March 03, 2017

Fitters at Work


My friendship with Harminder has led to other useful contacts in the shed. Of particular help to me were the Loco Foreman, Mr Albert Davies and his assistants, and Fitter Chargeman  Mr Shyamsunder. These men’s lives revolve around locomotive work, their skill in diagnosing trouble and putting things right is incredible. They think and breathe steam. Many of them began as loco apprentices, as cleaners, even khalasis. Of machine design and the laws of thermodynamics they have not the slightest knowledge; none of them has so much as heard of the name of Sadi Carnot. Yet when it comes to engine maintenance and repair, even the District Mechanical Engineer must bow to the superior ability and skill of these men.

Locomotive work is an unceasing activity taking place round the clock. This is particularly true of the larger sheds at engine changing stations where locos arrive all through the day and night. At a medium sized shed such as the one here, activity is much subdued in the night ; Ludhiana is not an engine changing station. Nonetheless, a shed is an important part of the railway set up here for, this being an important junction there are a number of passenger and fast passenger services originating from here to nearby districts.

Locoshed technicians engaged in engine maintenance fall into two categories. Those who work on the engine and its various moving parts and fittings, and the tender are known as Loco Fitters, and work under the direction of the Fitter Chargeman. There are other technicians whose responsibilities are centred on the boiler and its accessories ; they are called Boiler Makers and function under the Boiler Maker Chargeman. Loco maintenance involves a broad range of activities, and so besides the aforementioned categories, we have engine cleaners and steam men, blacksmiths and welders, greasers and khalasis, the latter being manual workers whose work is mostly of an unskilled nature.

As the shed is functional round the clock, work is performed in shifts. On the basis of the repairs booked by the driver a repair slip is issued to each fitter and boiler maker allotting him the day’s work. Fitter and Boiler Maker Chargemen are expected to report about an hour before the start of the shift so that they can plan and arrange the day’s work. After studying the repair books, repair distribution slips are made out in duplicate and distributed to the workers. The Loco Foreman (Maintenance) has an important role to play here, for when a Chargeman finds some workers are absent from duty, the Maintenance Foreman adjusts gang strengths making use of reserve gangs specially maintained for the purpose  so that each chargeman has adequate staff to deal with the day’s work.

The number of tracks leading into the main shed is an indication of the number of engines that can be ‘homed’ – more the number of tracks, greater the capacity of the shed. Each track leads to a ‘repair bay’ long enough to hold three engines in a row and has a pit running all along its length for the examination of undergear. Fitter’s benches are provided at intervals along each bay, as are also toolboxes for use by technicians, and cold water hydrants to fill up locomotive boilers after a washout.

Strolling along the repair bays of the shed I came upon workmen engaged in all kinds of work. It is one thing to watch an engine on the main line, quite another to see it taken apart in the shed. You see the inner working, you see the valves and pistons and wheel gear, and in the end some of the mystery of locomotive work begins to clear. You begin to realize the machine is in many respects like a motor car which needs regular attention.

Here at one end of the bay was an engine with the valve gear taken down and the men unscrewing the slide bars. Upon being questioned, I was told that after being in service for some years, the slide bars had worn out. There being an undue amount of clearance between the slide bars and the crosshead, it was necessary to re-position the bars closer together, an operation which is technically known as ‘closing in the bars.’

While in operation, moving parts of an engine are subjected to tremendous stresses. Although the deformations so produced are well within the elastic limits of the components, they are repetitive in nature, and in time could lead to fatigue cracks. Thus although on its arrival at the shed, the driver may not have reported any trouble, certain key components are to be periodically checked for flaws.

Here is an HPS class engine with the boys applying a coat of whitewash on the crankpin. This may appear as a strange thing to do in a locoshed, but it is in fact, a very important procedure, and if carried out correctly, can reveal the presence of a dangerous condition which may arise when a component is subject to high repetitive stresses.

A part such as a connecting rod of an steam engine, or a crankpin, may, to all appearances look as though no trouble existed, but it may in fact be harbouring a microscopic flaw which if not corrected in time could lead to serious failure. From time to time, therefore, these components are taken down and subjected to what is known as a ‘Chalk Test.’ The part in question is first cleaned with kerosene to rid it of grease and muck, and washed in hot water. Once dry, kerosene is smeared all over, then wiped off. Finally the part is given a thin coat of whitewash. When dry, a light blow with a copper hammer will cause kerosene lodged in cracks to ooze out which can be detected under a magnifying glass.

