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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 2 (June, 1926)

Modern Shunting Methods

page 24

Modern Shunting Methods

Shunting wagons safely, efficiently, and economically has probably engaged more thought and attention than any other Railway operating problem. No two railways have the same problems. No two yards present the same difficulties. Types of couplings, types of brakes, size of wagons, point operating mechanism, track facilities, national characteristics of personnel, climatic conditions—all have an important bearing on performance and costs. Comparisons, therefore, between the different railways and different countries are of limited value. Nevertheless my experience has been that, however divergent they may be, there is always something new to learn by studying the other fellow's methods.

Here, in New Zealand the need for urgent economy in operating, the necessity for speeding up transport and the keeping pace with modern requirements call for the introduction of the safest and most economical means of shunting.

Before dealing with the main theme in these articles perhaps my readers would be interested in a few observations, in a somewhat lighter vein, on shunters and their work in other countries.

The wagons used in Britain are coupled as illustration No. one shows, by means of three links and a hook. Coupling is done by hand or by means of a coupling stick as shown. A coupling stick might appear to the practical man here somewhat of a hindrance and a burden to the shunter. In reality it is a very useful instrument and is essentially a safety device. No air brakes are fitted to the majority of wagons and the labels are on the sides, hence by using the stick the shunter need never go between wagons. It is used also as a lever for pinning down brakes.

Tail rope shunting is not allowed, neither is slip shunting. Wherever possible yards are designed to avoid either of these methods; but where facilities cannot be provided, wagons must be pushed past the engine, or else capstans are installed.

1. Hand Coupling with Stick.

1. Hand Coupling with Stick.

Hand lamps are similar in design to those used here, but smaller and lighter. Electric lamps have been tried but, owing to the weight of the accumulator, they were not popular.

Shunters start their railway careers as number takers, passing to points holder, shunter, yard foreman and finally to yard inspectors. It is more the rule than the exception for a man to commence in a yard and stay there all his life. In yards of intense movement and complicated working this specialisation is the back-bone of efficient yard operation.

Every care is taken to make shunting safe for shunters, and their lot is being constantly improved. The old complicated yards are being replaced by modern gravity yards with mechanical point operation. Further, the introduction of “train control” has considerably reduced yard congestion which, as every shunter knows, is the worst enemy. His work is movement, his danger, blockade.

On some of the French railways wagons are fitted with—from the shunter's point of view—a particularly objectionable type of coupling known as the screw coupling and similar to that fitted on British passenger stock. Two heavy side chains are fitted so that uncoupling is a particularly laborious process, especially in frosty weather. No air brakes are provided, nevertheless by reason of the type of coupling, shunters have to pass under the side buffers and get in between wagons to uncouple. This passing under buffers is very exhausting and always dangerous, especially when wagons are moving. The greatest trial to a French shunter is the brake power system on goods page 25 trains. No brake vans are provided; but certain wagons are fitted with a guard's box at the end. There is just room for one man, and a terribly cold job it is for the guards, in the winter time, sitting cooped up in these boxes. This, however, appears to be the standard practice on many continental railways. Probably the Frenchman never realised how cold he was until the British railway man serving in France during the War told him in no uncertain language just what he thought of being a guard on a French goods train.

Two of these wagons must be placed together in various parts of the train according to the brake power schedule. One set, of course, must be at the rear. These “Jeminées” or “Twins” as they are called, cause enormous amount of unnecessary shunting, in that it is often impossible to get two wagons with the boxes together both for the same destination. It is an annoying job, during a particularly busy night to run all round a yard trying to find a wagon with a brake box at the right end. I have known cases where, to save time the first wagon found has been put on, irrespective of destination. It is quite a common occurrence to have wagons completely out of marshal order. The reason for putting these boxes together is that one guard or brakesman can operate two brakes—that is if he is awake!

Shunting signals are given by means of a horn, which the shunter carries slung round his neck. Each signal is repeated by the driver on the whistle. The local inhabitants as well as railway men have to suffer in silence.

French railways, and indeed most of those on the Continent, have a partiality for three-throws. The particularly heavily balanced points lever used in France makes them more awkward than ever. The balance weight has to be slung round the point lever to hold it in position, so that with two levers close together one's hand could very easily be crushed against the other balance weight. Some of my R.O.D. readers no doubt have too intimate a knowledge of this.

2. Automatic Coupling, Canadian Railways

2. Automatic Coupling, Canadian Railways

The type of hand lamp used all over the Continent is not so efficient as the British lamp. The lamp is square, with three aspects, red, white and green—all showing at once. This is very confusing to a driver when two or three shunters are about.

