Thursday, 9 September 2010

Cab Ride back to Katha

In the post 'Cab Ride from Katha' I described the journey from Katha to Naba. In this post, I describe the return journey to Katha.

On arrival at Naba, I'd gone on the village walking tour so, by the time we got back to the station, the train was ready for the return journey. We got back to the station by walking alongside the railway, giving me a good view of the 'fixed at danger' bracket signal at the Mandalay end of the station. I also passed a well-preserved water crane situated between the through and platform tracks (on our arrival I'd seen a second water crane at the northern end of the station). Adjacent to the platform, there was a complex gantry of water pipes, with frequent taps over the through and platform roads. I assumed that this was for replenishing lavatory tanks but it wasn't obvious whether the facility was still in use. A large water tank on a steel tower presumably serves (or once served) these watering facilities. It looked as if the branch train to Katha once ran out of a bay platform (provided, at its outer end, with a lengthy inspection pit), but the pit has become a repository for rubbish and a cafe has expanded itself across the track with a series of awnings.

It would have been nice to watch the shunt because, as well as running the locomotive round the train, the Luggage Van had been shunted so that it would be the last vehicle. I said to Mai that I was quite happy to travel in the train if the driver preferred, but he indicated that I was welcome in the cab, so, after a quick inspection of the relative luxury of the passenger coaches, I clambered up into the leading cab, which was as battered as the one at the other end. I noticed that, as a precaution, the bag of stone chippings had been transferred to the leading coupler but conditions were now better and they were not used on the return journey. The diesel engine had been shut down and it was re-started from the engine room. I presumed that either engine start is not provided from the cab or the facility no longer works. The engine started up easily enough and ran with an even beat. I'd noticed that the Engine Room and Cabs were three separate structures so, although it was noisy in the cab, it wan't deafening.

The clipboard of papers were in position on the control panel. A partially-obscured form appeared to be the Train Order - in English I could read "... here by authorised to proceed to ..." and the form had two vertical overprinted bars in red, presumably tro re-inforce its importance. I photographed the form on top and later got it translated - it listed the various speed restrictions and their location.

On the return journey we had the same Driver, Secondman and Inspector but not the other railwayman who'd travelled to Naba with us.

On receiving the rightaway, we slowly moved out of the platform. The Pointsman at the south end was displaying a green handsignal and he'd set the platform road trailing points to let us onto the main line. But the second set of facing points which would divert us onto the Katha branch were set for the main line to Mandalay, so it was clear that we were going to do a 'shuffle' as we had on our arrival. The driver kept going until the whole train was clear of the platform points and then stopped. The Pointsman set and clipped the Platform road points for the Through road and then called us back. The driver propelled the train along the Through road, until we were clear of the points leading to the Katha branch. Whilst the Pointsman was setting and clipping the branch points, I was able to study the Platform road points, which were provided with an EIC locking box. A key had been inserted into the locking box, presumably releasing the lock slide which was provided with two handles. The arrangement is presumably that the key unlocks the lock slide which can be moved so as to allow the points to be moved, with the key remaining held in place until the lock slide is moved back to hold the points in position. Quite how this is used today I haven't worked out because there's no sign of a similar lock on the branch points! But at least they use point clips - a simple threaded hook bolt with a large washer and nut used to hold the switch rail against the stock rail. Another green handsignal and we were able to draw our train onto the branch and proceed towards the trap points which had intrigued me on the way in. The signal protecting the trap points was 'off'. It appeared to be a 3-aspect semaphore arm adapted to 2-aspect!

We started our climb, with the speed indicated as 10 m.p.h. I judged this to be about right but my confidence in the 'Hasler' was eroded having noticed that it read 5 m.p.h. when stationary in Naba. It might just have been a sticking pointer because the next time we stopped (near the summit of the line) it showed 'zero'.

This time, I had some idea what to expect. At first, there were lush green fields on either side but, having passed the two manned level crossings, the jungle began to close in. The locomotive kept grinding on and, with the rails now dried off by the sun, we had no problems with slipping.

Mileposts indicated our location and the driver seemed to scrupulously observe the specified 'slacks' (speed restrictions). Mileposts are a substantial round wooden stake, shaped to a 'V' near the top. A metal plate, also folded to a 'V' is fixed to the stake with the mileage printed twice, once on each face of the 'V', so that the number is visible to trains travelling in either direction. I couldn't actually read the distances, because the numbers use Burmese characters.

Sometimes, the rails were almost covered by greenery so that the state of the sleepers was hidden. It was more worrying where the sleepers were exposed as the track wasn't in brilliant condition. Some maintenance was being carried out on a 'spot replacement' basis. The occasional new ironwood sleeper with well-defined edges just drew attention to the adjacent more dubious timbers. Reinforced concrete sleepers were sometimes used.

The flat-bottom rails were joined with conventional fishplates. Looking down from the cab, I could see that some of the gaps between adjacent rails were rather large. At one particularly wide gap, I waited for the 'thump' as the wheels bridged the gap but, to my surprise, the locomotive passed over smoothly. I spotted one two- or three-inch length of rail used to 'plug' a wide gap - there were probably more. This was something I'd observed in Yangon on the circle Line (see my earlier post).

Drainage was rather poor on some of the jungle section and the track was waterlogged in places - I presume some of the 5 m.p.h. sections.

We stopped briefly at a Stop Board near the summit of the line and picked up a railwayman who stood behind the driver almost to Katha - he dropped off on one of the slow sections.

The driver applied careful braking on the descent to control our speed. We rumbled over the various river bridges without incident. At one bridge, a motor cycle preceded us, running on the boards placed between the rails to form a footpath but he was perhaps 100 yards in front so the driver seemed to consider this behaviour quite normal. Once over the bridge, the motor cycle turned off onto one of the dirt tracks leading away from the railway.

As we approached Katha, I was intrigued by a lattice signal post which appeared quite old and must have been British, still with access ladder and maintenance platform but with no signal arm or finial. A square white plate bearing a black diamond is now displayed about halfway up the post.

At Katha station, the pointsman displayed a green handsignal so we rumbled over the loop points and the level crossing and slowly ran along the platform. On our left, the afternoon 'mixed' train to Naba, headed by sister locomotive DD1515, was standing in the loop ready for departure with plenty of passengers either aboard or wandering around outside. We came to a smooth stop so it was time to thank the locomotive crew and rejoin my fellow 'Road to Mandalay' passengers for the trip back to the ship.

The railway is significantly underfunded but I was impressed with the professionalism of the railwaymen I'd seen.

Pictures of this journey are here.