Our tryst with steam

by Sarosh B Mehta and Viraf Mulla

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. 5, Spring 1999.

It was quite some time since we had last undertaken a trip to satiate our thirst for steam in action. In fact, our last but one trip that had taken us to Saharanpur was a complete no-no as far as steam was concerned. The last of the steam locomotive was scrapped on September 01 1994, a bare fortnight before our arrival in New Delhi. The sight of the scrapped WPs and WGs at Saharanpur Loco Shed was a truly tragic sight for steam lovers like us.

We were determined to overcome our dejection of that particular trip and hence January 13,1995 saw us off to Ahmedabad. We reached Ahmedabad on a cold January 14 morning at 0545 Hrs, our ears and eyes desperately vying for the sound and sight of steam. We dashed to the metre gauge section of the st~tion. As we were on the foot overbridge, the telltale aroma' of a steam coo assailed our nostrils. Our senses heightened, we increased our speed and at that very instant we heard the sound of escaping steam. "There she blows!" Viraf exclaimed. We rushed down to the platform and drank in the beautiful sight of a YG breathing smoke and steam with its headlight on. No sight is more regal than that of a steam loco shrouded in smoke and steam on a cold winter morning. Unfortunately, amateur photographers that we are, we could not record the scene on celluloid. We bided our time, however, and as the day wore on we saw and photographed quite a few YPs and YGs based at the Sabarmati / Yari Road Loco Shed. We were thrilled to be on board a steam loco No. 3703 for a while, hitchhiking our way to Yari Road. It was heavenly being enshrouded by steam, coal and grease! The crew of three was very helpful and not only explained the working of a steam loco in detail also allowed us to have a look through the cab window and a couple of hoots to boot. At Yari Road we visited the loco shed where we met the shed foreman, who along with his deputy gave us some useful details on the number of locos stationed there and also the working of the shed. We were taken around the shed where we saw quite a few locos being coaled and watered. The photos that we took over there are very interesting and one of them was retained by the WR for their archives. A rare honour indeed! This particular trip to Ahmedabad shall always be etched in our memory. After this trip we were uneasy for a long time and itched to take up a journey on steam anywhere in India.

At the fag end of 1995 we planned a trip to Udaipur. On February 17, 1996, we left Bombay for Udaipur via Ahmedabad. Our Ahmedabad - Udaipur train (86 Passenger) chugged out of the station at 0730 Hrs hauled by YP 2813. Our coach was the first one and that was very beneficial to us as we could stand in the doorway (coal, smoke, come whatever may!) and exhilarate at the sight of the graceful 1000 in motion. After two hours of steaming through beautiful and green countryside we reached the first major station that was Himmatnagar. We alighted and went toward the loco to have a chat with the crew. The day wore on and the heat also increased though it was quite bearable as we were continually inching up the foothills of the Aravali Range. In order to overcome gradients the loco was reasonably thrashed on the downhill slopes to gain the maximum speed possible. The countryside also kept varying as is the wont of a semi-arid land, green at times giving way to dry and arid craggy landscape. Our fellow passengers also kept changing, as they were mostly short haul commuters. Some of them kept up a running commentary on the virtues of Rajasthan explaining that the state has a beauty and attraction of its own, of which the desert and its people are an important part.

It was at exactly 1145 Hrs that we steamed into the state of Rajasthan, the first station being Jagabor. As we were travelling by a passenger train, the halts were many and this provided us with a fine aspect of the Rajasthani way of life. Tribals engaged in selling firewood boarded the train (without the courtesy of a ticket, of course) for very short hauls sometimes detraining at the very next station or in between stations too! The countryside was filled with large areas of greenery mixed with an equal amount of dry land as well. It being a hilly terrain (Aravali Ranges), we could see at quite some distance, the ruins of a fort or a palace belonging to some erstwhile princely families. In that respect, when we were in the vicinity of Dungarpur.

