Diesel traction in India - When did it all begin?

by S Shankar (with inputs from R R Bhandari)

This article was originally published by the Indian Steam Railway Society (ISRS) in its newsletter, and is reproduced here by permission, which is gratefully acknowledged. Copyright for the material here rests with the ISRS and the author(s) of the article. The ISRS is the premier organization in India engaged in preservation and efforts to promote awareness of the country's railway heritage.

This article originally appeared in the FNRM Newsletter No. 3/4, Autumn/Winter 1998.

It is something we more or less take for granted nowadays. Diesel locomotives have revolutionised the rail traffic scenario in India to such an extent that you are almost certain to spot a diesel locomotive everytime you undertake a train journey. You see diesels all the time, hauling expresses, stopping-passenger trains, freights, shunting. Not worth a second thought - they are ubiquitous.

And yet, how often has one wondered, 'when did it all start'? The tragic demise of steam from the rails has been so sudden and rapid, especially over the past decade or so that some of us have probably not even recovered fully from the initial shock and remorse!

A 100% clear picture as to where India's first diesel worked will probably never be available, as different experts opine differently on the subject.

Diesel traction in Imperial India began in 1933 with the two 350 b.h.p. Bo-Bo diesel shunting locomotives on the broad-gauge North Western Railway (NWR) and these reportedly did not meet with any great success. In the same year on Gaekwar's Baroda State Railways (GBSR), the 95 b.h.p. Armstrong Whitworth railcars did very well since they were placed in service, and were operating at a cost of approximately 2.5d. per train-mile exclusive of interest and depreciation, the trains being made up of the railcars and three light trailers. Brian Reed's book on 'Diesel and Electric Railcars' features a picture of Diesel-Electric railcar No. 103 of 1933 used on GBSR. Most of the NWR subsequently passed on to Pakistan after independence, due to which some purists hold that NWR work in this field tantamounts to being Pakistan's first dieselisation attempt! However the Kalka-Simla section of North Western Railway, which is of course a part of Independent India, also acquired in August 1933, a further diesel vehicle in form of a 95 b.h.p., Armstrong-Saurer, diesel-electric railcar for passenger service over this arduous 2'6' gauge section. This diesel-electric railcar now bearing No. 14 has been preserved at the National Rail Museum, New Delhi.

On NWR two 1300 b.h.p Armstrong- Whitworth locomotives were tried without success on the broad-gauge Karachi-Lahore mail trains, and two similar locomotives of 800 b.h.p. operated for a time on the broad gauge main line of Ceylon Government Railways. The Madras and Southern Mahratta Railways also obtained good results with six 180 b.h.p. Armstrong-Saurer oil-electric railcars, and railcars programmes were further undertaken on the NWR, East Bengal Railway, BBCIR, SIR and Burma Railways.

The other dieselisation attempts were made by the Nizam's State Railway to run diesel powered vehicles in the form of diesel railcars, put on line in 1939. A photograph of one such railcar appears in the book 'Indian Railways: 100 years' published by the Railway Board in 1953. However, further details of the Nizam's railcars are not available, nor are any of them preserved. Some of the smaller railway companies in Gujarat had also introduced diesel railcars on their lines prior to 1939. There were stray NG diesel locomotives too. One of these is represented by the 'Betty Tramways NG diesel No. 390014' (year built unknown) preserved at the National Rail Museum, New Delhi.

Many agree however that the first diesel locomotives to run in India were those introduced in 1949 in the arid regions of Saurashtra in Gujarat, to overcome a water shortage. This was probably the first serious, though meek, attempt at dieselisation in India; One of the engines from the 1949 batch is also preserved at the National Rail Museum. (The Fowler diesel built by John Fowler & Co. Leeds U.K., Makers No.4200031, Saurashtra Railway No. 203 and Western Railway No. 1004).

Dieselisation was not actively pursued after this till about 1955. In that year, twenty North British built diesels were introduced for service based at Gandhidham in Kutch region of Gujarat, again on the MG, and yet again to overcome water shortage. Initially classed DY, these engines were later reclassified as YDM1 class. Some of them still survive today and are based at Gandhidham. Many consider this to be India's first real attempt at dieselisation.

Diesel traction got off to a head start in India only in 1957-58 when the IR decided to dieselise the heavy ore and coal carrying lines of the ER and SER. WDM 1 and WDM4 engines came in, along with a small batch of WDM2 engines in fully knocked down condition and since then, there has been no looking back.

A unique feature of the early scenario in India was that important specific trains were dieselised rather than of regions or areas. This meant that although several fast and prestigious express and mail trains had been put in charge of diesel, other express and mail trains, stopping passengers and local freights were still in the domain of steam. Diesel locomotive co-existed with steam, in fact the puffing steamers outnumbered the whining diesels several to one. Newspaper headlines were common in those days about several fast trains being 'dieselised and speeded up'. The smooth diesels were something to be regarded with awe and respect, something to be associated with speed and prestige. Being diesel-hauled made that particular express very special indeed, it was guaranteed to be much faster; a cut above the rest, so to speak.

This outlook has now changed completely. In all dieselisation attempts since 1980, hordes of diesel locomotives have summarily descended upon specific areas, resulting in a total elimination of steam of that area in the process. This phenomenon has been so pronounced that even sparsely populated and far flung areas were being served by DMUs, diesel push pulls or railbuses.

The scenario is changing yet again now. Prima facie, it might appear today that the wheel has come a full circle, and that diesel traction itself might be losing its importance. Undei the IR's current electrification policy, most of the trunk lines and several of the heavily worked routes are already under the wires, which means that some of the most prestigious assignments are no longer under the purview of diesel traction.

This could be true to some extent. However, one must appreciate that electrification still accounts for under 25% of IR's total route mileage. The other 75% comes under the purview of diesel traction. Moreover, not all routes are significant and utilised enough to warrant the initial heavy capital expenditure involved in electrification, a phenomenon which will hold good even after the IR manages to implement its celebrated 'project unigauge'. Almost all shunting and merry-go-round opera- tions are under diesel traction. Diesels sometimes have to be maintained in eletrified areas as well, as was the case till recently when the superfast Vaigai Express used to be hauled by a YDM4 diesel at 100 kmph plus even in the Madras-Villupuram electrified section, as the diminutive YAM1 could only manage 80-90 kmph. The Diva - Vasai Road and Karjat - Khopoli sections were diesel worked till recently, although they were still in electric territory. There are plenty of such examples.

Steam has been eliminated almost completely. It's the diesels that will remain the dominant force on the IR's traction scenario, electrification or no electrification.