Among the Railway Folk, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 2

The Shops

THE railway folk, like the army and civilian castes, have their own language and life, which an outsider cannot hope to understand. For instance, when Jamalpur refers to itself as being ‘on the long siding,’ a lengthy explanation is necessary before the visitor grasps the fact that the whole of the two hundred and thirty odd miles of the loop from Luckeeserai to KanuJunction via Bhagalpur is thus contemptuously treated. Jamalpur insists that it is out of the world, and makes this an excuse for being proud of itself and all its institutions. But in one thing it is badly, disgracefully provided. At a moderate estimate there must be about two hundred Europeans with their families in this place. They can, and do, get their small supplies from Calcutta, but they are dependent on the tender mercies of the bazaar for their meat, which seems to be hawked from door to door. There is a Raja who owns or has an interest in the land on which the station stands, and he is averse to cow-killing. For these reasons, Jamalpur is not too well supplied with good meat, and what it wants is a decent meat-market with cleanly controlled slaughtering arrangements. The ‘Company,’ who gives grants to the schools and builds the institute and throws the shadow of its protection all over the place, might help this scheme forward.

The heart of Jamalpur is the ‘shops,’ and here a visitor will see more things in an hour than he can understand in a year. Steam Street very appropriately leads to the forty or fifty acres that the ‘shops’ cover, and to the busy silence of the loco. superintendent’s office, where a man must put down his name and his business on a slip of paper before he can penetrate into the Temple of Vulcan. About three thousand five hundred men are in the ‘shops,’ and, ten minutes after the day’s work has begun, the assistant superintendent knows exactly how many are ‘in.’ The heads of departments — silent, heavy-handed men, captains of five hundred or more — have their names fairly printed on a board which is exactly like a pool-marker. They ‘star a life’ when they come in, and their few names alone represent salaries to the extent of six thousand a month. They are men worth hearing deferentially. They hail from Manchester and the Clyde, and the great ironworks of the North: pleasant as cold water in a thirsty land is it to hear again the full Northumbrian burr or the long-drawn Yorkshire ‘aye.’ Under their great gravity of demeanour — a man who is in charge of a few lakhs’ worth of plant cannot afford to be riotously mirthful — lurks melody and humour. They can sing like north-countrymen, and in their hours of ease go back to the speech of the iron countries they have left behind, when ‘Ab o’ th’ yate ‘and all ‘Ben Briarly’s’ shrewd wit shakes the warm air of Bengal with deep-chested laughter. Hear ‘Ruglan’ Toon,’ with a chorus as true as the fall of trip-hammers, and fancy that you are back again in the smoky, rattling North!

But this is the ‘unofficial’ side. Go forward through the gates under the mango trees, and set foot at once in sheds which have as little to do with mangoes as a locomotive with Lakshmi, The ‘buzzer’ howls, for it is nearly tiffin time. There is a rush from every quarter of the shops, a cloud of flying natives, and a procession of more sedately pacing Englishmen, and in three short minutes you are left absolutely alone among arrested wheels and belts, pulleys, cranks, and cranes — in a silence only broken by the soft sigh of a far-away steam-valve or the cooing of pigeons. You are, by favour freely granted, at liberty to wander anywhere you please through the deserted works. Walk into a huge, brick-built, tin-roofed stable, capable of holding twenty-four locomotives under treatment, and see what must be done to the Iron Horse once in every three years if he is to do his work well. On reflection, Iron Horse is wrong. An engine is a she — as distinctly feminine as a ship or a mine. Here stands the Echo, her wheels off, resting on blocks, her underside machinery taken out, and her side scrawled with mysterious hieroglyphics in chalk. An enormous green-painted iron harness-rack bears her piston and eccentric rods, and a neatly painted board shows that such and such Englishmen are the fitter, assistant, and apprentice engaged in editing that Echo. An engine seen from the platform and an engine viewed from underneath are two very different things. The one is as unimpressive as a cart; the other as imposing as a man-of-war in the yard.

