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Steam engines, dream machines

Illustration: Surendra

Illustration: Surendra   | Photo Credit: surendra

Those born after the 1970s have not had the chance to experience the thrills of travelling in trains pulled by steam engines. Before the arrival of the diesel engine, James Watt’s coal-fired steam locomotives ruled the roost and routes. They looked masculine; the electric locomotives today are sophisticated, relatively delicate and definitely feminine.

I remember as a boy of seven I used to stand beside steam engines with all those fascinating wheels of various diameters, beginning from small ones in the front and ending with big ones at the back under the coal tank. I watched with wonder and awe as they had their “smoke break” quietly before and after journeys. Years ago there existed a huge manually operated turntable at Tambaram near Chennai on which steam engines took U-turns. I used to go there often and watch the show from close quarters. Thanks to uncle Ramanujam who was a ticket vending clerk at Tambaram.

Railway stations looked different in the steam engine era. Their roofs were covered with a thick coat of soot. Steam engines left their puff-prints wherever they went. The tunnels were the worst-hit. One had to close the windows when the train-snake crawled through them. Passengers alighting from long-distance trains looked like sorcerers, their eyes red and their clothes covered with ash and coal dust. It took them days to shed the mobility fever which made them feel like being on a conveyor belt.

Water issues

Those days there was no packaged water. One had to carry water bottles, which were filled from taps at stations within the short time of a train’s halt. People would jump out before it came to a halt and run towards drinking water taps. Incidents of passengers missing trains while filling their bottles were many.

Trains nowadays are pulled by twin 6,000 HP electric engines and they reach their distant destinations in less time than earlier. The poor steam engines had less power. Their job was tough and they had to huff and puff all the time. In his Man-eating Panther of Yelagiri, the shikari author Kenneth Anderson aptly described the noise of a moving steam engine thus: “If she can do it I can do it, if she can do it I can do it.”

There was the Senkottah Passenger. It was the last train to leave Madras Egmore at 11.55 p.m. At which station you think it used to find itself next morning at daybreak? It was Chengelput, about 60 km away. This train used to carry cattle too.

Not for everyone

Not every Tom Dick and Harry could drive steam engines. Modern electric engines are nowadays driven by even delicate ladies. Steam engines of yesteryear required tougher guys and these tougher guys were Anglo-Indians, die-hard men. Ninety-nine per cent of steam engine drivers were from the community. On duty they would never even wink but would drink a bit to “face the heat”. The hardest aspect of their job was that they had to remain standing throughout the journey; the engines had no chairs to sit. The cabin was littered with coal. God knows how they withstood the heat of the furnace. Each time the lid was opened to feed the raging fire with coal, it felt like looking into a volcano.

The driver and his fireman just perch on the side ledge pulling the overhead string now and then for whistling to scare trespassing animals and men. They never complained. They liked their job even though it was hard. They were an asset to the Railways but now they are sidelined and are almost extinct.

I made friends with one John Joseph who drove the Ooty-Mettupalayam train in the 1980s. He took a fancy for my little niece Radha at the Mettupalayam station as we stood watching the gypsy-like engine as it braced for the uphill hauling and invited me to visit his small cottage built on a ledge at Coonoor overlooking the serpentine railway line which he used to ride along in his beloved engine.

He loved steam engines so much though driving them for three decades took a toll on his health. He was inconsolably sorry about their exit though he agreed it was inevitable. His eyes widened when he described his early days as a driver on the forested Nandyal-Guntur section.

Apart from pulling goods and passenger trains, steam engines did social service. They readily gave away the water they carried to people in the villages during summers. Mothers with babies got hot water from considerate steam engine crew. A relic of a steam engine stands at the Southern Railway headquarters in Chennai. When I pass that spot I feel like saluting it.

mr.m.r.anand@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 12:33:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/Steam-engines-dream-machines/article16979231.ece

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