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The Adventure of the Jammed Braking System

ME students called in to help troubleshoot a problem with brake shoes jammed by the saboteurs during a railway strike find themselves knee-deep in water
By Contributing Writer Harshwardhan Gupta

I was a 4th year undergrad at IIT Bombay, studying mechanical engineering, when a nationwide railway strike was called out on 8th May 1974. The semester exams had just finished, and I along with a few friends had stayed back in our hostels to take extra courses and work on our projects.

On the third day of the strike, the morning papers brought the news of some of my fellow students had approached the railway administration with an offer to drive the suburban trains in Mumbai–rightly called Mumbai’s Lifelines then, as now. Their offer had been promptly accepted and these guys, after a day’s training by the managers on duty, were driving the suburban trains around with heavily armed paramilitary guards accompanying them.

Being a railway enthusiast, I too jumped at the opportunity, and a small group of us took a crowded bus to the Railway Headquarters. We were told that now they had enough drivers for the minimal essential service, but not enough train-sets. They needed help at the car sheds to service the suburban train sets called rakes.

We rode another bus to the car sheds, where we were welcomed by the forlorn manager in his empty office. We were given fresh boiler suits and went down into the shed to find eight service lines, each with a long servicing trench between the rails and a train standing on it, and seamen from Indian Navy working industriously in the trenches.

The manager explained that the grey iron brake-shoes had to be adjusted every day and changed every three days. And that’s what the Navy seamen were doing, standing in two feet of water in the trenches flooded by the striking workers and their drain-pumps sabotaged.

Six of the eight lines, the manager explained, were occupied by rakes from Breda of Spain, which had a complex mechanical system of self-adjusting brakes that had somehow been jammed by the saboteurs.Thus they could neither be serviced nor moved out of the service shed and used to service rakes with ordinary braking systems. He asked us if we could fix it.

My fellow students soon gave up and moved to other tasks, working with the tough, hardworking seamen who were jokingly complaining that on the worst of navy ships they never worked in more than six inches of bilge water, and here they were on land, working in two feet of it.

My mind was riveted on the fascinating linkage, which had a system of levers, springs and ratchets to take up the slack as the brake pads wore out. I studied the jammed mechanical arrangement under the cars again and again, only to repeatedly conclude that as it would work, it would definitely slacken the brake shoes, not tighten them. Careful observation on many cars confirmed that there were no tell-tale signs of any parts having been removed or a ‘sabot’ (damaging part) added.

I then tried to figure out what would be the right configuration which would work, and surmised that if one particular link pair was assembled the other way, the system would work as designed. But dismantling that was next to impossible as there was a stiff spring locking that assembly in place. My neck was really aching by that time from continuously looking up, when I figured out that the link could be toggled back into the right position if I applied enough leverage with a couple of crow-bars.

I called in the Navy toughies and guided them to toggle the links. We soon did it with three crow-bars and six pairs of big biceps. This not only released the jammed brake, but got the self-adjusting mechanism working right again. We soon got the entire train free to move and saw it roll out over our heads. By the time it was time to go back to our hostels in an armed police car, we had managed to roll out all the six immobilized trains, and new ones were already come in to be serviced.

That I was instrumental in helping the railway authorities break the logjam and get a minimal service going again was apparent as on the next day, our little group received death-threats from the striking workers, and the authorities and the armed police escorting us advised us to stay put in our hostels. The suburban services never stopped till the strike was finally called off three weeks later.

Contributing Writer Harshwardhan Gupta lives in Pune, India, has a B.Tech from IIT Bombay and runs his own machine design studio Neubauplan. He has designed many “World’s Firsts” in various custom machines.

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