Train and station

The late Vinod Nanekar served with Central Railway as Deputy Station Superintendent of Nagpur station. He was also the President of  the Nagpur Divisional Unit of the All India Station Masters’ Association and in recognition of his meritorious services he was awarded Gold Medal by the Nagpur Division of Central Railway.

The following interview was first published under the title “An Evening at the Station with Vinod Nanekar” in the Winter 2005 issue of the Indian Steam Railways Magazine. 

Ravindra Bhalerao :  Tell us something about your career in the railways.

Vinod Nanekar :  I joined railway service in December 1963 and after my selection I was sent for training to the Zonal Training School at Bhusaval. I have been with Central Railway for 33 years at various locations including Bombay VT. I retired from service in 1996 as Deputy Station Superintendent of Nagpur railway station.

Q. Tell us something about railway working... about the so called Block system.

A. One of the primary concerns of train operation is to ensure that no two trains running in the same direction come close enough to result in the possibility of a collision. The ‘Block System’ is devised to ensure adequate spacing of trains while on the run. Under this system a railway is divided into a number of sections called ‘Block Sections’, each section being the length of the track from one station to the next. At a time, only one train is allowed to enter a block section, and till such time as this train has cleared the section, the train in the rear is held up at the previous station. When trains are operated on this principle, it is obvious that the train in the rear can never possibly catch up with the one in front.

Q. Who keeps track of which train is where and maintain the proper spacing between them?

A. Good question. This is a job that is handled by the Section Controller, a post which requires specialized training. Controllers maintain a graphical chart showing the position of each train on his section. When a train pulls into a station, the cabin informs the Controller , and in a similar way, the position of an outgoing train too is intimated to the official. This helps the Controller to constantly update his train position chart.

As an example, a Passenger train is often made to halt for hours at a small wayside station. The usual reason for this is that one or more Mail/Express trains are following on the same track and the Controller advises the Station Master to detain the Passenger at his station to allow the faster train to overtake.

Q. Can you explain in some detail what is the job of a Station Master primarily concerned with?

A. A Station Master is a person responsible for working of railway traffic within stations limits.

Before a train is admitted to a station, the Station Master informs the cabin if it is a run-through train, or is going to halt, and also on which line it is to be received.  This enables the cabinman to set the points for the oncoming train correctly.

In earlier days the station master's office was provided with a 'Slide instrument' carrying on it a number of switches, called slots. There was a slot for each of the running lines at the station.  If for example, a station master wished to admit a train to a certain line, say line No. 2, he pressed switch No. 2 and lock it in place. This action would unlock the appropriate   point and signal levers in the cabin, allowing the cabinman to set the correct levers for admission of the train on the designated line. The slide instrument thus eradicates the possibility of cabin staff operating the wrong levers.

Once the train has arrived at the station, we get in touch with the Controller on the phone, informing him of the arrival, and enquire if it may be allowed to proceed. If the Controller has no objection to the train being despatched, our next task is to contact the station ahead on the block phone, and ascertain whether the track up to the next halt is indeed clear, a process known as 'taking line clear'.

To take a simple case, on a single line railway, the station master's office has an instrument known as the Neale's Ball Token Instrument. If the line from our station to the next one ahead is indeed clear, the station master ahead grants line clear to us using his phone. Then he depresses a knob on his block instrument. This action has the result of releasing a locked handle on our instrument, and rotation of this handle releases a key. This is known as the Advance Starter Key. Simultaneously, the instrument also releases from a channel, a hollow metal sphere about the size of a ping-pong ball. The ball token as it is known, is the authority which is to be handed over to the driver of the outgoing train. The station master then picks up the Advance Starter key, inserts it in a lock and gives a turn. The result of this is magical. It releases another key, this time in the cabin, accompanied by the ring of a bell. Armed with this key, the cabinman first unlocks and then lowers the Advance Starter signal,  a signal that controls the departure of trains from the station. He also lowers the Starter signal which you find at the end of the platform and with this done the train is ready to steam out. This is a cleverly designed arrangement and it ensures that it becomes impossible to lower the signal for a train unless line clear is obtained on the block instrument.

Once a ball token has been extracted from a Neale's instrument, our station master will find that his instrument gets locked as it were; it is no longer in a position to release any more of the tokens contained within. And in much the same way, the station ahead too will be having a jammed instrument which releases no further tokens. This is again an ingenious arrangement and it ensures that once a token has been extracted and handed to the driver as authority to proceed, no further tokens can be had from the instrument, thereby eliminating the possibility of a station master despatching a second train on the same line before the first has reached the next station.

It is important to understand that line clear is obtained by two independent means ; first from the Section Controller over the phone, and next on the electrical token instrument involving a procedure which requires the participation of the station master ahead. Each of these two procedures has its inherent drawbacks and attendant danger which is offset by the other method.

Q. What do you mean by an Advance Starter Signal?

A. Signals are usually classified according to their location and purpose. Those which a train first encounters when entering a station are called Reception signals, those which govern the departure of trains are named Departure signals. 

Signals which control departure are of two kinds. The one you find at the end of a platform is called the Starter. There is a Starter for each of the station lines from where trains start. The Starter also marks the limit where an arriving train has to come to a halt.

If you walk away from a station, you find the lines joining up, ten lines becoming five, then three, and so on, till you are left with only two tracks -- up and down. Far away from this spot, one comes across the very last departure signal that serves the station. This is the Advance Starter ; it applies to all lines originating from the station. 

The Advance Starter represents, as it were, the ultimate authority for a train to leave the station. Block instruments are usually interlocked with this signal, so that even if the Starter has been lowered erroneously for a train, the Advance Starter can never be lowered without successfully obtaining line clear on the block instrument. 

