Still early 1974……….Mpompoma repair siding, just outside Bulawayo.

Having got my revenge on the tosser Journeyman (the one who locked me in a fuel wagon) by setting fire to a piece of oily rag hanging out of his back pocket with a cutting torch, successfully slow-burning a smouldering hole through his overalls, knickers (he was probably a cross-dresser) and backside, it was again time to move to another assignment.

This time I was sent out to a place called Mpompoma (also known as PomPom).  It was quite far from the Mechanical Workshops and we went there in a big grey Rhodesia Railway lorry into which I loaded all my kit.  I felt very important in this lorry, leaning out the window in my grubby overalls and whistling at the chicks as we belched vile smelling black diesel exhaust smoke on our way out of the city.  I was even set loose on these missions without a Journeyman, although to be honest after the first year I worked just about full-time on my own.

Mpompoma was some kind of railway repair siding and I never could quite work out what the purpose was of fixing wagons there and not in the main workshops.  For an apprentice plater-welder this was also a bit of a dodgy place for a number of reasons.  Firstly my main task seemed to revolve around always being out in the blazing Rhodesian sun in full welding gear, and fixing something that someone else had managed to fuck-up through severe and probably malicious negligence.

There is a part of all wagon construction known as the coupling channel.  For the uninitiated, the coupling is that hook like contraption at each end of a wagon or locomotive that hooks into the coupling at the end of another wagon or locomotive when they are shunted together.  The wagons are then coupled or “hooked” together automatically and will happily follow each other around the tracks for as long as there is something pulling them.  Unfortunately couplings probably take more abuse from locomotive drivers and shunters than any other part of a train.

A typical coupling

A typical coupling

As you can see from the above photo these couplings are robust bits of kit and they have to be.  They are also very long and stretch back into a closed cavity under the wagon known as the coupling channel.  There is also the mother of all springs inside the cavity to cushion the effects of the old in and out motion.  The next picture shows how the coupling moves into the coupling channel.  Note that the square metal section behind the coupling moves in and out of the coupling channel and the mother of all springs dampens this movement.

Coupling channel

Coupling channel

The problem with this rather clever design is that when any overadventurous locomotive driver or shunter couples to fast (known as a rough-shunt), the whole coupling assembly can become quite pissed-off and deform inside the coupling channel and get stuck.  It then becomes a steel projectile under high tension, held back by the mother of all springs with nowhere to go.  It just begs someone to climb under the wagon and release the pent-up tension.  This is where my job came in and was dodgy work for a number of reasons.  Firstly these wagons were on a perfectly serviceable stretch of railway line that was quite clearly in use.  There was more than one occasion where I had to rapidly extricate myself from under a wagon, banging my head in the process because something big and black was moving up the line I was working on.  I always made sure I was on good terms with my trolley boy on these jobs and I had to trust him to (a) stay awake and keep a sharp look-out, and (b) warn me if something was on my work line and moving towards me.  He could get rid of me easily if he had a mind to.

Secondly the main mission under the wagon was to release the spring tension first, and this was done by cutting the spring itself with a cutting torch, which showered you with hundreds of bits of red-hot molten metal and sparks as usual.  This was due to the contorted positions you had to get into normally face-upwards, making your nose and mouth great targets.

There was always a terrific bang when the spring was finally cut….undescribable unless you have experienced it and pretty scary.  This was normally also accompanied by an extra shower of rust, encrusted dirt, and whatever animal parts might have become lodged in the coupling channel…..oh yes, they were everywhere.

Any attempt to remove the coupling before carrying out the above operation could possibly result in a very pissed-off and seemingly ballistically charged coupling ejecting the channel and comprehensively impaling you and your Jack the Ripper apron to any adjacent wagon.

Needless to say we tried to avoid this scenario as far as possible to dodge lengthy Health and Safety accident investigations, and the loss of any no-claim bonus you might enjoy on your life insurance.

Mpopoma Siding

Mpopoma Siding

After these trips we always got back to the Mechanical Workshops after dark.  Only the overtime crews working.  The days out at PomPom were long, hot, and tiring.  I would clean and lock up my kit and begin the long, slow walk back to an empty room.  The canteen was already closed for the night, there wasnt even that to look forward to……just the next day of the same thing.


On And Off The Rails (Part 4)

September 27, 2009

Location: Rhodesia Railways Mechanical Workshops, Bulawayo

Still in the Erecting Shop, 1973

I would like you to meet my Erecting Shop Journeyman.

