February 17, 2017

Winds of Change


Looking back over the years, I can say that 1957 was a significant year for me. It was truly a milestone in my life. It brought with it good fortune and luck, setting me on the path of self-enrichment and progress.

The changeover to a life of growth and challenge has been brought about by two events occurring nearly at the same time. The first event of significance was on the domestic side. Harpreet has, without any persuasion on my part, consented to spend the rest of her life with me. It was a happy day for me. Biji and Harminder were all aglow with happiness and seemed pleased with the way things were taking shape. And so after a simple ceremony attended by family and friends, I brought the little nymph to my frugal apartment. Not a word of complaint did she utter. Harpreet has ever so gently taken over charge over affairs in the home. And in an incredibly short time, those rooms which bore resemblance to armymen’s barracks, began to take on the appearance of a home. Each day I return from the DSP’s office to a home presided over by a ministering angel.

The second event this year that ushered in happy days has been an advancement in my career. I have been for some time looking for a suitable position more in line with the extensive training in Civil Engineering I have taken. My efforts in this direction finally bore fruit a week after my wedding when I received a letter from the Public Works Department, Ambala, appointing me in the grade of a Junior Engineer. It was nothing less than a windfall. It was a great leap forward. It would forever solve my money worries. And it would help me set up a decent home where Harpreet and I would live in happiness and contentment. Good old Biji’s joy was boundless when the news broke out; she hugged me uttering endearments and blessings. It is perhaps the greatest event in my life thus far, an event that will usher in prosperity and advancement. It signals the beginning of progress and an exciting career.

A month hence we will have moved to Ambala where I shall take up my new responsibilities as a government engineer.

And I am going to buy that radio set I have been longing to get for Harpreet...


The Locomotive Shed by Night


By day a locomotive shed presents the appearance of a sooty place where coal and steam are the prime movers. The very essence of the railway is here. By night the place is all aglow with lights. There are lights, lights, lights everywhere. You walk up to the shed and see the tracks gleaming under the lights, you see locomotives in steam on the outgoing pits, and you know these engines here have been watered and coaled ; that they are poised for the run that lies ahead.

With more than a month to join my duties in Ambala, I strolled into the shed one evening where I found Clemens, the Outgoing Examining Fitter with the driver of an engine, Class WL, ready for departure at the outgoing pits. Clemens is really the Incoming Examining Fitter, but as his colleague is on medical leave, he is doing a bit of overtime today. Outgoing pit examination is as important as an incoming inspection, Clemens tells me. Both the driver and the fitter have to go round the engine to see if all items of booked repairs (and schedule items, if the engine has been given a schedule) have been attended to.

Clemens feels quite at ease with me around. He does not mind an outsider watching him do his work. He does not look upon me as an outsider, but as someone who belongs here.

“There is one lesson that fitters here have yet to learn, son,” said Clemens as he disappeared round the rear buffers, reappearing a moment later.

“What do they need to learn, sir?” I asked.

Clemens cleared his throat and glancing towards the Foreman’s office he said, “I have warned them often enough, but they have chosen to ignore my words. They have yet to learn that slovenly work will only get them into trouble.”

“Trouble with Davies,” he added a moment later, thoughtfully.

Clemens held a sheet of paper in his hand. Under the lights I could see him make an entry in the Repairs Not Complied With register.


No one can evade responsibility here. Repair Distribution Slips are made out in duplicate, and besides each engine has a Master Repair File which lists each of the repairs done on the locomotive and the names of the fitters who have done the job. There is ample evidence here to fix responsibility.

I strolled into the shed underneath the lights. The notice board had several announcements to make and shed staff are expected to keep themselves informed. Amongst the sheets pinned up to the board is a ‘shed notice’ which seems to be a duty list allotting drivers and firemen to various trains : "...Shri Jaspal Sandhu, Bansilal, Kartarsingh—Pathankot Fast Passenger—to leave at..."

As I moved onwards into the maintenanace bays, I was met by Davies and Shyamsunder. They had alighted from an AWD in steam, and were off duty.

“We hear you have taken up a new assignment,” said Shyamsunder pleasantly as we turned into the Loco Foreman’s office. Inside sat a man, the Night Assistant, who would take over work for the rest of the evening. So the news has travelled all the way to the shed, I thought to myself. I replied that my posting in Ambala was a turning point in my life, that it would open up opportunities for growth, a healthy life, and a satisfying career.

Shyamsunder concurred in my views. “As a civil engineer, you will no doubt be doing great service,” he said easily, lighting up a cigarette. “Roads and canals, dams, waterworks—these are the things that will absorb your energies…”

Davies remained quiet all the while, but looked impressed.