Who says steam buffs have only coal and water in their brains? We have gathered such a lot of other useful information that has nothing to do with the railways. We had also befriended our loco crew by then and we were promised foot-plating from Zawar onwards as the main Ghat section begins from there. Fate, however, had other ideas for us because no sooner had we left the station of Padla (one stop before Zawar) our train came to a gradual halt on a curve. We thought maybe the signal (approach) was not clear, but as time elapsed we grew anxious and so leaned out of the doorway to see fellow passengers pouring out of the train and walking towards the loco where a small crowd had gathered. First Viraf and then I jumped out to find out what was brewing. Contrarily, the brew was getting cold, our loco had busted some steam pipes just above the firebox and we were losing pressure. For all practical purposes we were landed with a dead loco. What a shame! The guard of our train immediately set-up his radio apparatus by linking it with the telephone wires running alongside the tracks. He explained the situation at length to the authorities at Udaipur and requested for any motive power from nearby stations. Well, that was that. Now, what do we do? We decided to do a little scouting on our own. Going alongwith the tracks ahead of our now stalled train we saw a small culvert to the left of which were fields through which ran a stream.

Resting on the buttresses of the Railway Bridge over the culvert we were debating on the chances of reaching Udaipur City before nightfall. This interlude gave us time to observe the peculiarities of this branch line. At all the stations there were only home signals and no starter signals, this was attributed to the fact that all along the route the speed limit was 40 kmph. The station layout was also very simple - one main platform with two loops. The only exception being Himmatnagar station as it is a junction. At Himmatnagar, there were more than two loops resulting in multiple sidings that could also hold long freight trains. We also saw a circular indenture in the earth as we were entering the main platform indicating that at one time a turntable was in use here. At all places we noticed that ballasting of the tracks was of the highest caliber. Kudos to the Indian Railways for maintaining the track so well in such difficult terrain! Suddenly in the midst of our musings we were jolted back to the present by the sound of a dynamite blast. The relief loco's here! we exclaimed simultaneously. Sorry for failing to mention earlier but we would like to take you back to the moment when the guard had asked for a relief loco. Our crew had placed detonator caps on the rails behind our train where there was a sharp curve thus hiding our train from view to whoever could be coming from the rear. Snap! Please come back to the present. So the sound that we heard was the result of the relief loco passing over a dynamite cap. We immediately set off for the rear with our cameras on the ready. Quite a few of our fellow passengers that also included some foreign railbuffs were already gathered over there and we had to find a suitable spot for photographing the event. About 50 metres or so behind our train there were two-rock out-cropping saddling the track and we wanted to shoot the loco while it was entering and leaving the out-cropping.

The loco, it was a diesel as it turned out, finally came into view and we prepared ourselves for the shoot. Fortunately for us, it had reduced its speed to a crawl and hence we could get a couple of good shots as we had desired. Finally the loco was connected to the rear of the train and we all rushed to get into our respective coaches. I happened to glance at my watch an the time was 1750 Hrs. We had spent two full hours at the spot. Well, we wer rolling again but with a difference. There was no music now, the dead steam loco only made a clanking noise with no steam and smoke in accompaniment. Th empty powerless motion of the connecting rods made our hearts heavy. We looked at the diesel at the rear of the train it seemed as if it was doing this task pushing the train quite effortlessly! The external movement was that of the wheel only and the apt phrase box on wheels' coined for diesel locos came to our mind. When we arrived at Zawar, it was nearly dusk. We got down for tea and refreshments and then we saw that the steam loco was about to be detached an put into a siding. At around 1900 Hrs we left Zawar pulled by a diesel YDM No.6478 to cover the final leg of the journey that had started nearly twelve hour earlier. The night was fast descending on the stars and us and the moon was already showing presence. We were now onto the main ghat section where the gradient was 1 in 50 but the diesel performed this task effortlessly, a reminder modern technology that has accepted the challenge of overcoming all hurdles in its path. Time went on, the darkness was complete and the full glory of the open night sky was unfolded above us. The mercury had come down and the wind was fresh in our faces as we leaned out of the carriage doorway to look up at the canopy of stars, bright and dim, twinkling in the clear, unpolluted night sky with quarter moon to boot. It was pure unadulterated magic!

At 1940 hrs we became aware of a glow on the distant horizon was indicating that we were approaching our destination. Our first view of Udaipur City was lights, lights and lights. There were single and double-storied buildings sprawling over a large area signifying that there is no dearth of space. We detrained at 2015 hrs, full three hours behind the scheduled time. Our first glimpse of the station evoked an exclamation because the main platform and the other platforms are at a lower level as compared to the main building itself. To save our time we decided to stay at one of the retiring rooms on the station building itself. After a sumptuous Rajasthani style dinner we just managed to get back to our room and dozed off recollecting memories of an eventful day.