His name was Brian Kelly and he came from Ireland.  I am convinced he was an IRA hit man but this was probably my overactive imagination at work, but he did strike me as a dark horse whose passive and quite nature merely concealed his other side.

Brian was a great guy, spoke with a wonderful Irish accent (obviously) and we got on really well although I made a number of serious fuck-ups while I was with him.  We will not discuss them at this time.

The ten o’clock tea-time was reserved for playing bridge in the Erecting Shop welding cubicle.  We had our own little hide away where our wooden lockers were.  Brian spent many frustrating months teaching me the game.  He had a lot of patience with me and I think I got the hang of it in the end although I still don’t really know what “vulnerable” and “rubber”means.  Anyway during tea time we used to sit around a steel table we had made and four of us would drift away into a make believe world of soft carpets, cigar smoke, and waiters dressed like penguins.  We really were a quartet of grand gentlemen in our oily, sooty overalls, greasy safety boots and chipped tin mugs that burned ones lips whenever a sip of tea was taken.

Brian’s wife also made the nicest mince sandwiches which I used to readily devour, normally not having anything of my own.

One of the jobs I was taught by Brian was a boiler tube replacement.  This was a bitch of a job and involved first the cutting out and then the welding back of up to 400 tubes that form the steam making heart of a steam locomotive.  The idea was that once the boiler was safely on its stands, the welder, in this case me, would climb inside the firebox and cut the old tubes out using an electric arc.  Quite a mission as you have to get the arc inside each tube to cut it out and the arc would flash all over the place.  If you have never welded electrically you wont understand what I am talking about but try to imagine it anyway.  Once they were all out the boilermakers would come and clean everything up and new tubes would be fitted which I then had to weld back in.  A long and back-breaking process, done in isolation and under a strict time scale.  Once all the welding was finished the boiler tubes were pumped up using water pressure so you could see any leaks in your welding.  And then it was back in again to seal off any water spurts.

In have to say here that I was complimented by Jack Crilly on my ability to carry out positional welding much better than the easier and normal flat welding.  This is quite strange as positional welding means upside down or vertical up/down welding and normally takes ages to master.  I got it right within a year and found it quite an accomplishment.  Boiler tube welding was all positional stuff and tested a welder to the limit both physically and technically.

I have never been a small lad.  In fact I am what you would call over average in build…..overweight or fat actually.  I was known as the little fat fucker in the workshops.  Getting into the boiler was always fun and getting out even more fun as a persons body expands when hot….I jest not with you here.  And it is really hot inside a boiler that is being welded.  The sweat literally pisses off of you.  Remember you are wearing elbow length fireproof gloves, your Jack the Ripper apron, boots, spats and your overall.  Oh yes and you have a welding helmet and cap on as well.  The cap was to stop any welding sparks burning the shit out of your exposed head which resulted in intense pinpoint pain, swearing, and the sickening smell of your own hair and flesh on fire.

If you do not manage to get your kit on correctly, some sparks do manage to get inside your overalls and I had one rather painful experience of a blob of molten metal coming into contact with the side of my dick….I have the scar to this day.  Lucky, lucky.

Sometimes blobs of metal got inside my boots….very painful too and you just have to grin bravely, swear, jump about, and wait for the bit of metal to cool down while being in direct contact with your skin.  There is no way to get your laced-up boots off.

As in the wagon shop there was also a graveyard for weary locomotives…..those fire breathing monsters that have come to the end of the line.  This was also a sad place where once proud giants of the railroad found their final resting place…..out in the open and unprotected from the elements.

It was an undignified end for these truly wonderfully majestic machines, and my love of and fascination for steam locomotives remains with me to this day.

Rhodesia Railways 20th Class Garrett.....what a majestic beast!

Rhodesia Railways 20th Class Garrett hauling a passenger train.....what a majestic beast! There is a more than even chance I worked on this grand old lady.

Rhodesia Railways locomotive graveyard, Bulawayo

Rhodesia Railways locomotive graveyard, Bulawayo

Inside a locomotive boiler showing steam tubes

Inside a locomotive boiler showing steam tubes

Boiler tube plate where I would cut out and weld back the tubes

Boiler tube plate where I would cut out and weld back the tubes

Inside a boiler

Inside a boiler

On And Off The Rails (Part 3)

September 26, 2009

Towards the end of 1972 and early 1973…..still in the Rhodesia Railways Mechanical Workshops, Bulawayo

Second Mission: The Erecting Shop

I know what you are thinking.  Erecting Shop.  What a strange name and why would they call it that?  I thought the same myself and of course this part of the workshop complex was always going to be rife for a whole lot of strange comments.

