, hand gloves, safety jacket, katavni, pahar, fonk, red paint, brush, first aid box, ghan 5 kg, different sizes of hammers, a crow bar, a thundering whistle, chisel, various types of axes, wire claw, red and green signalling flags, shovel, jam bavata and a ghamela. During the monsoon, besides clearing lose boulders and draining choked up water from drain and culverts, they also cut lean trees and clean bridges.
The Bhor Ghat and the Thul Ghat are part of the Sahyadri Mountain Ranges, which is the principal hill range of the Western Ghats of Maharashtra. The rail lines from Mumbai to Pune and Nashik cut through these ghats. Traversing through these Ghats poses a great challenge to both road and rail networks. For trains especially, the steep gradient rail line through these Ghats pose a unique challenge, as lose boulders roll down these very slopes, aided by loosening soil, requiring the teams to be very vigilant of anything out of place, literally. The big boulders are broken into smaller pieces by the Hill Gangs using chisels and hammers and cleared, while small boulders are simply released like that onto the bottom of the hills during blocks.
As many adventure sports enthusiasts take to hills to get their fix of adrenaline, the Hill Gang does sit as a routine activity, blissfully unaware and completely oblivious to the rush of thrill and excitement it provides for many others. Least of being driven by excitement, their only motivation is a profound sense of responsibility towards several thousand others, who might not see a tomorrow if a boulder comes crashing down the hill.