Working of a Junction Station

by Vinod Nanekar, June 2007

This article describes the details of the working of a large railway station some time in the 1960s. Many of the principles apply even today.

There are something like 7000 stations of all conceivable types on the railways in India. At one end we have those seemingly insignificant and yet charming little halts known as wayside stations where an express would not even so much as care to slow down while passing, let alone halt. On the other hand there are those great centers of railway activity -- the junction stations -- spread over several acres of land which deal with hundreds of thousands of passengers each day. These are the places where you will find each hour of the night and day an almost incessant whirl of activity : swarms of people crowding platforms, trains arriving and leaving, red-shirted porters carrying piles of luggage, trains being shunted, engines whistling and wagons clanging, all under the supervision of a few hundred men working towards the common goal of maintaining a smooth flow of passengers and goods.

For the average traveler the excitement and wonder of a large station seldom goes beyond what he experiences when he is traveling himself, or perhaps when he is at the platform to receive a friend. But there is much more to a station than mere arrivals and departures, crowded platforms and reservations. Behind the smooth working of a station lies a whole world of careful planning and strategy which the casual observer can hardly ever discover for himself. Each little detail that is jotted down, every message that is passed on over the phone, each little particular is planned out with such meticulous care and forethought that it can only fill us with wonder and admiration at the ingenuity with which the railways have ordered their day to day working.

Perhaps the richest flavour of station working can be had if we step back into the past and take a look at how a big sized junction operated sometime, say, during the sixties. Let us imagine we are standing on a road overbridge that spans a railway yard below. As you gaze below you are confronted with a scene that has entranced many a schoolboy holding him in rapt attention for hours together. You are gazing at the wonderland of railways, where dozens of tracks criss-cross each other, where long lines of carriages may be seen standing idle with engines here and there, some hissing away energetically, others laboring along with a load of wagons. It is a picture that conveys in no uncertain terms that the place is alive with purposeful activity.

What you are looking at is the yard and the maze of lines you see below has been designed with a definite end in view, each line serving a specific purpose. To begin with you have the 'running lines' which consist of tracks that lead on to the passenger platforms ahead. These are the lines on which incoming trains are received. Branching off from the main line you also have a 'goods running line' which leads on to the goods yard. Besides the running lines there are 'stabling lines' or storage sidings where empty trains are stabled on arrival awaiting their turn to be shunted away to the 'washing lines' and from thence to the 'carriage and wagon examination pit lines'. At large stations there will also be an 'engine line' that goes to the locomotive shed, and depending on the need a few extra sidings to hold spare carriages, tourist cars, officers' inspection saloons and so on.

These remarks apply to the portion of the yard dealing with passenger trains. The goods yard, which is usually nearby, is an altogether separate entity having its own layout and independent system of working.

A typical large-sized junction in the sixties would have anything from 50 to 70 men on its staff most of them working in 8 hour shifts. All these men work on tirelessly, being under the overall supervision of their administrative head who is the Station Master. The familiar picture of a station master of a roadside station solemnly holding a green flag watching an express thunder by at full speed doesn't apply here. On a large junction the Station Master rarely holds a flag. His duties are administrative in nature, being solely concerned with the management of the station and its staff.

The 'General Rules' issued by the Indian Railways defines a Station Master as an official who is responsible for the working of railway traffic within station limits. As we have just seen, the Station Master at a large station is mainly concerned with administrative responsibilities. The actual job of working railway traffic is therefore handled by a group of men specially appointed for the task who are known as Assistant Station Masters.

While the Station Master has to be in attendance in his office only during the day, ASMs and other staff work in shifts, the timings generally being midnight to 8am, 8am to 4pm, and 4pm to midnight again. The work involved is spread over several locations and accordingly there are different 'categories' of ASMs each handling a specific task.

To begin with let us take a look at the Cabin Assistant Station Master (or 'CASM') who is posted at the cabin. At this stage, it will be helpful if we remember that a signal cabin is a place where a group of levers are centralized for the convenient operation of a set of points and signals. At a large station (and indeed at every station) there are two end cabins named on the basis of relative location (e.g., Khandwa East, Khandwa West, etc.) each controlling the points and signals at the respective ends of the yard. Positioned close to the extremities of the yard, the prime function of these cabins is to receive an incoming train and direct it on to the appropriate track, this being one of the station running lines (for passenger trains) or the goods line if the train being received is a goods train. Unlike a roadside station where the block instruments are placed in the Station Master's office within the station building, the general procedure at a large junction is to have the block instruments in these end cabins. The actual job of obtaining and giving line-clear is therefore handled within these cabins and is performed by the Cabin Assistant Station Master (CASM) who is assisted by one more levermen entrusted with job of operating the cabin levers.