Among the numerous parts that are periodically chalk tested, none is perhaps as important as the wheel axle. A crack in a journal could lead to a serious accident, so one of the most important tasks of the Loco Foreman is to see that axles are tested according to schedule. On passenger engines, no flawed axles are ever passed. On goods and shunting locos, flaws within permissible limits are allowed, but such locos are to be sent to the shops for repairs at the earliest possible opportunity. It is customary to paint engines with flawed axles with the sign ‘NP’, meaning non-passenger in two inch white letters on the side panel plates.

I climbed onto the footplate of the HPS, where a fitter was busy unscrewing the gauge column cocks. The engine is not in steam so I can freely operate the controls and get the feel of the machine. The admission of steam to the cylinders is controlled by a long, shiny lever called the regulator handle. To the right of the cab is a handwheel known as the ‘reversing wheel’. Turning the wheel not only enables the machine to be put into reverse, it also allows the driver to regulate the ‘cut-off’ , which is the percentage of piston stroke during which steam is admitted to the cylinders while the locomotive is in operation.

When coasting downhill, or approaching a station, steam is not required, so the regulator is generally closed. When this is done the pistons begin to act like pumps and draw in a certain amount of smoke and soot from the smokebox. The soot adheres to the oil in the cylinders and steam chest forming objectionable crusty deposits. From time to time, therefore, the cylinders have to be opened up and ‘decarbonized’, or cleaned out. The fitters at work on the HPS were doing precisely this, and the question that naturally occurred to me was that did the incoming driver notice anything unusual on the run leading him to book this item of repair at the inspection pit.

This and a host of other questions were resolved only after I had an extended talk with the men in the Foreman’s office. Albert Davies was a slightly built man, smartly turned out in a black suit today. He had a sharp eye for detail, and often looked at you with raised brows ; his voice, though moderate, often sounded like a bark. When I first met him some days back, I could not help feeling there was an element of hostility in his manner toward me. However to my great astonishment and relief, I soon began to find a noticeable change in the attitude of the shed staff : indifference vanished giving way to friendliness, almost an eagerness to help. It was clear that Davies, though formal in his manner toward me, had instructed his men to be genial with me, and for this reason I came to regard him as a man with a great deal of understanding hidden beneath his formidable exterior.

The Foreman was signing a register when I stepped into his office. Seated opposite was Shyamsunder, the Fitter Chargeman. I greeted the men, but while Shyamsunder nodded with a smile, Davies made no effort to look up. After he had finished signing his forms he looked away looking tired, then turned to me inquiringly.

I stammered out my question as best as I could. I told Davies I had witnessed an incoming engine examination some time back where the driver and Clemens, the examining fitter had closely examined the locomotive and recorded various engine faults they discovered on a form. I then spoke to him about the chalk test I had seen being done on the HPS, as well as the operation of cylinder decarbonization I had seen. What kind of trouble did the incoming driver possibly notice on the run, I asked, which led him to book these two items of repair.

Did you not ask the driver?” shot back the Foreman, his brows raised.

It was clear that Davies found my question irrelevant. I was a bit taken aback at this reply, but looked at the man across the table steadily. Finally with a look of irritation, Davies opened out a drawer and drew out a sheaf of forms.

“These are Schedule Forms,” he said shortly, but it was clear he was in no mood to talk. Just then a fitter stepped into the office saying that the chalk test on the connecting rod of the HPS had revealed a tiny flaw. Davies immediately rose and saying that he would be back soon, the two men left the office.

I was left in the room with Shyamsunder and a set of incomprehensible forms lying on the table before me.

Putting down his cup of tea, Shyamsunder picked up the forms, studying them for a while. Then he turned to me.

“The question you made just now is perfectly understandable,” he began considerately.  Then glancing at the forms again, he said slowly : “Engines come here for general repairs and servicing, but the faults booked by the driver at the incoming pit aren’t  the only ones we look into. A steam engine is given schedule repairs from time to time...”

The Chargeman lit up a cigarette and stuffed his packet back into his pocket. He drew on his cigarette deeply, blew out smoke and continued: “By a Schedule we mean a list of items to be checked, tested and repaired if necessary. Ideally, we should be able to check each and every engine component on arrival, but this is obviously impossible as it would keep the loco out of commission for long periods at the end of each trip. Fortunately, there is no need for this time consuming and futile exercise. From long years of experience it is known that a certain component, for instance, is going to need attention after an engine has run so many kilometers. Thus an I.R.S. loco is given a Schedule I examination when it has run a total distance of 1600 kilometers after it was first commissioned.”

