A kid from the wool country could always get a job in a shearing shed and it's where I started earning a pay packet but the work was intermittent, the cook was slobbery and the food was definitely not mum's home cooking.
My dad had been working for what was then the New South Wales Government Railway ever since I was born. Dad grew up on a dairy where his father used steam to clean his cream cans and there wasn't a thing dad didn't know about how steam worked but it wasn't what I wanted. Instead, I joined the Traffic Branch and became a station assistant in uniform.
I still lived at home then and was often in deep conversations with dad about the railway and engines, carriages, braking systems, signals and what they meant, electrification, safety around shunting and on we would go. One of the most important lessons he ever gave me concerned the Westinghouse braking system which was consistent on trains throughout NSW and this lesson came when I decided, as part of my long-term goal, to become a shunter.
A shunter is the person who works in the train yards coupling and uncoupling engines and carriages, separating goods wagons into their various areas for loading or unloading and then the most satisfying job of all, making up a full train to go out on the main line to its destination.
What separated me from my contemporaries was my knowledge of trains from childhood and my dad's coaching for all those years but in particular, my knowledge of the Westinghouse braking system.
It was pretty normal to have goods (freight) trains weighing about 1200 tonnes and when they reach normal travelling speed of around 100k/h (65 mph), they can take several kilometres to stop.Can you just imagine the phenomenal speed to weight ratio?
The Westinghouse Braking System
When the NSW Government Railways adopted the Westinghouse system it caused a lot of interest as it was exactly opposite to what most other railways around the world were using at the time.
It was compressed air, just as they all were, but the Westinghouse system didn't apply the brakes by increasing pressure, the brakes, were applied by releasing the pressure. This was very safe. If the compressor were to break-down, the brakes would start to apply as soon as the air pressure fell.
The driver controls the braking by gradually releasing the air pressure in normal circumstances or letting it all go in emergencies. It was originally steam trains, then diesel and now, of course, on the electric train system – they all work the same.
In other systems, should the compressors fail, the only way to stop a train was by manual handbrakes on the engine and most carriages which is not easy by any means.In time, most railways throughout the world adopted the Westinghouse system or something similar as it proved to be so safe.
It's why train travel is so safe
In order for the braking system to be totally effective, every carriage or goods truck had to be coupled with an airline, right to the back which, in my day, was a guards van.Should an air hose coupling break between carriages or trucks (the coupling was intentionally the weakest point), the train would slowly creep to a stop and a spare hose was needed.
In those days, all engines carried spares and it was usually the fireman's job to replace the problem coupling.A leak in an air hose posed the same problem, as the air escaped, the brakes came on.
The driver's experience with the braking system and with compressor settings was a necessity. No-one became a driver until they'd had years of experience as the fireman or what they now call, the observer. In order for the train to keep going, all the air couplings must stay together and not break or leak, lest the whole train stops. Should a coupling break and a carriage separates, the airline coupling breaks and the train stops. It can't be any safer.
The Body of Christ
Do couplings break in our fellowship in the Body of Christ? Of course they do and many of us bear witness to these breaks.Christ is our guide and mentor, he keeps us on track while ever we are committed to Him as a Body but when the coupling breaks the whole system can come to a grinding halt.
Jesus is our 'compressed air' and driver. While ever He's powering us, all is fine. He has the knowledge and experience to keep our 'train' moving forward.Is there a problem? It's not the driver or the compressed air to blame, perhaps we need to reassess our timetable and put it back in the hands of the driver.
John Skinner served in Vietnam, then the Tasmanian Police before taking up the position of CEO of the Australian Rough Riders Association (professional rodeo in Warwick Qld). Before retirement to his farm, he was a photo-journalist for 25 years. He is married with three married adult children and grand children.
John Skinner's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/john-skinner.html