In this manner is an engine treated for navicular, laminitis, back-sinew, or whatever it is that engines most suffer from. No. 607, we will say, goes wrong at Dinapore, Assensole, Buxar, or wherever it may be, after three years’ work. The place she came from is stencilled on the boiler, and the foreman examines her. Then he fills in a hospital sheet, which bears one hundred and eighty printed heads under which an engine can come into the shops. No. 607 needs repair in only one hundred and eighteen particulars, ranging from mud-hole-flanges and blower-cocks to lead-plugs, and platform brackets which have shaken loose. This certificate the foreman signs, and it is framed near the engine for the benefit of the three Europeans and the eight or nine natives who have to mend No. 607. To the ignorant the superhuman wisdom of the examiner seems only equalled by the audacity of the two men and the boy who are to undertake what is frivolously called the ‘job.’ No. 607 is in a sorely mangled condition, but 403 is much worse. She is reduced to a shell — is a very elle-woman of an engine, bearing only her funnel, the iron frame and the saddle that supports the boiler.

Four-and-twenty engines in every stage of decomposition stand in one huge shop. A travelling crane runs overhead, and the men have hauled up one end of a bright vermilion loco, The effect is the silence of a scornful stare — just such a look as a colonel’s portly wife gives through her pince-nez at the audacious subaltern. Engines are the ‘livest’ things that man ever made. They glare through their spectacle-plates, they tilt their noses contemptuously, and when their insides are gone they adorn themselves with red lead, and leer like decayed beauties; and in the Jamalpur works there is no escape from them. The shops can hold fifty without pressure, and on occasion as many again. Everywhere there are engines, and everywhere brass domes lie about on the ground like huge helmets in a pantomime. The silence is the weirdest touch of all. Some sprightly soul — an apprentice be sure — has daubed in red lead on the end of an iron tool-box a caricature of some friend who is evidently a riveter. The picture has all the interest of an Egyptian cartouche, for it shows that men have been here, and that the engines do not have it all their own way.

And so, out in the open, away from the three great sheds, between and under more engines, till we strike a wilderness of lines all converging to one turn-table. Here be elephant-stalls ranged round a half-circle, and in each stall stands one engine, and each engine stares at the turn-table. A stolid and disconcerting company is this ring-of-eyes monsters; 324, 432, and 8 are shining like toys. They are ready for their turn of duty, and are as spruce as hansoms. Lacquered chocolate, picked out with black, red, and white, is their dress, and delicate lemon graces the ceilings of the cabs. The driver should be a gentleman in evening dress with white kid gloves, and there should be gold-headed champagne bottles in the spick-and-span tenders. Huckleberry Finn says of a timber raft, ‘It amounted to something being captain of that raft.’ Thrice enviable is the man who, drawing Rs. 220 a month, is allowed to make Rs. 150 overtime out of locos. Nos. 324, 432, or 8. Fifty yards beyond this gorgeous trinity are ten to twelve engines who have put in to Jamalpur to bait. They are alive, their fires are lighted, and they are swearing and purring and growling one at another as they stand alone. Here is evidently one of the newest type — No. 25, a giant who has just brought the mail in and waits to be cleaned up preparatory to going out afresh.