“Is there anything more we can do for you here?” Davies asked suddenly.

I looked up at the Foreman. His brows were raised, but his lips had curled up into a smile. I said in reply that I was amazed at the amount of paperwork involved in loco shed management.

“Paperwork is of prime importance here,” said Davies heartily, leaning back in his chair. “Everything done here is documented so that we can see if our work here meets accepted standards of performance. We have officials from the Mechanical Department dropping in here regularly for inspection, so we have to be on our toes throughout !”

Davies was smiling broadly now. “Documentation helps in keeping a record of what is being done, and helps us to decide on what to do next,” and so saying, he picked up a large register and opened it out on the table for me to see.

“This is the ALF’s Diary,” said Davies, opening out a page and placing his palm on it. “At one glance I can tell you that we have two AWDs, one WG, two WPs and three WLs here on the bays, one HPS is laid up waiting for spare assemblies, one WP is in the shops for a POH, one WL and one WP are on the pits steamed for duty, and the rest are out on the road,” Seeing the look of bewilderment on my face, he added, “This is routine work for us, you understand. Daily routine. The power position will be updated tomorrow by 8 O’clock in the morning.”

Then stretching out his arm he reached out for another book and cried, “Signal Defects Register! Driver Jaikishan has reported that the Down Home at Mandi Gobindgarh has a drooping arm. This intelligence will be relayed telegraphically both to Control and the Signal Engineer tonight. So as you can see, documentation serves a vital purpose. We would be nowhere if we were to trust to memory...”

A  Loco Foreman’s office is literally swamped with registers and forms : Repeated Booking Register, Lead Plug Register, Loco History Sheet, Monthly Wheel Measurement Record, Link Failure Register, Power Position Register... Even drivers themselves are not spared the task of documentation. A steam driver in addition to managing his locomotive, has to keep a careful record of station-to-station timings in his note-book while on the run. If the train is losing time, he has to compute at the end of the trip, the time loss each on account of traffic, engineering, and loco. At the end of the run he will transfer his loco loss to the Engine Ticket before he signs off. Loco Losses are usually attributable to improper functioning of the engine, poor enginemanship, or a poor grade of coal supplied, so this figure finds a place in the Driver Performance Register maintained at the shed.

Along with the Driver, the Guard, too, is required to keep a similar record of station timings in his Joint Train Register. If at the time of signing off, the loco loss on the driver’s ticket does not agree with the figure as computed by the Guard, the Driver must give an explanation of the discrepancy.

Davies rose from his chair and Shyamsunder and I followed him out of the shed. Two engines stood in steam at the outgoing pits, ready for duty. Davies looked around thoughtfully. He had put in a full day’s work, but seemed calm.

“Have you ever seen our Basic Training Centre here?” Davies asked me.

“Yes, it’s right at the back. But the windows were barred and the door locked all the time I have been here,” I said.

“I wish I could book you for a course at Shed School,” said Davies, a roguish smile playing on his lips.

We broke into laughter. Shyamsunder stroked his moustache and went on to tell me that the shed training school held both refresher and promotional courses. “All categories of staff here have to undergo training,” he said. “Starting from Engine Cleaners, Second Firemen, Leading Firemen, Drivers—everyone attends courses from time to time.”

I asked the Chargeman what was the idea behind a Refresher Course.

“Everyone here has to attend a Refresher Course in his grade once in 5 years and pass an exam. This is to keep them up to date with current maintenance practice, and ensures that their knowledge doesn’t grow rusty with disuse,” said Shyamsunder. “Everyone’s performance here is under close watch. For example, if a driver is found to be consistently heavy on coal, or is causing repeated loco losses, he is taken off duty and booked for training. It’s a must !”


The locomotives at the outgoing pits were fully steamed, their cabs brightly lit (Harminder says Stone’s turbogenerator provides 500 Watts of power). Workmen could be seen on the tenders maneuvering the swan neck of the water column. The first was assigned duty on the Hisar Passenger, the second would steam out with the Pathankot Fast Passenger three hours later in the night. We could see the driver go round his WL; he polished his buffer lamps with cotton waste, then appeared with a sheaf of papers in his hands.

He is checking his fuel card and his engine departure slip, I thought to myself. He is preparing for a night of work, a night of adventure.

As I walked away that evening along the tracks leading out of the shed, the light from the engines at the pit grew more and more feeble, the hum of steam faint. A quarter of a mile ahead, the station lights rose in the night beckoning me to share in the life on rails yet again. And I thought to myself how everyone here has to live his own life, that in a month’s time I would embark on my own voyage, my own little adventure in a town not far from here.
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(Fiction)
Ravindra Bhalerao