The Approach to Itwari Station...

Here are two pictures showing the charm of railway heritage.

The approach to Itwari station...

And the station itself...

The Punjab Mail at Ludhiana

Selections from the Memoirs of
Sukhdev Singh,  B.E.,
Late Superintending Engineer,
Public Works Department, 

November 1956

THE DAZZLING SHOW OF exquisite goods on display in the fashionable bazaars have never held any charm for me, except perhaps to buy a few necessaries that are basic to the business of living.

How does it come about that people throng the bazaar dressed in their evening best, and flit from shop to shop, carrying back basketfuls of fancily wrought goods, half of which they might never use throughout the year, is beyond my power of comprehension. I suppose these folks like to stock up on merchandise in competition with their neighbours. It is a universal trait that may be found all over the civilized world.

These then are my views with regard to the acquisition of goods.  But of late, I find a change taking place within me. There is one object here in the marketplace which has cast a spell over me. I have often halted beside the New India Radio & Gramophone Company on my way to Harminder’s home. Each time I am here, a sweet melody may be heard floating out of the shop, a melody that is both soothing and pleasurable, mostly film numbers, but at other times English tunes.

The gramophone shop has an interesting assortment of goods. There are record players and stacks of records ; then there are radio sets on sale (Harpreet loves to listen to Radio Ceylon) ; and there are microphones and tape recorders and all the associated circuitry. As an added attraction, the shop also stocks on prismatic binoculars, slide projectors and magnifying glasses.

I wish I could get a record player for Harpreet, but a better idea would be to get her a radio set, so that they can tune in to their favourite stations. The girl often makes her way to her friend’s home a few blocks away, her frame swaying awkwardly with every step she takes, to sit by the radio and listen to Radio Ceylon. Here at the gramophone shop the latest British made Pye radio sets are on sale, but each set costs no less than Rs 300, and you need a license besides to own a radio receiver.  

These were my musings as I seated Biji and Harpreet in a III Class Sleeper carriage of 6 Down Mail. But this is no time to think about music and radio sets and licenses. I am here at the railway station with Harpreet and her mother, and after a wait of nearly an hour in the Waiting Room, the train has steamed in. The Punjab Mail standing at the platform arouses a sense of urgency ; there is no telling when the locomotive at the head of the train will commence to exert its tractive pull at the drop of the signal. There is the unmistakable feeling that an event of the first magnitude is about to take place, and event that will irreversibly change the destiny of those seated meekly within the train.  The yellow board on the carriage side is tilted over to one side; it reads ‘Howrah—Amritsar—Howrah’.  Another carriage down the train declares its destination to be Dehradun. This, I am told, is a through carriage that will be detached when the train pulls into Laksar in the dead of the night. I think I must study the timetable; this is the place that will furnish me full partculars of through carriages on this train.

Having settled Biji and Harpreet, I bid them farewell and hurriedly moved up the platform hoping to catch a view of the locomotive as it drew out with the train. I stumbled along, dodging handcarts laden with luggage and passengers scurrying to and fro. I reached the end of the platform canopy—oh dear, there were still four more carriages to go, out under the night sky—when the engine gives out a deep sonorous whistle, like a ship's siren. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the driver opening his regulator but missed the event. With a great roar, those mighty cylinders let out plumes of steam setting those steel rods into motion. There were three men in charge, active in the brightly lit cab. One blast, then another, WHOOOF—WHOOF—WHOOF , and the locomotive slowly began to move out with the train. I glanced at the yard ahead where a semaphore meekly pointed the way down shining a feeble green light towards us. “Gentlemen, all is clear, you are authorized to proceed…”  it seemed to say.

The rest of today's evening was uneventful. As the train pulled out, I made my way to the station restaurant for a vegetarian meal. Once out of the building I turned, as I often do, to glance at this great railway junction. Ludhiana railway station. A cold mist has descended on the night; the concourse feebly lit with incandescent lamps; tongas wait in uncertainty for passengers emerging from the main portico.

The main line that sails into this great centre comes from Amritsar and Pathankot further up north, moving down in a south-easterly direction to Ambala, Saharanpur and Delhi. A line leads to Ferozepur, while another branches off to Hisar down south. The town itself is home to a large number of private industries manufacturing blankets and woolen garments. The residents of this province are an industrious race. There is hardly a lane of the old city where you will not come upon signs of manufacturing progress. Every by-lane has its share of power looms, their shuttles busily clicking away at all odd hours of the day.
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The Sikh on Platform No. 4

The winter here is harsh, as indeed it is over the whole of north western India. You dip your hands in water and find it is nearly freezing cold. There is a delicious feeling as you step out into the open, when the gentle, orange rays of the sun kiss you with a warmth that is so inviting. But none of this seems to trouble Satpal. As he bends over to wash himself at the tap, there is no sign of a grimace on his face. He cups his hand, splashes water vigorously on his face, then looks up at me with piercing eyes. His hair is tied up into a knot on his head, for he has left his turban near his bundle a little way off.

I stroll over to the end of the platform where the sikh joins me shortly. The Express from Pathankot pulls in with a big noise and grinds to a halt. Passengers begin to pour out but Satpal seems unconcerned. He brushes his hair and does up his turban. Then he begins to arrange his little bundle. Beside him is a girl, aged about ten. She looks up at me and smiles engagingly. She knows I have brought along something for her. The girl is such a pet, I can't help getting along a tiny gift of some sort whenever I drop into the station. Last week I got for her a pink frock with a yellow border, but Satpal won’t let her wear it. He says if Amrita wears good clothes no one is likely to give her alms...  His argument was a perfectly valid one, so I didn’t argue. Today it is a packet of cream biscuits for the girl. I know the girl likes biscuits. All children do.