The view from the top of the overbridge is breathtaking ; you are reluctant to leave the spot, and yet we must turn back to the station if we are to learn more about the secrets of this great railway centre. As we saunter down the main platform of the station we come across signboards such as 'Vegetarian Refreshment Room', 'Second Class Sleeper Waiting Room' and several others till finally we find ourselves facing an office carrying the designation of 'Assistant Station Master'. The gentleman who sits here is actually what may be called, for the sake of convenience, the 'Indoor ASM', for the nature of his work requires him to remain at his desk all day long. The Indoor ASM, whose office is next to that of the Station Master has under his charge all the paperwork connected with the running of trains. He takes down messages from the Control Office, books Guards for passenger trains (at crew changing stations), issues caution orders and letters of authority (such as authorities to pass a defective signal at danger), attends to complaints lodged by passengers, and makes entries in the Station Diary. At a railway junction the task of keeping a continuous record of what is happening is the forte of the ASM. The Station Diary where each particular is entered is an authoritative record of all that is happening at the station -- it can even act as evidence in a court of law should the need arise.

What kind of particulars does an ASM have to record in the Station Diary? Everything in fact, such as train numbers and their arrival and departure times (both advertised and actual), detentions to trains and their reasons, names of staff joining duty, and unusual occurrences. As his shift of duty draws to a close, an Indoor ASM has to record in the diary what is known as the 'yard position'. In this context it must be remembered that the Station Master of a large station has under his jurisdiction only the portion of the yard consisting of the running lines in the passenger yard area. Other areas such as the carriage stabling lines and the goods yard are no concern of his. The 'yard position' thus specifies which of the running lines are occupied with coaches, empty rakes, etc., and which ones are vacant. This information is recorded three times a day (midnight, 8am and 4pm) in the Station Diary, the object being to acquaint the incoming ASM with what is lying where, and what needs to be done with it. More importantly, it ensures that the person taking over charge doesn't on account of ignorance authorize the admission of a train onto a track that is already occupied.

There is an interesting device known as an 'Electric Slide Instrument' in the Indoor ASM's office, carrying a number of levers on it corresponding to the running lines at the station. If a Station Master decides that a train is to be received on line No. 5, say, he will pull at lever No. 5 on the instrument and lock it in place. This action electrically releases the appropriate signal and point levers in the block cabin thereby eradicating any possibility of the cabin leverman pulling the wrong levers. When an ASM joins his shift of duty he can often make out which lines are occupied by a mere look at the Slide Instrument in his office -- levers that are withdrawn carry a locking collar with 'BLOCK' painted on it in red letters and refer to tracks which are occupied, the other remaining lines being vacant.

Next we come to the 'Outdoor' Assistant Station Master. Again this is a term which we use merely for convenience, for technically this official is an ASM and nothing more. The Outdoor ASM may sit in the same office as his 'indoor' counterpart but his work requires him to be present at the platform when a train arrives for he is the on-duty incharge of the platform looking after the arrival and departure of trains and other related work. As a train draws into the station this official has to be at the site, noting down the train number and arrival and departure times, usually on a sheet of paper he carries along. As he is entrusted with the task of seeing that the train leaves on time he has to move around checking to see if the signal has been lowered on time, and if a train is held up despite a green signal he must look for the reasons and note down the cause for detention, and later transmit these particulars to the Control Office after the train has left. Then again when a train or a carriage is being shunted, the Outdoor ASM has to be at the platform, give instructions to the Shunting Master (more of this later), note down shunting times, finally entering all these details in the Station Diary maintained in the ASM's office.

The 'Indoor' and 'Outdoor' Assistant Station Masters form an important part of the station machinery but by themselves they can do only a poor job unless they have suitable clerical assistance. This is available in the form of a Chief Trains Clerk seated in the ASM's office who has a number of 'Trains Clerks' working under him. As soon as a passenger train arrives at the station, the Trains Clerk (or 'TNC' as he is known) rushes to the platform where he notes down in his handbook particulars such as the train number, coach numbers, engine number, driver and guard's name and arrival and departure (if it is a crew-changing station he is also required to relay these details to Control as soon as the train has left). Both the Control Office as well as the station concerned have therefore a full written record of the particulars of the train which has arrived.

