Railway Running Shed: The pulse of engine operations | Sunday Observer

Railway Running Shed: The pulse of engine operations

8 December, 2019
Class M-6 engine
Class M-6 engine

The massive railway network has many branches. Within the realm of railway operations are terms not found in any other establishment. One of these strange British terms (to laymen) is the phrase “Running Shed.” As a child I used to wonder what this phrase really meant. As we continue our series on the railways, I visited the Running Shed on a sunny Friday morning. It is located at Mount Mary in Dematagoda.

The beautiful colonial buildings housing the administrative offices are picture perfect reminders of the British influence on the Ceylon Government Railways (CGR). These structures have stood here for more than a hundred years. The wooden staircases and balcony railings are still in good condition.

The pathway to the Running Shed cuts across rail lines - tracks that lead to passenger trains and two separate tracks that directly converge into the repair sheds. There was a large water tank built on wooden scaffolding, used decades ago when water was supplied for steam locomotives. Adjacent to this was a massive well with a circumference of about 12 feet. Today, this water source has been made into a beautiful pond with water lilies in the centre.

It was once the cooling source for the robust ‘charcoal eating’ steam beasts of the railway. An old Y-Class Hunslet engine (full black in colour) gently pushed some wagons out of the yard. It was an absolute delight to stop and watch this German engine still in operating status. The driver gave a courtesy toot of the horn and waved. Inside these massive yards the Hunslet engines are often used for shunting tasks.

The two men engaged in the operation of the Running Shed are Supervisory Managers, Anura Thenuwara and Deepal Fernando, who have served here for decades. The former explained, ‘This is a key division under the Motive Power Sub Department. The other branches involved in engine operations are the HLS (Hydraulic Locomotive Shed), HTPCS (Hydraulic Transmission) at Maligawatte, ELS (Electrical Locomotive Shed), and the CLY (Colombo yard goods wagons and oil tanks). So this is a complex but team centered operation. Our priority is the operational safety and efficiency of all train engines. The Running Shed is responsible for nearly 70 engines”.

We stepped outside the office and walked towards the warehouse-like sheds. The combined smell of oil, grease and diesel permeated the air. As I looked around I noticed an assortment of train engines, some old, some new. The green and red M-6 was an engine we saw on our trips during school holidays.

The M-6 weighing 87 tons is made in West Germany and has been in service at CGR from 1979. Its flexi coil bogies and dynamic brakes make it ideal for the upcountry run. The M-2 with its blue and silver paint was the iron queen that pulled the compartments to Jaffna, and remains in active service since1954. She weighs 78 tons and was made in Canada. The S- 11 engine with its sleek design is my trusted travel to Lake House. As we climbed the steps to the repair pits, the yellow and blue M-11 engine the pride of the railway fleet weighing 130 tons slowly chugged past, probably going to her depot at Maradana.

Deepal Fernando explained, “The crews of the Running Shed work 24 hours a day, and is open throughout the year. We have 170 men who work on a roster basis to cover the day and night shift. Our main task is to ensure that the engines are safe and ready to adhere to the Main Train Time Table. Everyday there are engines that come in. Each train has a trip card. The engine driver will log the hours and any defects in the engine. When this is presented to us, we in turn delegate 2 specialized staff - the engine top examiner and under carriage examiner. These men with their experience and keen senses can pick up any faults. If it’s a basic level repair we can do it here in Dematagoda. But we also have to adhere to the time tables.

If the repair is a bigger task we reroute the engine (sometimes towed by another engine) to the CME yard at Ratmalana for heavy repairs. In this case we have to find another safe engine to fill in the slot for the desired train route”.

The massive Running Shed resemble buildings in the British Railways. The large arches and windows remain intact. In total there are 10 repair pits (with elevated iron and concrete docks). Working in the Running Shed is a tough job. Your clothes get soiled with oil and grease. Work crews attired in shorts and safety boots were under the large pit checking the under carriage of an S-12 engine; imagine working underneath a 74 ton engine.

The men probed each wheel and axel. There are cables, wires and circuits. Their hands are covered in grease. This is their task, day in, day out. On busy days the 10 pits would check and service nearly 40 train engines a day, including the night shift.

Another feature at this yard is the Turn Table, a heavy iron platform on which engines are turned and repositioned. This table is turned by two men operating two levers together. The heavy engine sits in the middle like a stubborn child. It is a marvel of British railway engineering. Anura Thenuwara added, ‘According to each train engine we have quarterly and annual inspections. An S-12 engine will be fully serviced after 500 running hours. An M-6 engine will receive same after 400 running hours”. The luxury Jaffna train that runs between Mount Lavinia and KKS is serviced here daily. The brand new S-14 class engine of the Denuwara Menike (upcountry line to Badulla) has also been entrusted to this Running Shed.

Once the engines are serviced they are washed. It’s not like washing a lorry or a car - this is a time consuming task. Even some compartments are brought for inspection and have to be washed. Deepal Fernando added, “Procuring and storing spare parts is another important duty. We do this via tenders and local purchase.

Train spares cannot be bought in a hurry. They are specialized spares”. In addition to daily routine the Running Shed is ready to receive any engines that may need its care after a derailment. The men of the Colombo Running Shed perform their duty with sincere dedication.