March 24, 2017

The Shed Shunter


The main line from Ludhiana going down to Ambala and Saharanpur leaves the station taking a sweeping turn while it passes under the road overbridge half a kilometer down the station. But if one wishes to visit the locomotive shed, it wont do to take the main line. Each time I visit the shed I stroll down the branch line leading to Jakhal and Hisar.

On my last visit here, I explored the area at the back of the shed where I found a set of tracks stretching away into the distance. A long row of 0-6-0 engines were stabled along the line. A security guard ambled along, and I asked him if these locos were here for repair. Paint had begun to peel off leaving large area covered with rust, the locos were in a dilapidated condition, and my suspicions were confirmed. These locos had put in many years of faithful service a long time ago, and were here to be disposed of as scrap.

They were an interesting lot to study. Old locomotives are quite a bit different from the ones you get to see now. Not only is the smokebox Victorian in appearance, there is no trace of a cylinder on the outside; the tangle of steel rods working in harmony that we now see was absent. The ‘works’ are all concealed within.

I strolled towards the shed foreman’s office where I met Mr Lal and with his help I was able to make a few friends. A locomotive shed is teeming with workmen, all working together to keep the wheels of transport turning. There are loco fitters and greasers, steam men and engine cleaners, locomotive inspectors and shunters. Seeing one is interested in technical detail, many of these men are helpful. But none was as friendly as Harminder the sikh who works as a shunter. Harminder the tall, gaunt man; Harminder who is slow in speech, quick to smile, eager to nod in agreement. I asked him why a shunter is required in a shed and he answered simply : “Because everyone has his own job to do, and not everyone has the time to take an engine from stage to stage.”

Locomotives came here for repairs and this I well understood. That there were ‘stages’ involved in loco repairs was a new thing for me. Seeing the look of enquiry on my face, Harminder offered to take me around. We walked along some distance till we arrived at a place where an engine had newly arrived. It was a huge, bellowing creature, Class XE, standing over a pit and men working on it. The engine was alive and hissing steam and seemed all set to take on the heaviest load, but the fire was in fact at a low ebb, my companion said.

“This,” said Harminder, “is the first stage through which an engine passes. Your XE is standing on the Incoming Examination Pit.” The men were all busy checking each component. Here is a man of some importance making entries in a book. Harminder says he is the driver and he is booking any faults or malfunctioning he may have noticed during the run. Engines come to a shed for general servicing and repair, but before the shed staff can do anything of any use they must know what precisely is the trouble with the machine. Consequently on arrival, a locomotive is first subjected to a close examination by the driver and the Incoming Pit Examining Fitter who enter the results of their observations on a form.

It is extremely important that repairs be booked correctly, and the most experienced fitters are deputed to perform the job. The examining team here is headed by Mr Clemens, an Anglo Indian with balding head and side whiskers. He finished with the bye pass valves, noted down his observations in a diary and turned to me with a look of relief. “She is pretty much the same as before when I last saw her, excepting a few things here and there.” I asked him if the fire would be put out before the loco was taken to shed. “Not necessary,” Clemens said shortly. “We drop the fire only when she is under schedule repairs or if the boiler needs a washout.”

With these words, Mr Clemens began to move away towards the Engine Examiner’s office. He seemed to be a pleasant, easy man. I had had but few words with him, yet it was all so inspiring. Clemens must have worked with engines ever since his boyhood, I thought to myself. This is what gave him that special knack for diagnosing engine trouble with effortless ease.

Harminder now climbs onto the footplate signaling me to follow him. Incoming engine examination accomplished, the loco is ready for the next ‘stage’. My companion gives a few turns to the reversing wheel, setting the machine in reverse gear, opens the regulator, and with a mighty blast the XE begins to back out. The examining pit is left behind and we steam backwards slowly past the shed where I see two streamlined WP engines poking their noses out.  They are comparatively new engines, and the design, I am told, is the result of extensive mechanical and thermodynamic tests performed with a view to develop an all round locomotive suitable for fast mail and express trains. About 300 meters away we grind to a halt beside a large coal dump. Two locos are already on the coal stage being replenished with fuel. Chug-chug-chug goes the steam crane as it busily scoops up coal and with a mighty swing of its arm dumps fuel into the tender of the waiting loco. The machine seems to be tireless in operation.

