In the middle of the night, a train is blaring its horns, announcing its arrival at a wayside station. A man, casually walks across the tracks and takes position on a tiny pedestal. In his hand, a blazing torch and a hoop of wire with a pouch that contains a metallic ball. He then waits for the train to come straight at him.
He is one of the few men left on Indian Railways who run trains on the Neale’s Ball Token System. An archaic, but utterly foolproof way of managing train operations on a single line section. This system ensures that only one train is permitted on a particular section at any given point in time, eliminating possibilities of a collision, as this clip from a video by Vikas Chander demonstrates.
The token system is now giving way to modern methods based on electronically operated, interlocking points, which eliminate the need for physical tokens. While more efficient, they retain none of the charm and adventure that comes with roaring trains and flying hoops.
Trains can collect tokens at speeds that can sometimes be in the vicinity of 75-90 kmph, requiring utmost precision on part of the driver on board and the pointsman on the ground. Any error means the train will overshoot the station, and require to stop and collect the token. Under no circumstance can a train proceed without the token.
It is a difficult job by any stretch of imagination. But the task assumes greater complexity with nightfall. While the pointsman on the ground does have a blazing torch and a high visibility vest. For the driver, he is nothing but a speck until he is just a few meters away. And even then – he has to aim his arm into a hoop barely a foot in diameter. But as they say – practice makes perfect. For less than 5% of token pickup attempts ever fail.
As with many older train management systems, the token exchange too will soon be history. But to those who have witnessed it – the drama created of the roaring train, the impassive pointsman, the concentrating driver, the whizzing of the dropped token and thwack of a successful pickup, will ever remain incomparable.