Inside Shoes, Take a Break

Jon Flanders 72763.2240 at
Mon Sep 30 13:31:34 MDT 1996

Inside Brake Shoes

   Lets take our list members by the hand and take them on a tour of the
nether world of a diesel shop-rat. We can leave off debating the future of
socialism for a moment can't we? Even under the proletarian dictatorship,
locomotive brake shoes will have to be changed, if we want our food and
clothing to stop at the right place.

   So down we go, below the platform which runs along the catwalk of the
engine. We are not going to work on the powerplant right now. We have some
brake shoes to change. The worst kind, the dreaded inside shoes, dreamed up by
GE engineers with a malevolent hatred for railroad machinists.

  These 30 pound steel shoes are mounted on a rusty rigging that is hell to
move, a flimsy design that is easily bent. But the detail that seperates the
sheep from the goats is the shoe that is behind the truck equalizer, which can
only be reached by ducking under the rail, raised about 3 feet above a pit
between the tracks that drops down another foot.

  In this trench, which you must bend at the waist to walk through, the
underbelly of the locomotive can be accessed. Its dark, dank and smells of
grease and oil. The traction motors are crusted with dirt. You are going to
get good and dirty before this job is finished.

  By squeezing up against the rail and the inside of the equalizer, you can
just fit your body within reach of the brake shoe, whose two foot arc is
mounted on a brake head that swings from the rigging. You are behind and below
the brake head, shoe and wheel, barely visible in the gloom of the pit. With a
flashlight, you can make out the top of the key, another, slender arc, that
holds the shoe to the wheel. You must pull this out, by reaching as high as
you can, your head mashed against the traction motor, working by feel. If the
key sticks, use a big bolt to bang its bottom end, that might loosen it up.
Your arm barely fits between the equalizer and the traction motor. God help
you if the engine should ever move while you are in this position. A machinist
got his arm torn off in my shop when this happened to him.

  It is always a good joke, the first time someone tries to do this operation.
I remember my partner and another machinist laughing and joking outside the
pit, the first time I tried to pull the key. After 15 minutes of hopeless
straining on my part, they took pity on me and helped me out. As I stood
panting, covered with grease and dirt, I thought seriously about quitting this
godforsaken job. There are no brake shoes in well-lit air conditioned offices,
where the worst injury to be feared might be a nasty paper cut.

   A brake shoe dropped on your hand, mashing it on the rail, is the commonest
accident associated with these inside shoes. It happened to me, when I was 3
months on the job, as green as the grass. I tried to mount the new shoe in the
brake head. It was loose, I missed the loop on the shoe with the key when I
slid it back in. I shook the shoe, it came free and reflexively I tried to
grab it. Big mistake. Thirty pounds of rusty steel dropped a foot and smashed
my right index finger on the rail. When I pulled off my cotton gloves, I found
a bloody pulp where my fingertip had been.

   At the hospital, the plastic surgeon pulled off my fingernail and sewed me
up. Luckily, the shoe had not completely severed the fingertip. It healed, and
now its just a bit numb, which makes it hard to pick up change at the

   Back to the job at hand. After you pull the key, the shoe can be pried out
with a brake shoe bar or the brake key itself. Stand back, as the shoe bounces
off the rail and drops to the floor.Then grab a new shoe, swing it up to the
rail, flip it upright and extending your arms out from your body, raise it in
between the brake head and the wheel. Be careful not to let it topple
sideways. The shoe slides in place. Your partner, working outside the engine,
pulls the rigging, slamming the shoe against the wheel. Now, working by feel,
find the one inch hole between the shoe and the head. You can just reach it by
standing on tiptoe. Holding the key at the very bottom, start it in the hole
and drop it in. If all goes well, it will fall in place, and the new shoe is

  Congratulations. You have just changed an inside shoe. There are seven more
to do on this locomotive.

   Now back to the debate. Stalin, Trotsky, Malecki and the cockroaches. Fire
at will.

 Best, Jon Flanders

  E-mail from: Jonathan E. Flanders, 30-Sep-1996

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