Shyamsunder paused here and looked out of the window meditatively, where he could see a line of locos waiting to be coaled in the afternoon sun. Then placing a finger on the Schedule I form he looked back at me. I glanced at the sheet of paper under his hand : “... Examine packing of engine and tender axle boxes ; lubricate spring and compensating gear pins ; clean steam and waterway passages and ball valves of gauge column cocks ; clean injector cones ; examine boiler expansion and steadying brackets ; clean smoke and flue tubes; examine and reset grate...

The list of items to be checked and repaired was extensive. The Chargeman went on: “These items you see listed here are quite independent of what the driver may book on arrival. At 1600 kms these items must be attended to, if things are to work well. Then, at 8000 kms, we give an engine a Schedule II examination. This is more extensive than the first, and includes all items in Schedule I besides certain additional items considered necessary for attention at Schedule II. The schedules are telescopic, you will understand. There are a total of four Schedules, besides a Maintenance Overhaul, and lastly a Periodical Overhaul done in the shops.”

I listened to Shyamsunder’s words with rapt attention. During my travels, there has not been a single instance where a train was held up due to engine failure. With such an intensive programme of examination, it is hardly surprising that locomotives on the whole function well.



It is worth noting here that a careful record is kept in a shed, noting the kilometerage earned by a locomotive since the last Periodical Overhaul, the figures being picked up from engine tickets. When an engine is booked to work a train, the driver is given an ‘Engine Ticket’ containing particulars such as the names of the crew booked, the vehicle/load summary, shunting to be done enroute, and the kilometerage earned by the engine thus far, this last figure being updated when the driver submits his engine ticket to the Foreman at the end of the trip. Data from engine tickets is used by the shed to maintain a continuous engine-wise record of the cumulative mileage of the engine. A similar record is maintained in the office of the Divisional Power Controller, so that this official knows when to order a Loco Foreman to stop an engine for schedule repairs.

Despite the rigorous schedule of maintenance, failures do occur from time to time. A locomotive, Shyamsunder says, is said to have ‘failed’ if it is unable to work its booked train from start to destination, or if it causes a delay of one hour or more in arrival at the destination due to a mechanical defect, poor quality of coal or water, or faulty operation arising out of slipshod maintenance practices. The various kinds of failures that generally occur are too numerous to mention in full here : defects could arise in the vacuum system or in the piston, in the smoke tubes or super-heater elements. Other eventualities are a burst gauge glass, regulator valve getting disconnected, fracture of the eccentric crank or other moving parts. Drivers are given training in breakdown repairs and are expected to know how to handle an emergency while on the run.

No locomotive failure, however insignificant, is passed over ; a thorough investigation is ordered in each case.

When an engine failure takes place, the Loco Foreman is required to submit to the Divisional Mechanical Engineer a report of the incident on the prescribed form within four days of the occurrence of the incident. The DME in turn, submits his own report to the Additional Chief Mechanical Engineer (Running & Loco), accompanied by various documents including the Foreman’s report, the Joint Train Register, statements made by the Driver and the Maintenance Foreman (Fitting), and an abstract of documents stating the repairs booked to the locomotive for the previous three trips prior to the failure.

Back in the Foreman’s office, I remembered that the HPS I had seen earlier was found to have a flawed connecting rod, and asked Shyamsunder what would be done to set things right. What he said in reply left me astounded.

“There is nothing we can do with that rod,” he said with a smile. “It will go to the shops for repairs.”

“But since the location of the crack has been identified by the chalk test, isn’t it a simple matter to put it right by welding up the thing?” I asked.

“No. Welding is not permitted here in the shed on connecting rods and crank pins. That rod needs specialized workshop attention...”

“I see. So now that the rod will be sent to the workshop for repairs, the engine itself will lie here around for many days, perhaps?”

“We do our best to hurry up things,” said Shyamsunder, and so saying he picked up two blank forms from a desk, one pink, the other blue. “This is a Repair Order Form,” he said, handing me over the pink form. “The connecting rod will be dispatched today together with the pink form you are holding in your hand,” he said.

Pink forms were used for urgent repairs for which engines were held up at the shed. Blue forms, on the other hand, were employed for spare assemblies and parts which did not require urgent attention.



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