Q.  Tell us about Reception signals.

A.  Reception signals are generally of two kinds, Home and Distant. The Home is placed close to the facing points as a train enters the station. The Distant is a 'permissive' signal, which means it has no aspect requiring the driver to bring his train to a halt. If the distant arm is horizontal, it merely indicates that the Home ahead is at danger, so the driver must slow down his train in readiness for bringing it to a halt. A Distant signal arm showing 'proceed' means that the Home too is at proceed.

Q. Railway signalling seems to be an interesting area, and yet so confusing.

A. The first train in the world was run without signals. Policemen mounted on horses were employed to make sure that the track was free of obstructions.

The earliest type of signals were the semaphore signals, and they are still in use today. Which schoolboy is not familiar with the red semaphore arm? Horizontal means stop, lowered it means that a train may proceed. Signals of this kind are usually painted red; they give only two indications are are known as ' 2-aspect lower quadrant signals.'

A more sophisticated version of the red signal described above is the 'Multiple Aspect Upper Quadrant' signal, also known as MAUQ. Here the signal arm moves upwards (hence upper quadrant), and displays three aspects. Horizontal means stop, as before. Vertically up means that the train may proceed at full speed, but if the arm is inclined upwards at 45 degrees,  it is a warning to the engineman that he will be required to halt at the next signal ahead, and he should therefore bring his train under control.

There are of course a good many kinds of signals other than the ones we have seen, such as shunting signals, route indicators, repeaters, co-acting signals, and so on.

Q. Despite such an elaborate signalling system, we still have train accidents occurring with maddening regularity.

A. On interlocked sections of a railway, no two trains can occupy the same section of track at the same time. When collisions do occur, they are always the result of either human error or machine failure. Machine failure include such cases as a signal not functioning as it should, block instruments giving the wrong indication, incorrect operation of various electrical instruments and various other things. Human errors include such occurrences as a driver overshooting a danger signal, signalmen not obeying the rules laid down, and so on. 

In a collision involving human error usually two or three persons are involved. For example if a station master issues wrong instructions to the cabin, the cabinman is expected to spot the error. If cabin personnel too fail to detect the error and go ahead with the orders issued, then engine driver may be expected to show alertness and spot the error. Thus in an accident involving human error, several persons are involved, each contributing his share to the occurrence of the mishap.

Q. When a Mail runs through a station, it is a nice thing to watch the solemn faced station master standing on the platform holding a green flag.

A.  Green flags are used by day, and green lantern by night. In either case, our station master has an important task to attend to, namely to check the passing train for any signs of danger, such as a door opening outwards, any springs hanging loose, smoke issuing from near the bogies (which means an overheated wheel axle). Should he spot anything unusual, he immediately brings the train to a halt by displaying his  red flag/lantern.

Q. You also find green lamps being displayed by a cabinman standing in his window when a train is pulling into or leaving a station. Its great fun watching the signalman at his window. 

A. Not only the cabinman, but also the driver as well as the guard of the train may be seen to hold the green lantern as they pass a signalbox. This is a universally used method by which the train crew exchange a message with the cabin staff (and vice versa) telling them that everything on the train is fine, that there is no cause for concern.

Q. Do tell us about those colourful signs we see flashing by from the window of a train. You have yellow boards, which read W, or W/L, then T/P, and T/G.  So very mysterious!!

A.  Nothing mysterious really. W is a whistle indicator asking the driver to blow his whistle. W/L says the same thing, specifying in addition that he will be passing a level crossing shortly. T/P and T/G are a bit more involved. Rail track is often under repair, so trains are expected to slow down as they pass the spot. The whole of the train right down to the Guard's van has to pass the spot at reduced speed, so the driver must know the exact spot from where he may begin to speed up again. T/P and T/G mark these locations respectively for a passenger and goods train running on the section. 

Q. Tell us about the steam age in India.

A. Oh, the glorious age of steam ! It has all passed into history now, but who doesn't remember the time when the nation was moved by the power of steam !! 

One trouble with steam locomotives, unfortunately, was the frequent need for watering. I remember a goods train was once halted at a small wayside station for so long that the water in the tender was finally exhausted. Having no water in the boiler spells danger, so before this occurs, the engineman 'drops the fire', puts out the flames, for he can do without fire, but he cannot do without water. This is not to say that this was a rare occurence. Having to drop the fire for want of water was a common enough occurrence in my days. 

Q. How often would the engine would have to be changed on long run like that from Delhi to down south ?

A. Quite often. Take for instance a train running from Delhi to Madras. The engine attached at Delhi carries the train only as far as Jhansi (yes, there was a locoshed at Jhansi). A second loco took over at Jhansi which went only as far as Itarsi. Further engine changes occurred at Nagpur, Kazipet and Vijaywada.

Q. Does a new train crew take over at engine changing stations?

A. Yes. Drivers, guards, TTEs, train attendants all signed off duty at engine changing stations. 

Q. Did the driver get off his engine and return home straight away?

A.  No, certainly not ! When a train arrived at an engine changing station, the assistant driver uncoupled the locomotive. The engine is then shunted to a siding where it awaits clearance to proceed further. On getting the signal, the crew proceed with their light engine to the locomotive shed. Before our driver signs off duty, he has to make an entry in the logbook reporting any malfunctioning he may have encountered on the way. He would also quote the position regarding the quantity of coal left in the tender. 

Steam engine drivers had to be on their toes all the time; a driver's duty easily stretched upto 12 hours or more at a time.