Driving a toy train is just one of many firsts for this woman

A few minutes before 7am, when the small Kalka-Shimla Express train is due to depart from Kalka, the TTE is busy checking the tickets of passengers who have already boarded the eight coaches. Meanwhile, a group from Gujarat are chatting loudly as they enter the train, having secured the ticket to Shimla at the last minute, and start looking for assigned seats. Soon, more drama ensues as the group begins to argue over window seats and matching numbers with the passengers already seated.

Unaware of all this, and understandably, Deepti Moundekar, 41, in the loco driver’s cabin, prepares for the 96 kilometer trip, which the train will cover in six hours. At 7 a.m. sharp, the train leaves Kalka station, with Deepti at the controls. She joined as a loco driver on the Heritage Road narrow gauge gauge in July 2020 after completing a two-month training course.

Deepti, 32-year-old Bharti Maina and 30-year-old Priya Singh have a common goal of piloting Shatabdi trains. The trio is associated with the UNESCO declared heritage railway route established during British rule in India.

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Deepti joined Indian Railways in 2006 as an Assistant Locomotive Driver (ALP) transitioning from driving freight trains to broad gauge passenger trains under Ambala Railways division before getting a promotion and start operating the Kalka-Shimla train in July 2020.

Amid the Covid pandemic, she completed the online theoretical training – otherwise administered at the Indian Railways facility in Shakurbasti – and practical work on the heritage narrow-gauge road, before becoming the first locomotive driver trains running on the Kalka-Shimla route.

The two-month training covers the ins and outs of differentiated operations on wide gauge, generally running on an electric motor, and narrow gauge running on a diesel engine. The trains, moving at a relatively slower speed, are shunted on narrow gauge in mountainous terrain.

According to Deepti, who hails from Bilaspur district in Chhattisgarh, as a locomotive driver on the Kalka-Shimla railway line, one has to remain alert given the vagaries of the weather, including fallen trees and rocks on the road. track, and seasonal snowfall.

“Is route pe driver ko bahut dhyan rakhna padhta hai (Loco-pilot must be very careful on this route),” says Deepti, who took a polytechnic course after registration and went before being recruited as a Loco Pilot assistant.

Two passengers were killed and 13 injured after a chartered toy train on the Heritage Route carrying British nationals derailed in 2015. Speeding was the reason attributed to the accident.

Deepti says the two-month training also dwells on such incidents which is also corroborated by Chief Locomotive Inspector at Kalka Station, Rakesh Kumar.

Deepti is proud to say that “I am the first female driver in the Ambala division. I became the first female broad gauge passenger driver and now I am the first female driver on the narrow gauge Kalka-Shimla road. It feels so good.”

“Passengers are surprised to see me driving the train. A lot of people come to talk to me out of curiosity,” says Deepti, adding that her next promotion will be to express courier loco driver and that “my dream is to drive Shatabdi Express.”

Deepti talks about her parents’ ‘Marathi origin’, while pointing out that her father retired as a Chhattisgarh power plant manager, her mother a housewife and how, among four sisters and a brother, she is the only one to join the Indian Railways.

Her husband works in the private sector. She has two sons, aged 13 and 11.

Bharti Maina was also recruited as an assistant locomotive driver in Ambala Division in 2017. After completing her training, she has been working as an ALP on the Kalka-Shimla road since September 2021. Bharti says her father has retired as a subedar in the army, his older brother was in business, a sister was employed in the prison department and another is working in the stock market.

“I am very proud when passengers give compliments. It was a wonderful experience. One day I would like to drive Shatabadi and Rajdhani,” says Bharti, explaining how the narrow gauge training aimed at not exceeding 25 km/h speed, much lower than the wide gauge speed.

Daughter of a farmer, Priya is undergoing training to work as an ALP on the Kalka-Shimla track after joining the department in 2018. “I am the only one in my family who has taken up a government position. I love speed and adventure and would like to drive high-speed trains like Shatabadi one day,” says Priya, enthralled by her experience on the Kalka-Shimla train as a passenger in 2016 Originally from Uttar Pradesh, Priya has two sisters, one working at the stock exchange and the other a fashion designer.