Why does the Control Office have to be informed of all these details? The reason is that the Control Office is the 'brain centre' that directs and watches over the movements of trains and engines. For example if a carriage is detached at a station on account of a defect, Control must know of it so that it can arrange for a replacement at a suitable stage later thereby restoring the original composition of the train. Replacements are made using spare coaches stocked at important junctions, so this means that Control also needs to keep a daily check on the coaching stock maintained at large stations. This is a job that is handled by the Deputy Stock Controller (in the Control Office) who records the position at each station generally at midnight from the details furnished by the TNC over the phone. Again, when coaches belonging to one railway are sent to another railway, Control needs to watch over the movements and see that these carriages are returned to the owning railway. Finally, the question whether a train may be allowed to proceed on its onward journey or should it be detained at a station to give precedence to a more important train following it is a matter that is entirely in the hands of the Control Office, in this case, the Section Controller. The train particulars which a station master passes on to the Section Controller means that Control has a full picture (usually in graphical form) of the whereabouts of every train within the section, and all that a station master can do is to obey orders he receives from Control concerning the movements of trains.

Besides the Station Diary, there is another vitally important register maintained in the ASM's office. This is known as the 'Advance Diary'. To understand the function of the Advance Diary let us suppose that a tourist party has booked a coach which is to be attached to an express today for a certain destination. Intimation of this programme will be sent by the Control Office to the Divisional Railway Manager with a copy of the letter to the Station Master some 10-12 days in advance. Most important stations maintain spare coaching stock in their sidings to meet emergencies of this kind, but if no such coach is available the ASM has to inform the Controller who will arrange to send a spare carriage from a nearby junction. Prior to sending this coach the Control Office will inform the Indoor ASM (on the phone) saying that on such and such a date spare coach number ... is being sent by Train number .., and that this has to be detached, kept in the yard, and subsequently attached on such and such a date to Train number ... for carrying the tourist party.

Advance intimations of this kind are received by the Chief Trains Clerk who jots down the details in the Advance Diary. During the course of a day several such instructions generally accumulate in the diary. The last TNC who turns up for duty on that day (4pm to midnight shift) is entrusted with the task of sorting out these instructions and drawing up a full programme of activities for the following day. This includes not only the special instructions passed down from Control (such as attaching a tourist car, detaching an officers' inspection saloon from a train, etc.) but also the regular tasks handled each day such as attaching/detaching of sectional and through coaches and so on. The Trains Clerk writes down both so that the ASMs who turn up for work on the following day have a full picture, by referring to the Advance Diary, of all that they are required to do on that day.

We have just had a sumptuous breakfast at the station refreshment room and are debating whether to take a look at the latest books in the A. H. Wheeler's bookstall or to watch an engine nearby shunting away a train. Each such shunting engine at a station has attached to it a 'Shunting Master' in charge of shunting operations assisted by 2 or 3 pointsmen who carry out manual tasks such as coupling an engine, setting handpoints and displaying hand signals while shunting is in progress. But wait a minute -- what is this we see in the ASM's office? A group of men dressed in uniform are poring over a register as though it were a matter of great importance. They are a new batch of ASMs who have turned up for duty and it is essential that they acquaint themselves with the day's programme as spelt out in the Advance Diary. Even the shunting master can be seen around, for he too needs to be aware of what needs to be done and at what time.

The first item on the agenda is receiving No. 2 Dn Mail and attaching a sectional coach to it. A quick check with Control over the phone reveals that the train is running on time. As there are two more hours to go, the first thing to do is to shunt the slip coach out of the storage sidings and place it on a platform or a nearby siding so that passengers with reservations may board the carriage well in time.

It is time now for the shunting master and his gang of pointsmen to swing into action. Making his way to the yard, the shunting master enters a tiny line-side hut (known as a goomti) furnished with a desk, chair and a telephone. A phone call made to the block cabin will quickly reveal whether he can go ahead with his duty. Since it is the block cabin that gives line-clear, the CASM in charge is fully conversant with the state of affairs -- that is, whether a train is approaching or not, and whether shunting can be permitted. If no train is approaching the station, the shunting master informs the CASM that he needs to shunt a coach to such and such a line, and asks him to set the points. Having done this the shunting master now gives precise step-by-step instructions both to the engine driver and the pointsmen regarding the shunting moves to be performed, and within a short time the shunting engine has deposited the slip coach to the siding (or platform) where it awaits the arrival of the Mail.