We get off the footplate, then cross over two rail tracks to sit awhile on a stack of wooden sleepers nearby. The whole area is afire with coal dust. A chai-wallah appears out of nowhere equipped with a tray and cups. Harminder picks up a cup while offering me one. Locomotive work can leave a man tired, and tea offers not only a break but provides time to catch your breath.

Harminder looked at me, and as if reading my thoughts, asked me: “Are you wondering  what is all this about ‘stages’ ?” Although my mind was far from what Harminder was speaking about, I was relieved to see the young sikh in a mood to explain procedure.

A pleasant whiff of engine smoke wafted in and I turned to the sikh with the eagerness of a boy learning a new game. I had thought of locomotive work all along as a hopelessly confusing set of activities devoid of logical connection and order. In truth, the operation of a shed in is accordance with a master plan where each stage is under constant supervision with the object of ensuring that a locomotive receives the best possible maintenance with the least possible expenditure of time and money.

I have been a witness to an engine examination at the pit and had the good fortune of making acquaintance with Clemens, the Incoming Examining Fitter. The next task on hand is to coal the engine for its forthcoming trip, followed by an excursion to the turntable. The sequence of shed operations on a locomotive can be summarized in the following manner:

1.  Incoming Engine Examination
2.  Coaling
3.  Turning
4.  Fire cleaning or de-ashing
5.  Placement in the shed for maintenance
6.  Maintenance and Repairs
7.  Outgoing Pit Examination
8.  Departure to the traffic yard

It should be noted that with regard to items 2 and 3, the order in which these two duties are performed is immaterial ; a locomotive shed may be built so that the coaling stage occurs first followed by the turntable, or vice versa. The position occupied by item 4 is critical however. Not every engine arriving at a shed will have its fire dropped, but if this is done, the engine will have only enough steam to run a short distance ahead. Had the fire-cleaning pit been placed at position 1, then locos whose fire was dropped would not have enough steam to go through the rest of the programme before being placed in the maintenance bays for repair. Fire cleaning and de-ashing pits are therefore so placed as to be the very last stage before the loco makes its way into the bays.

The eight operations listed above form the timetable for each engine arriving at its home shed. It will be seen that item 6 forms the most significant stage in the programme , for the performance of the engine during the run is largely determined by the quality of work done during repairs. It is therefore a constant endeavour of the shed administration to ensure that of the total time a loco remains in the shed, a  large fraction be devoted to running repairs, other activites (like coaling, turning and fire cleaning) which are routine in nature being performed in the least possible time.

How this is accomplished was soon enough made clear. The XE finally replenished with its supply of coal, Harminder handed over charge to his colleague who will in turn shunt the engine to the turntable.

As we stroll around the coal stage, Harminder showed me his ‘Shunter’s Diary’. His duties as a shunter require him only to drive his engine form the Incoming pit to the coal stage. Time is of prime importance here, and besides the class and serial number of the engine he has handled, he also has to note down the time when took over the locomotive, the timing coaling commenced and the time it was accomplished.


Each shunter deputed for a stage maintains a record of timings in the manner above. At the end of the shift, these timings are entered in the Shed Turn Round Register which summarises the time a locomotive is detained at each stage, beginning with incoming examination, coaling, and right through until the moment the loco is out of the shed after repairs. The stage by stage detention is closely scrutinized by the Loco Foreman each day. Should he find that locomotives are being detained at a certain stage beyond the prescribed time, he must investigate the cause behind the delay and take appropriate action.
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