So why is it called the Erecting Shop and what debauched activities take place there?  Patience dear reader…..all will soon be revealed.

Towards the end of 1972 I was told that I would be transferred away from the Wagon Shop.  My destination was not made clear at that time as there was a lot of shuffling around going on.  A large majority of the Journeymen and senior apprentices (3rd, 4th, and 5th years) were spending more and more time in the bush on Territorial Army (TA) call-up duty, and this was putting a severe strain on those of us who either had not yet been called up for National Service, or those that for one or other reason were unable to serve in the Rhodesian Army.  I suppose that this was when I first realised that one day I would be going on call-up and others would have the pleasure of cutting up smelly meat wagons.

To be very honest I was extremely sad to be leaving Jack Crilly.  He had become like a father to me and mentored me in everything I needed to know about my work and more importantly, about life itself.  He treated me as his son.  As an apprentice I never earned much money.  In my first year I took home 77 Rhodesian Dollars per month.  Out of this I had to pay for my lodging, buy clothes, and eat.  I had moved into the Railway single quarters in Raylton, the railway suburb right next to the workshops and staff canteen.  So I lived in the shadow of where I worked and the sulphur smell of burning coal was ever prevalent.  Each month I bought my little book of meal coupons and that’s where I basically ate all my meals.  Not bad food, but pretty much the same menu each day.

I got to know quite a few of the married personnel who had their houses next to the single quarters and ever so often I used to get invited round to someones house for a real supper of hot beef stews, hearty vegetables, and guavas and custard.  One couple I became very attached to was Bella and Keith Harris.  Keith, a giant of a man with a heart as good as gold, was a locomotive fireman…..the tough guys that shovel coal into the ever-hungry maw of a steam engines firebox.  And dear Bella….what a wonderful person……she just had a way of making me realise what it must be like to have a real home.  Wonderful people who never had too much of the good things in life but shared what they had.

Back to the Erecting Shop.

Erecting Shops are places where things that were previously un-erect (not flaccid as in penis, but rather dismantled) are re-erected.  Normally this process involved enormous machines.  In this case huge black steam locomotives.  Great big Beyer-Garrett monsters that could haul thousands of tons of cargo up and down the many miles of Rhodesian rail tracks.

Beyer-Garrett 15th Class

Beyer-Garrett 15th Class

These were massively powered beasts that prowled Rhodesia’s open spaces taking goods all over the country and over the borders as well.

Life was quite hazardous in the Erecting Shop.  What you have to understand is that Rhodesia Railways locomotives could weigh between 30 and 120 tons depending on the model, and when it arrives at the workshops it is still on its bogeys, or wheel units.  So it is easy to move about with little shunting engines or winches.  However one of the first things that has to be is to remove the bogeys.  The only way to do that is by lifting the whole locomotive into the air and pushing the bogeys away.  The locomotive, suspended on huge overhead cranes was then lowered onto giant stands.  It would remain there for at least 21 days, the time it took for a full strip and rebuild.  Rhodesia Railways were known to be one of the most experienced organisations as far as this type of work was concerned.

I have described the removal of the bogeys as if it was a really simple activity but in fact it was an extremely precise and dangerous operation.  The first thing that is done before removing the bogeys is that the sanding pipes must be cut off using oxy-acetylene cutting equipment.  Sanding pipes are used to spray sand onto the rails in front of the main driving wheels of a locomotive when extra traction is needed, for example on steep inclines.     This cutting of pipes was one of my jobs and again rotten meat comes into the story.  You see there is a thing called a cow-catcher at the front of all locomotives and their job is to catch cows standing and minding their own business on the track…..basically a massive fast moving 100 ton meat tenderiser.  The problem was that the now mushy cow normally got caught up under the locomotive after being hit and bits of pieces of processed meat and bone ended up being sprayed up the front bogey assembly that included the sanding pipes.  So we are back to the 3000 degree flame burning minced up rotten beef.

Lifting a locomotive in an Erecting Shop

Lifting a locomotive in an Erecting Shop (non-Rhodesia Railways)

A typical Erecting Shop

A typical Erecting Shop (non-Rhodesia Railways)

Rhodesia Railways Erecting Shop

Rhodesia Railways Erecting Shop where I worked as an apprentice Plater-Welder