During bad weather a shunter's lot is not a particularly pleasant one in any country, but I have yet to find anywhere where the conditions are so dangerous and so fatiguing as those in large yards in Canada and parts of U.S.A.

One of the few things in the Canadian shunters favour is the automatic coupling on all rolling stock. Illustration (No. two) shows the type used. Even these sometimes refuse to work. I remember once whilst in a sleeping car being awakened in the middle of the night by a series of sharp bumps. They were caused by an engine trying to couple up. The ninth effort was successful.

So intense is the cold that it is necessary to always wear gloves, as the effect of touching iron or steel is the same as if it were red hot. That is why, as probably many of my readers have noticed in American films, mechanics, etc., all wear thick gloves. They get so used to them that they wear them in the summer also.

Number-taking and carding wagons in a snow storm or in a freezing night with a page 26 high wind is a pretty severe test to the budding shunter. One sets out muffled up to the eyes—a frozen nose or frozen ears is a painful experience if one comes indoors without first thawing out. In one's coat pocket is a box of tin tacks and a hammer, while in one hand is a lamp and in the other are a number of wagon cards about four times as large as those used here. The next job is to find the wagons corresponding to the numbers on the cards. Owing to the fact that in most of the large yards all wagon movements from one road to another are recorded in the office, the required wagons can soon be located, perhaps! One sometimes strikes an unlucky day. Walking up and down on pinnacles of frozen snow or in snow four feet deep between tracks long enough to hold up to 70 to 100 36-foot wagons, is not a pastime to recommend to your friends, especially if a blizzard is blowing which practically blinds one. Having found the required wagons—maybe not before chipping ice off the numbers—the cards have then to be nailed on. Thick gloves, a refractory tin-tack and a snow storm are not exactly conducive to good temper and good language. However, when the cards are fixed the next step is on the roof. Here are placed the ice chests and in some cases oil heaters. The heavy hatches have to be lifted to see whether there is sufficient ice or whether the heaters are burning properly. Ice in a car in winter, no doubt, appears unusual, but certain freight must be kept at an even temperature. Climbing on to the roof of wagons with a lamp in one's hand, possibly whilst the wagon is being shunted, is not so easy as it might appear, but the Canadian shunter thinks nothing of it as he spends most of his time on the roof. The hatches are heavy and usually frozen in, lifting them, therefore, is a particularly dangerous job in that one has to bend over and pull with both hands. Should the wagon be jerked suddenly there is every possibility of going head over heels 14 feet to the track below. Having descended safely, one's attention is next directed to the patent heaters in heated wagons. Inspection of these for more reasons than one usually takes a little longer than inspections of ice chests. This is the one bright spot in an otherwise cheerless job.

The shunter's portion is even more exacting. He spends a lot of his time running about on the tops of cars: first to be able to give signals to the enginemen, as with trains of such enormous lengths signalling from the ground is impossible; secondly, as will be noticed in illustration (No. two) the brakes have to be applied from the top. In really cold weather wagons will hardly run at all, and they have to be pushed right into position by the shunting engines. Point switches, although being kept free by men appointed to do nothing else, get frozen up and are difficult to work. I have known an engine get frozen up after standing long in one place. The slippery nature and unevenness of the ground due to frozen snow is a constant source of danger, particularly at night time.

The standard hand lamp used is not so convenient as that used here. It resembles the ordinary house lamp with the long round glass. It is protected by a wire cage and gives a white light—no coloured light is used for shunting signals. It is particularly cumbersome, the glass gets smoky, and is easily broken either by being jarred or by the effect of intense cold on the glass, while, in the high wind, considerable difficulty is experienced in keeping it alight. The electric lamps now on the market are a decided improvement and give an excellent light where it is wanted, i.e., just in front of one's feet.

Every Canadian and American engine has, by law, to sound a bell when moving in yards. I am not convinced that from the yards staff point of view this is exactly a safety device. It certainly has a most unnerving effect on people who are not accustomed to it. There is a danger that with a bell clanging close to one it is possible not to hear a fast train or a string of moving wagons approaching.

Like the number taker, the shunter naturally muffles himself up as well as he can, and usually wears a cap with flaps over the ears, which naturally affects his hearing. Further, engines in cold weather always appear to ooze steam from every pore, thus obstructing the driver's view.

What with the risk of slipping, the risk of not hearing, and the risk of not seeing or being seen, of all the dangerous occupations modern progress and modern industry demand, that of a shunter in a large yard in Canada during the winter time is surely among the most hazardous.

(To be continued.)