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India’s first ever “vacuum cleaner on tracks” is the result of Central Railway’s (CR) dire need for a cleaning machine which could clean up the railway tracks that get littered with dry waste, particularly plastic wrappers, paper cups and plastic bottles.

Working upon some ideas developed by Western Railway, the CR engineers at the Parel workshop, under the guidance of chief mechanical engineer A K Verma, modified an old engine so that it could carry out shunting operation and clean up the ballast tracks.

“Ballast tracks are very difficult to clean manually as the waste gets embedded in the sticky soil or the embankment on the sides. Since local trains run on the same track every three to four minutes, workers are able to clean only about 100-200m every day. Workers are given the 1-4am shift for cleaning, but their safety remains an issue as they spread themselves out on the tracks while cleaning,” Suneet Sharma, Chief Workshop Manager, Parel, told Clean India Journal.

Hence, the CR engineers initially worked on a trolley mounted with an exhaust moving on the tracks. However, the trolley didn’t turn out to be very feasible because five to six people were needed to push the heavy equipment the CR engineers were planning to use. An equipment like a domestic or industrial vacuum cleaner would be ineffective on the stubborn dirt. A vacuum with a much greater capacity in the range of 1500m3/hr was needed. “Besides, to run the trolley mounted vacuum, we would require a generator, which is not feasible. To mount all this on a trolley and run it on the track was becoming labour intensive.”

The CR General Manager, Kul Bhushan, came up with the idea of modifying an engine into a trash can which could pick up all the garbage as it chugged along the tracks. “Our GM came to the Parel workshop in early December, along with our chief mechanical engineer and asked us to develop a garbage disposal system on wheels. We took a heavy duty vacuum exhauster and mounted it on the engine. We customised the locomotive by replacing the engine exhauster with a larger one. A three-stage filtration system and a silencer were installed. It took us little less than a month to develop the machine. We tried it first in our workshop and found the results encouraging. The machine was able to pick up the trash. The suction was good and the filters were working properly,” explained Sharma.

&Nbsp;Elaborating on the features of the machine, Sharma added, “The important thing is not just picking up trash but also continuous operation, so that the filters do not get jammed. There is a hydraulic cylinder to remove trash. It’s a slanting type of arrangement, so a worker just has to stand with a garbage bag and after the work is done, the valve opens and the trash slides down. The trash containing bag is then taken and put in the wagon.” The CR officials first tested this cleaner-on-wheels on some of the dirtiest stretches on the central line – between Wadala and Guru Teg Bahadur Nagar stations. “The first night itself, we collected 27 bags (300-400kg) in four hours at Wadala station. The weight may not be too much, since papers and plastics don’t weigh much, but the volume was big.”

Though the machine worked well for the first three days, it later started to suck small stones along with the mud and litter. “That called for some improvements in design. We changed the filters and also the size. The design of the plates was modified. We improved on the swiveling mechanism whereby it could be hung to reduce labour fatigue. Workers were trained on what needs to be picked up and how to hold the hose – the angle, the direction and the distance from the waste,” said Sharma.

“Currently only one such “vacuum cleaner on tracks” is in operation. The CR officials want to observe the machine over a period of time before developing more. The machine costs approximately `18-20 lakhs. Although it is expensive, the machine can clean the entire Wadala area of 400-500m in four to five hours whereas manual cleaning would take 15-20 days,” added Sharma.

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