As the Integral Coach Factory celebrates 60 years this week, AKILA KANNADASAN spends a day at its sprawling campus in Perambur
A railway coach is a mere sheet of cotton steel, wound as a gigantic coil, before its birth. We see it waiting to be loaded into a cut-to-length machine at the manufacturing unit of the Integral Coach Factory at Perambur, Chennai. The coach begins its journey at the grease-stained floors of the factory — it will soon travel across the nooks and crannies of the country. Engineers and technicians here prepare it for the big journey.
“Watch your step. Be very careful,” instructs P. Sreeramulu, senior section engineer, as he leads us into the mammoth shell manufacturing unit where the outer skeleton of the coach is made.
Man and machines work together to create a rectangular metal masterpiece that will be embellished with curtains, fans, cushioned seats and more at the fabrication unit.
On first sight, the sheer magnitude of machinery fascinates. The sounds sweep over us – clang! Bang! Drrr! Zap! Clackety-clack! Inside we are embraced by the smell of metal and oil. Technicians nod to us as they turn a knob here and a control a conveyor there.
Sreeramulu, a mechanical engineer who started his career at the ICF, remembers a time when the unit had more people than machines. But as time rolled on and technology advanced, machines helped cut down the workforce. “From 16,000, the workforce is now around 12,000. Of this 20-25 per cent are women,” he says.
A 1000-ton hydraulic press rams a sheet thatwill later be a side pillar; a laser-cutting machine sculpts metal with mechanical precision; a profile-bending machine gives shape to the roof…the metal creature being shaped before our eyes gradually grows in size.
At the shell assembly unit, the under frame, coach bottom, and bogie are made to shape the skeleton of the coach.
But all the drama happens at the fabrication unit. Several coaches, in various stages of undress, wait to be made-up.
The trademark blue curtains peep from just done-up windows; a labourer seats himself on an upper berth of a coach, his head behind a curtain of wires; two technicians are busy chattering away as they connect the electrical wiring…the men travel from one coach to the other, adding elements to what was once a lifeless metal frame.
Technician K. Prabu is testing the controls at the driver’s cabin — he scribbles something onto his notepad and nods to himself. He pats a shaft with a red button at the handle.
This structure — part of the ‘master controller’ of a train — is the single most important switch and is responsible for the train’s every movement.
“It’s called the ‘dead man release’,” explains Prabu. “The driver will hold it down to put the train in motion. If he releases it, the train will come to a stop.”
Why ‘dead man’s release’? If the driver releases the button, it means he’s in grave danger.