The tiffin hour has ended. The buzzer blows, and with a roar, a rattle, and a clang the shops take up their toil. The hubbub that followed, on the Prince’s kiss to the sleeping beauty was not so loud or sudden. Experience, with a foot-rule in his pocket, authority in his port, and a merry twinkle in his eye, comes up and catches Ignorance walking gingerly round No. 25. ‘That’s one of the best we have,’ says Experience, ‘a four-wheeled coupled bogie they call her. She’s by Dobbs. She’s done her hundred and fifty miles today; and she’ll run in to Rampore Haut this afternoon; then she’ll rest a day and be cleaned up. Roughly, she does her three hundred miles in the four-and-twenty hours. She’s a beauty. She’s out from home, but we can build our own engines — all except the wheels. We’re building ten locos now, and we’ve got a dozen boilers ready if you care to look at them. How long does a loco last? That’s just as may be. She will do as much as her driver lets her. Some men play the mischief with a loco. and some handle ’em properly. Our drivers prefer Hawthorne’s old four wheeled coupled engines because they give the least bother. There is one in that shed, and it’s a good ’un to travel. But eighty thousand miles generally sees the gloss off an engine, and she goes into the shops to be overhauled and refitted and replaned, and a lot of things that you wouldn’t understand if I told, you about them. No. 10, the first loco. on the line, is running still, but very little of the original engine must be left by this time. That one there came out in the Mutiny year. She’s by Slaughter and Grunning, and she’s built for speed in front of a light load. French-looking sort of thing, isn’t she? That’s because her cylinders are on a tilt. We used her for the mail once, but the mail has grown heavier and heavier, and now we use six-wheeled coupled eighteen-inch, inside cylinder, 45-ton locos. to shift thousand-ton trains. No! All locos. aren’t alike. It isn’t merely pulling a lever. The Company likes its drivers to know their locos., and a man will keep his Hawthorne for two or three years. The more mileage he gets out of her before she has to be overhauled the better man he is. It pays to let a man have his fancy engine. A man must take an interest in his loco., and that means she must belong to him. Some locos. won’t do anything, even if you coax and humour them. I don’t think there are any unlucky ones now, but some years ago No. 31 wasn’t popular. The drivers went sick or took leave when they were told off for her. She killed her driver on the Jubbulpore line, she left the rails at Kajra, she did something or other at Rampur Haut, and Lord knows what she didn’t do or try to do in other places! All the drivers fought shy of her, and in the end she disappeared. They said she was condemned, but I shouldn’t wonder if the Company changed her number quietly, and changed the luck at the same time. You see, the Government Inspector comes and looks at our stock now and again, and when an engine’s condemned he puts his dhobi-mark on her, and she’s broken up. Well, No. 31 was condemned, but there was a whisper that they only shifted her number, and ran her out again. When the drivers didn’t know, there were no accidents. I don’t think we’ve got an unlucky one running now. Some are different from others, but there are no man-eaters. Yes, a driver of the mail is somebody. He can make Rs. 370 a month if he’s a covenanted man. We get a lot of our drivers in the country, and we don’t import from England as much as we did. ’Stands to reason that, now there’s more competition both among lines and in the labour market, the Company can’t afford to be as generous as it used to be. It doesn’t cheat a man though. It’s this way with the drivers. A native driver gets about Rs. 20 a month, and in his way he’s supposed to be good enough for branch work and shunting and such. Well, an English driver’ll get from Rs. 8o to Rs. 220, and overtime. The English driver knows what the native gets, and in time they tell the driver that the native’ll improve. The driver has that to think of. You see? That’s competition!’

Experience returns to the engine-sheds, now full of clamour, and enlarges on the beauties of sick locomotives. The fitters and the assistants and the apprentices are hammering and punching and gauging, and otherwise technically disporting themselves round their enormous patients, and their language, as caught in snatches, is beautifully unintelligible.

But one flying sentence goes straight to the heart. It is the cry of Humanity over the Task of Life, done into unrefined English. An apprentice, grimed to his eyebrows, his cloth cap well on the back of his curly head and his hands deep in his pockets, is sitting on the edge of a tool-box ruefully regarding the very much disorganised engine whose slave is he. A handsome boy, this apprentice, and well made. He whistles softly between his teeth, and his brow puckers. Then he addresses the engine, half in expostulation and half in despair, ‘Oh, you condemned old female dog!’ He puts the sentence more crisply — much more crisply — and Ignorance chuckles sympathetically.

Ignorance also is puzzled over these engines.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38