Thursday, 9 September 2010

Cab Ride from Katha

Tuesday 31st August 2010

As I described in travel post 'Train Ride to Naba', I managed to 'blag' a cab ride in the rather beat-up diesel locomotive which hauled a special passenger train from Katha to Naba and return in Myanmar. The Myanmar Railways running number was DD1527. I think the first 'D' indicates 'Diesel', the second 'D' 4-axle (the bigger locomotives are 'DF' and carried on six axles). The '15' might refer to a 1500 h.p. power plant but I'm not sure. The locomotive carries a Krauss-Maffei maker's plate (F.-Nr. 4611 of 1964) and I surmise the transmission is diesel hydraulic. Certainly, Krauss-Maffei supplied a batch of 30 off M1500BB of roughly similar appearance to neighbouring Thailand in 1969 and these were diesel hydraulic.

The cab is right-hand drive so I easily spotted the brake stand mounted on the right cab side. There was a large valve to control creation and destroying of vacuum to control the train brakes (the British introduced railways into Burma as it then was so the familiar 21 in/Hg is used). The driver’s valve was already pushed forward so that the exhauster released the train brakes. I was surprised that the driver had hung his bag on the handle, thinking this would impede making a brake application. Later I spotted a vacuum pipe rising from the floor, terminated in a flap valve to form an emergency brake. The driver used this flap valve (with great delicacy) to make all train brake applications, leaving the main valve in the ‘create’ position throughout.

On top of the vacuum brake valve, and co-axial with it, was the handle for the locomotive air brake – a simple rod threaded at the end for a ball knob which had disappeared long ago. This valve was also pushed forward to release the brake. I didn’t find a handbrake. The small air valve for the horn was mounted on a bracket on the cab side just behind the brake.

On the right of the inclined fascia in front of the driver were two duplex gauges confirming brake status – air reservoir and brake cylinder air pressure, vacuum reservoir and train pipe vacuum.

Engine speed was indicated on a tachometer directly in front of the driver. Idling speed was about 700 r.p.m. and, when we were working hard on the climb, it rose to a little over 900 r.p.m. To the left of the tachometer a clipboard held a number of forms. I assumed that one was a 'Train Order' authorising us to travel on the single line to Naba.

A small control desk jutted out at an angle to the left of the driver. The most obvious feature was a large 3-spoke ‘steering wheel’ which formed the power controller. The round mounting collar was notched to give a reference to power being demanded as the wheel was turned but the notch seemed to traverse only a series of radial ‘scratches’ in the paintwork of the top of the control desk. To the left of the power controller was the direction selection control, forward-off-reverse, another round rod with threaded end for a long-gone knob. Further to the left was a 5-position master selector.

The window pillar in the right-hand front corner mounted a 'Hasler' speed indicator.

In addition to the driver, there was a Secondman, an older man who appeared to be some sort of Inspector and a younger man whose role I couldn't fathom. At departure time, the driver sounded a long blast on the horn and shortly afterwards the Secondman relayed the 'Rightaway' from the Guard travelling in the 'Luggage Van' at the rear. The driver made a modest adjustment to the power controller and, after a short delay, the train slowly moved away.

Even at the rather modest speed we were making (10 m.p.h. indicated on the 'Hasler') we were soon out of the town and passing through a wooded country area. The railway provided a convenient 'footpath' for the locals and I was intrigued that, in many places, people prefer to walk down the middle of the track.

Fairly frequently, we crossed small river gorges where the British Legacy was a series of well-built brick and stone abutments with steel girders to carry the track. The track itself had received only indifferent maintenance so, although the bridges themselves looked fairly reasonable, some of the permanent way looked decidedly 'iffy'. Permanent way over bridges was normally provided with Guard Rails to help keep vehicles upright in the event of derailment but no form of handrail was ever provided. The space between the guard rails was usually covered with an erratic selection of longitudinal planks for the convenience of local people using the railway bridge as part of the network of footpaths.

Before long, we passed a fixed distant signal and approached a stop signal protecting a facing junction with a branch curving off to the right. A word about signals. As I was to discover, they come in a range of shapes and sizes, the only common feature being that (as on a number of model railways I've seen) they don't look quite 'right'. They look as if they were built by someone who didn't really understand signalling and didn't get the scale quite right. Many of the stop signals are fixed at danger but some can be operated by a lever near the base of the post (again, just like some model railways) but I saw no evidence of any interlocking with points.

At the junction, a thatched bamboo shelter had been provided for the 'Pointsman' who was standing on the left of the track displaying a rather grubby green flag. We trundled over the facing points and I could see that the branch was recently-constructed using concrete sleepered track and well-ballasted. As we continued, another line trailed in on our right and, after running parallel for a few hundred yards, joined our line. There was a single lever for the turnout on our left and a point indicator on our right. From the above observations, I presume the new line makes a triangular connection with the original branch but I've not yet found out exactly what is being built.