The pointsman as we observed a moment ago has among other things to do, the task of setting handpoints during shunting operations. The mention of handpoints is bound to raise eyebrows for someone is likely to say that he doesn't see the need for hand-operated points since the cabin is there for setting the route for a train. Confusion in this regard need not arise, however, if we bear in mind that a cabin only operates points which are needed to direct an incoming train onto one of the running lines (and this includes the goods line leading to the goods yard). Other points in the passenger yard area (e.g., running line to siding, siding to washing lines, etc.) are under local control, being manipulated by levers placed alongside the tracks at ground level.

The Mail is expected to arrive only at 10am so we stroll around on the platform. A copy of today's paper bought from the A. H. Wheeler stall is enough to keep boredom from setting in and this is followed by a plateful of bread-pakoras and hot coffee at the refreshment room. Just as we are preparing to pay the bill the public address system crackles and a lady's melodious voice floats across speaking slowly and softly : 'Your attention please... Train No. 2 Down Howrah Mail will be arriving on platform No. 3 in a short while from now...' For those who are eagerly crowding around Travelling Ticket Examiners trying to secure a berth for themselves on the train, the lady's voice over the microphone almost seems to signify the approach of doom. But for us who are here to explore the station the announcement is a reminder that we have been whiling away time instead of keeping a watch over the latest developments. While we were poring over the newspaper the ASMs in the office were busy phoning Control finding out which train is running on time and which one is going to arrive late. The phone in the office rings again : this time it is the CASM on the line saying that '2 Down is on line-clear', meaning that he has given line-clear to the previous station for 2 Down to pass. Our Indoor ASM gets busy once again with his slide instrument and operates the lever referring to the platform No. 3 line, while passing on the information to the lady in the adjacent room asking her to make the announcement.

No. 2 Down Howrah Mail finally steams into the station and draws to a halt. As the Outdoor ASM and the TNC get busy with their respective jobs a small band of men from the Carriage & Wagon ('C & W') department arrive, each equipped with a long handle. They are the 'wheeltappers' whose job consists of 'tapping' the wheels of each carriage with their handle to see if it rings true. Wheeltappers are under the charge of the Train Examiner ('TXR') who has set up two red discs (or red lights if it is night) on the platform at each end of the train. These discs are meant to serve as a reminder both to the driver and the guard that Carriage & Wagon examination is in progress and that under no circumstance should the train be started.

Meanwhile our shunting engine has backed onto the train from the rear, picks up the Guard's coach and moves away. This may appear strange but the idea is that taking the Guard's bogie with it the engine makes its way to the siding where it picks up the slip coach, then backs the two carriages to the waiting train so that once again the Guard's bogie is the last coach on the train.

While all this is going on, our Indoor ASM has quietly phoned the CASM (this time the end cabin which is facing the train) telling him of the line from which the Mail has to be dispatched and asking him to obtain line-clear from the station ahead. The Cabin ASM dutifully obeys, taking first the Controller's permission, then obtains line-clear on his block instrument and finally asks the leverman beside him to lower the signals and set and lock the route over which the train is to pass.

There are men moving on the rooftops of carriages filling up water in the overhead tanks while on the platform below you find the Guard supervising loading and unloading of parcels in the luggage compartment of his brake van. He has a document called a 'Way Bill' with him listing the coach numbers, destinations, etc., of each carriage on the train, and when the operation of coupling the sectional coach has been accomplished the TNC on duty proceeds to make an additional entry in the Way Bill specifying the details of the slip coach.

As departure time draws to a close we find the Train Examiner taking the Guard's and Driver's signature on what is known as a 'Vacuum Certificate' and handing over a copy to each. This procedure is a must for the vacuum in a train (for operation of the brakes) takes some time to reach its prescribed value after a coach or an engine has been detached and then re-attached. No driver will ever sign on a vacuum certificate unless he finds the vacuum (as indicated by the gauge) is satisfactory, and the Guard for his part will refuse to wave his flag unless he gets his copy of the certificate. The vacuum certificate is thereby a way of ensuring that a train has the prescribed brake power before it moves out.

There is an air of excitement, a feeling that something momentous is about to take place as you watch the engine hissing away and the signal ahead set to 'go'. Everything is ready it seems; even the red discs set up by the Train Examiner have been withdrawn. The engine at the front gives out a high-pitched whistle as though it were getting impatient of the long wait. Indeed, there is no reason why it should wait any longer for every bit of work connected with the train has been dealt with and finished. The Guard has only to wave his flag and 2 Down Howrah Mail begins to glide out, slowly at first, then picking up speed till at last the voices of those around us are drowned in a thunderous roar as the Mail hurries on towards its goal hundreds of miles away.