The Power of Coal

The earliest engines that came to India were simple affairs with small boilers, low steam pressures and axle loads well within the ability of the light track then in use. Both tender and tank engines were put into use. A ‘tender’ engine has a separate compartment known as the tender to carry a supply of coal and water for the journey and is suitable for extended runs without replenishing either of these two essential requisites. A tank engine has the coal compartment built into the main engine unit, and as it needs to be replenished with fuel and water at shorter intervals, it is more suited to shunting duties.

A notable feature of these early engines was the overriding British influence in all matters pertaining to design and operation. Not only were the machines and those in charge of maintenance and operation brought in from Britain, the coal used to provide the source of power was shipped in from Britain too. For nearly fifty years after the railways first came to India, the coal used in locomotives came from Britain. It was only after the turn of the nineteenth century that the coalfields in eastern India began to produce coal in large amounts, and consequently the import of coal for railway use was discontinued.

With the exception of a few routes which have been electrified, the railways are almost entirely dependent on steam power, and this requires coal in phenomenally large amounts. Coal is synonymous with power and should its supply fall short, trains come to a standstill. If coal were to be supplied to only two, maybe three consumers once every now and then, the situation would not have been urgent; but with just a handful of coalfields supplying coal to hundreds of loco sheds spaced miles apart, it can well be imagined that the task of arranging that no shed is without an adequate stock of coal throughout the year, is a job which calls for close coordination and management.

To understand the problem of balancing of coal at various locations, we may imagine two loco sheds, one 2 hours, the other 4 days away from the coalfields. Should a derailment or other mishap occur bringing traffic to a halt, it is clear that the second shed will be more severely affected by a shortage of stock. Each loco shed is therefore provided with a coal yard large enough to hold an adequate stock, and if the rule book were to be followed, the amount held at any time should be enough to last for 10 days plus the travelling time from the coalfields to the shed.

The quantity of coal in a shed is under constant daily watch. To achieve timely replenishment of stock, the Loco Foreman must advise the Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer (Fuel) of his needs, and this he does each day at midnight through a telegraphic message using a code, informing him of the amount of coal at hand.

Code letters used in the telegraphic transmission of coal stock details to the CME’s office are reproduced below:

A     Opening coal balance
B     Fresh Receipts of coal
C     Total Receipts
D     Issues for the day     
E     Closing Balance
F     Number of days stock
G     No. of wagons in shed awaiting unloading
H     No. of wagons in yard awaiting placement

Information on coal stocks coming in from sheds all over the railway each night forms the basis on which the CME’s  office works out the most suitable balance, ensuring that the farthest sheds are kept better stocked than those nearest to the collieries.

To anyone who visits a locomotive shed often enough, it is a common thing to see a coal train pulling into the shed. Slowly but surely, the line of 4-wheeled open wagons pulls in behind a sooty engine and creaking and whining  comes to a halt in the coal yard. Unloading the contents of the wagons is the contractor’s job and so is the task of clearing out of ash and dumping it into the wagons—there is a special ash wagon siding for this purpose. Loading and unloading are no part of the Foreman’s job for he has a good many other things to attend to.

Much before the coal train arrived, the Loco Foreman has received written particulars from the dispatching station—Declaration Advice Notes... Railway Receipts... Invoice... These are important documents, and together, they tell the Foreman about the number of wagons that are being dispatched, the quantity and grade of coal carried by each, wagon numbers, starting point and destination, and so forth.

The first thing the Loco Foreman must see is if the quantity of coal unloaded tallies with the amount as quoted in the D.A. Notes.  This could be done by reweighing each wagon that has arrived, but as this would take an undue amount of time to perform, an indirect approach is used. Every time coal is issued for use in a locomotive or for any other purpose, a carefully measured quantity is given out, so that when the dump is fully issued, the Foreman, by totaling the quantities issued, knows the net amount of coal that was held in the dump. This method of accounting has the additional advantage that it helps in compiling data regarding the quantity of coal utilized by the shed for each different purpose.

It is interesting to note that coal arriving at a shed is utilized for a variety of purposes other than for locomotive use. Coal is needed for the boilers working at the pumping station, and in coaling and traffic cranes. Then too, coal is supplied to tourist and restaurant cars, to inspection carriages, and to running rooms and workshops. In the early days when many of the great rivers were yet to be spanned by bridges, coal was used by the railways to operate ferries across the river. Finally, coal is also available for sale to the employees of the railway.