A little later, we passed the station of Netyetwin - a couple of nameboards in Burmese and English and a simple open shelter for waiting passengers, nothing more. After we'd passed a second primitive station, conditions became more rugged. It was clear that we were climbing and the jungle closed in on both sides.

It had been wet since we started but now the railhead was noticeably wet and the driver was clearly concerned about reducing adhesion. He started leaning out of the side window and looking back, I think checking for incipient slipping. Our speed had reduced but whether that was due to gradient or slipping I couldn't tell. The two windows at the front of the cab were top hinged and had been left open a couple of inches for ventilation but now the driver pushed his window right open so that he could look down and assess the railhead condition. It was very wet. Suddenly, the indicated speed shot up and it was clear we were in a bad slip. The driver removed the power and let the train come to a standstill, issuing instructions to the Secondman at the same time. As I'd boarded the locomotive at Katha, I'd noticed the sack on the floor half-full of crushed stone but the significance hadn't dawned on me. The Secondman climbed down with this sack and laid a trail of dust and stone on the rails in front of the leading wheels. He then balanced the sack on the front chopper coupling and straddled the coupling himself, facing the cab.

The driver started away and we continued, at about 5 m.p.h., with the Secondman periodically dribbling stone onto the rails. In this manner, we continued to what I took to be the summit of the route where the driver stopped the train so that the Secondman could come back to the (relative) comfort of the cab.

In places, the track seemed fairly badly waterlogged and the driver was clearly observing speed restrictions from time-to-time but, now we were on the downhill run, the train was in general much livelier with 15 m.p.h. indicated in places. The driver made full use of the vacuum brake flap-valve to control the speed. In places, bullocks or cows would be grazing on the line but, after running ahead of us for a while, they all managed to jump clear into the undergrowth on one side or the other. The driver kept going at moderate speed and I'm sure he'd have stopped had it been necessary.

We passed a couple of level crossings equipped with very primitive gates to partially close the road side only where dirt coads crossed. In each case, there was a Crossing Keeper displaying the regulation dirty geen flag.

After passing a fixed distant signal, we approached a stop signal at danger on a long straight section. A little way on our side of the signal there was a round sign on a post which I afterwards learned said 'STOP'. We stopped and a railwayman started walking towards us, carrying a pad of forms. It appeared that we were being issued with a Train Order to complete our journey to Naba. The Driver, Secondman and Inspector solemnly read the new form and counter-signed it. The railwayman, satisfield, walked back towards the stop signal and knelt down in the track. The track is generally so overgrown that it's hard to see the rails, let alone any pointwork but I realised that there must be a set of facing trap point beyond the signal which he was setting and clipping for us to pass. Remember, we'd been descending for some time so the railway builders were probably worried about runaways carrying on out of control to Naba station ahead of us, hence these trap points.

The railwayman (well, Pointsman, now I knew he'd a set of trap points to look after) operated the stop signal to 'Off' and displayed a green flag. The signal arm was a rather odd corrugated steel type with unusual proportions. The 'traps' actually led to 'gauntletted' track where the 'run-off' rails formed a sand-drag. Each rail was provided with an inside and outside continuous check rail and the gaps were filled with sand to retard a train on the 'run-off'. This sand drag continued for a few hundered yards and then a 'common crossing' turned the 'gauntletted' track into a separate siding on our right. This siding was then lost from view in the grass.

At this point, the single-track 'main line' from Mandalay came parallel on our left. The two tracks, each provided with guard rails, crossed a substantial river bridge and then we were faced with two more odd stop signals - lattice posts and proper stop arms provided with a typical lower-quadrant spectacle frame (just frame - no glass and no signal illumination) but somehow re-arranged for upper-quadrant operation! Our signal was 'off', so we continued to a crossover which switched us to the main line, encouraged by a green flag displayed by a Pointsman on our right. We then came a two-doll bracket stop signal, the left upper arm probably relating to the 'Through' road, the right-hand lower arm reading to the 'Platform' road. No signals are provided relating to movements onto the loops to the left of the 'Through' road. Unfortunately, both arms were fixed at danger. I've seen this 'fixed stop bracket' signal at other stations in Burma and don't currently have an explanation. Well, my train carried on along the through line, with a couple of trains on our left, with only one surprise left, because we didn't stop but sailed majestically through the station and out the other side. As we finally stopped, I realised we were going to set back and propel the train into the platform track. I'm still puzzled as to why. When we'd finally stopped in the platform, I said 'goodbye' to the Driver and Secondman (the others had disappeared) and rejoined the other passengers for our walking tour of Naba.

The outward journey pictures are here.

My notes on the return journey to Katha are at 'Cab Ride back to Katha' and pictures taken on the return journey are here.