Satpal and his girl are one of the oldest residents of this station. The man has been around for over fifty years. 'Business' is slack with the morning passenger, but whenever a passing train calls at the station during the day, Satpal and his girl cross tracks to reach the platform. Their equipment is meagre, and consists of only two dull looking aluminium bowls. These bowls are their life.

"I have been here ever since I was a boy," recalls the sikh. The station staff all know him, and others of his kind, but no one seems to care. Most of their earnings come from passengers peering through carriage windows finding an old man and his girl alongside looking up expectantly.

"I used to know Munroe Saab," Satpal once told me. "He was Station Master, and a thoroughly good man. He was often on his rounds and whenever he came upon me, he would fish out a naya paisa or two for me."

Satpal's girl has already begun to munch at the cream biscuits I got along for her. She takes a bite at one and looks out happily into the distance. Far away in the morning haze where the tracks mesh with each other, a signal dropped in a gantry. That would be another train in a short while from now. People arrive at this junction from all over the country in hoardes--from Delhi, from Howrah, from Madras. The station is a great center of commerce, of activity and movement. The little girl and her father live among these trains as do so many others of their class. For them movement rarely means anything more than crossing tracks to make their way to a more populous platform.
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I Make Acquaintance with Mr Lal

That steam is raised in the boiler of a locomotive by the combustion of coal, whence it passes into the cylinders to do its work I knew from my boyhood days. Being a student of science I was acquainted one degree further with the principle of the piston valve whose job it is to admit steam alternately on each side of the piston as it moves within the cylinder.  Be that as it may, a close look at a locomotive at work always gives rise to an uneasy feeling, an overwhelming sense of ignorance of the inner working of the fire breathing creature Stephenson gave to the world.

Today was a remarkable day for I have quite unexpectedly received a most interesting tutorial in steam locomotive operation from Mr Lal, the shunting engine driver. After a fruitless search for an absorbing book at the Wheeler’s bookstall, I proceeded to Platform No 4 which is my usual hangout when at the station. The object that held my attention today was a tank loco, Class WM 2-6-4, busy shunting carriages. The engine heaved and puffed and after a labour of nearly half an hour came to a stand a little beyond the platform ramp. The driver got off and strolled into the station presumably for a cup of tea. He was a young man, thirty something with a face that seemed not too severe, so I walked up to him and introduced myself. It is quite possible that he had seen me several times on this side of the station, for not once did he give me a questioning glance.

After social preliminaries were over, I put before him the matter that was on my mind all along. I have often wondered how it comes about that on starting, an engine lets out clouds of steam from the cylinders, and after a while ceases to do so, thereafter expelling the whole volume of steam through the chimney in rhythmic puffs. Why does steam first issue forth from the cylinders, and why the changeover a few moments later?

We had our cups of tea and moved out into the yard where the engine stood. There, as we bent over together, Mr Lal showed me a stem that actuated two valves at the lower edge of the cylinder. “These are known as cylinder drain cocks,” Lal explained looking up at me. “When actuated from the cab, the drain cocks open and let out steam from the cylinder.”

It seems to be all a big fuss but drain cocks on a locomotive serve a vitally important purpose, I was told. When starting from rest, the cylinders of an engine are usually cold, so boiler steam, when admitted, tends to condense into water. The accumulation of water in a locomotive cylinder presents a grave danger, for trapped water can form an obstruction as impregnable as steel to the movement of the piston. Thus to prevent a piston from smashing into a barrier of trapped water, the drain cocks are opened at the start of the run, expelling any water that may have condensed together with the steam as it blows out. After a few minutes of this preliminary, the cocks are shut, the steam being now wholly discharged through the chimney.

And as though to make sure I understood the operation, Mr Lal invited me into the cab. The faceplate of a locomotive boiler has an impressive array of gadgets most of which make no sense to the layman. Lal quickly pulled a lever and began to open the regulator. Great clouds of steam engulf the engine at the front, and we begin to roll out amid a deafening roar.  A short while later Mr Lal deactivates the cylinder drain cocks. Leaning out of the footplate, I found that the discharge of steam had ceased, which was now being expelled in pleasant little puffs from the chimney above.

The demonstration over, Mr Lal actuated a lever. “This ,” he tells me, “is the ejector.” Seeing that I am a young man interested in technical detail he is eager to explain the various parts that go to make up a steam engine.

“The ejector creates the vacuum necessary for operating the train’s brakes,” he tells me. “There are three components of prime importance here,” he emphasized. “The ejector that creates the vacuum, the injector that forces water into the boiler against the pressure of the steam, and the lubricator which supplies a mixture of steam and mineral oil to lubricate the steam chests and cylinders.”

On regular passenger and goods trains the services of a fireman are indispensable, but shunting work seems to be more a relaxed job. A shunting engine working in a passenger yard is rarely required to remain in operation throughout. “Now that we have shunted the Hissar Passenger to the Carriage & Wagon examination line, there is little more to do till noon when I am called upon to shunt a sectional carriage that will be attached to the Deluxe,” he explains.

The shunting engine works only spasmodically and Mr Lal has enough time on hand to shovel coal himself. At 5 O’ clock he signs off and hands over charge to a colleague. Towards evening the engine will back at work shunting in the Ferozepur Passenger and other slow trains bound for nearby districts.
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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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