Train of thought

Announcements about railway vacancies appeared frequently in The Mail, an evening newspaper published in Madras and now defunct. If there were ten posts to be filled, seven would be reserved for Anglo-Indians. The Anglos justified the trust reposed in their ability. The Madras Presidency especially had many Anglo-Indian drivers who stayed at their posts in times of trouble, with scant regard for their own safety. In 1946, when I joined the Madras and South Mahratta (MSM) Railways as an ‘A’ Grade Apprentice, an engine driver named Carr made headlines for his selflessness.

When Carr pulled the W-class engine Ashoka out of the Basin Bridge loco shed, he was his usual cheerful self. Powering the Calcutta Mail, Ashoka took the eastern route. As the Mail was not booked to stop at Ongole, Carr had to read the signal, take the appropriate line and keep driving. But the fast-moving Mail came to an ear-splitting halt – but not before ramming a stationary goods train. The signaller had lowered the loop line (where the goods train stood) instead of the main line!

If not for Carr’s last-ditch effort to save passengers’ lives, the accident would have gone down as one of the worst in Railway history. Moments before the collision, he hollered to his first fireman Magee to jump to safety. As he did as he was told, Magee lived to tell the tale. Buried neck-deep in coal, the second fireman also survived. At the wheel till the last moment, Carr received the full weight of the engine on his stomach.

When top MSM officials, accompanied by a big entourage, reached the accident site, Carr was in the throes of death. As he could not be extricated from the mangled mess, Carr watched his wife and children tearfully kiss him goodbye.

Another fateful accident in Madras Presidency forced the authorities to script a monumental law that is still in currency. It occurred in 1901 and involved the Postal Express, a passenger train with two of its bogies carrying postal material. The Express left Madras for Poona (via Andhra) with a driver and two firemen who shared a surname – MacFarlene. Not a coincidence, the driver was the father and the other two, his sons. Heavy rains on the Cuddapah-Guntakal line made the journey highly precarious and the train was trotting at five miles an hour. At Mangapatnam, the station master gave the all clear, but advised the driver (Johnson MacFarlene) to travel dead slow and stop if he was not sure of what lay ahead. But the danger ahead was more than the driver’s prudence can handle — a bridge running over a water body had got washed away and MacFarlene and his two sons met a watery grave. Following this accident, a law was passed to prevent close kin working together on the same train.

Life on a steam loco’s engine cabin was far from rosy. Forget the life-threatening situations along the way, the daily routine alone was a great trial of body and spirit. To keep the train going, the team had to engage in hard manual labour for long hours. The firemen had to constantly shovel coal into the firebox, which, at 180 degrees Fahrenheit, was an inferno.

To alleviate the hardship, Anglo-Indian railwaymen made up jokes that were a common stress-buster for employees of all the private railways across the Madras Presidency — the MSM, headquartered at Royapuram; the South Indian Railways (SIR), headquartered at Egmore; the Mysore State Railways and the Nizam State Railways (these railways were merged to form the Southern Railways in 1951).

While the Anglo-Indian was essentially a happy-go-lucky soul, he took his role as a railwayman seriously. Being in the Railways was a matter of pride. This attitude was best reflected in the way Anglo-Indian workers spruced up the locomotives. Some bought Brasso out of their pocket to burnish the engines. These inanimate machines were treated like royalty.

I fell in love with the XB224-class Queen Mary, when I first saw her at the Basin Bridge loco shed. When I first worked the locomotive, my joy knew no bounds. The Queen Mary came in 1927 to serve India for 20 years, but was in service for 50 years. In 1978, three engineers came from Britain to take her back to her homeland. The Queen belonged here. And she was dear to our hearts. When she left, I cried like a baby.

NOEL ANTHONY NETO. Born in 1927, Noel (‘Bully’ to his friends) was a Superfast Special ‘A’ Grade Driver. His career began in 1946, at the Royapuram-based Madras & South Mahratta Railways (MSM) as an ‘A’ Grade Apprentice. After MSM merged into Southern Railways, he rose to the highest position an engine driver can aspire to. He has had the honour of working the historic locomotive Queen Mary on numerous occasions.


When an Anglo-Indian official questioned a ticket collector caught taking a bribe, the latter lost the ability to frame sentences. This is all he managed to say: “Please be kind to me, sir! I am a child of many fathers!”


For the Anglo-Indians, being in the Railways was a matter of pride. Some bought Brasso out of their pocket to burnish the engines

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 4:20:54 PM |

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