Detailed accounts of transactions are maintained by the shed, and at the end of the month a comprehensive statement known as the Monthly Accounts Current Form  is prepared showing a detailed breakup of the following details:

1)  The opening balance of coal
2)  Coal received during the month from collieries/dumps/other sheds
3)  Coal issued to engines
4)  Coal issued for non-locomotive purposes
5)  Closing balance on ground

The Monthly Accounts Current Form is prepared in triplicate. One copy is for the shed, while the other two must reach the Divisional Superintendent and the FA & CAO (Fuel Accounts) by the 2nd of the following month.

But perhaps the most interesting part is the way a watch is kept over the use of coal in a locomotive, both during the trip and while it is in shed. A special official is posted for the purpose—the Coal Checker—who keeps a careful record in his register each time coal is consumed by a locomotive for any purpose while it is in shed. There are two officials here in fact, with coal under their charge : the Fuel Issuer, who authorizes the issue of coal, and the Coal Checker who keeps records.

I had hoped Mr Bhalla would spare some time to tell me about his work but he was busy in the coal yard noting details on a form. Three engines stood in a row out in the sun waiting to be coaled. Bhalla climbed down from the cab of the WG at the head and walked up with purposeful strides to the next one behind, again WG. The place is thick with the smell of fire, of steel, of heat and engine smoke. The industrial revolution gave us the power of locomotion, and you can feel its full effect here in the coal yard.

Did Bhalla know driving a loco? Harminder tells me nearly everyone at the shed is familiar with the operating controls, although not everyone would be able to use this knowledge with skill.

But Bhalla is not here to shunt an engine. Harminder tells me he is assessing the quantity of coal left in the tender after the last trip. He uses the calibration marks on the side of the tender for his job; and he should have finished with this bit while the locomotive was still at the incoming pit, but better late than never.

For each engine arriving in the shed, Bhalla has to keep a progressive record of the following particulars in the Coal Checkers Book :—

1)  Date
2)  Engine Number
3)  Incoming Train Number
4)  Arrival date and time
5)  Outgoing date, time, train number
6)  Coal left in tender after arrival
7)  Fresh issue of coal
8)  Total coal in tender
9)     Coal consumed in shed movement
10)   Coal consumed in lighting up engine
11)   Coal consumed for banking fire
12)   Coal consumed for engine kept in steam
13)   Coal consumed for vacuum and injector testing
14)   Total shed consumption
15)   Total coal left in tender at the time of leaving shed

Item No. 15 is the quantity of coal left in the tender at the time when the engine is booked on a train and is ready to leave the shed. On its arrival at the destination shed, the fuel left in the tender is again assessed, and the difference between the two quantities gives the amount of coal that was used during the trip.

The data collected by the coal checker is no idle set of figures to be checked by the Foreman once in a while. Particulars concerning the issue of coal for various purposes are compiled into important monthly fuel statistics which are sent to the FA & CAO (Fuel Accounts) together with various coal accounting forms for internal check.

How much coal can a driver use on a trip? As we have seen, careful accounts are kept of the quantity of coal in an engine tender both at the start and end of the trip. When a driver reports for duty, he is given a Trip Fuel Consumption Card carrying various particulars. The driver must observe economy in the use of coal during the run, and must make every effort to see that he works within the trip ration assigned to him.

Trip rations are worked out by officials of the Mechanical Department after conducting actual trials under varying load conditions both during the day as well as the night for various services. A slightly higher ration is prescribed for winter months to take care of the increased fuel consumption at this time.

At the end of the trip, the driver must submit his fuel consumption card along with the engine ticket to the Loco Foreman. Should it be found that he has consumed more coal than the target fixed, he has to render proper explanation on his card before signing off.

Data recorded on Fuel Cards is further processed into useful monthly statistics—Locomotive Fuel Consumption Averages, Coal Consumption Summary Sheets... When on their rounds, Locomotive Inspectors must study these tabulated sheets with a view to ascertain if drivers are observing fuel economy on the run. Should a driver be found who is consistently heavy on coal, the Loco Inspector will make a trip on the footplate with the driver to ascertain the cause of the increased coal consumption. If a fault inherent in the locomotive is found to be the cause, he will inform the Divisional Mechanical Engineer of the case. In many cases, however, increased fuel consumption is the result of drivers following an incorrect procedure on the run. Should this be found to be the case, Locomotive Inspectors must bring the driver’s fault to his notice and instruct him in the art of handling his locomotive correctly.
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