The Romance of Steam

by Joydeep Dutta

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 ISRS Newsletter No. 2/3, Summer/Autumn 2000.

I am writing this article at the crucial juncture when the steam railway preservation movement has started to gain momentum in India. Fairy Queen, the oldest working steam locomotives in the world had already completed three successful seasons since its resurrection from a dead museum exhibit to full working order in 1997. Indian Steam Railway Society (ISRS), the first ever and the only society in India of its kind has been formed due to efforts of dedicated steam enthusiasts and it has made giant strides in the first few months since its inception bringing the Indian steam railway enthusiasts on a common platform. Another happy news is the encryption of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway by UNESCO as a 'World Heritage Site' and UNESCO has regarded the octogenarian B class steam locomotives that have worked the traffic on this line for most of its life as one of the most unique features of this railway. The 100 years of the Doon Valley railway were recently celebrated at Dehradoon station recently amidst fanfare and on this special occasion, a special WP steam locomotive hauled train was run for Minister of Railways who presided over the function.

All these point towards the fact that the steam locomotives still remain at the centrestage of attraction for the railway enthusiasts and the common man alike.

But this fascination with steam is not new. In fact it began with the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, the first public railway in England in 1925. Roy Fuller describes this event through the following verse:

"Stephenson on the sparkling iron road............
Chimney hatted and rock-coated-drives
His locomotive in the Lydian mode
Of Opus 132 may actually be
In the course of making. At twelve miles an hour
The century rushes to futurity
Whose art will be mankind destroying power?"

From the very inception steam locomotives became the ultimate symbol of man's control over nature. From the "Locomotion" of 1825 or the "Rocket" of 1829 and thereafter to the famous "Mallard" of the 1930, the steam locomotives transformed the world and influenced the society as no other means of transportation has ever done. In fact the steam locomotive was the most integral part in the nineteenth century's collective imagination. No country, no statesmen, no businessman, no political scientist, it seems was without his own locomotive vision. The locomotives liberated people's imagination.

The steam locomotive was the most human machine ever designed. It has a personality of own. Unlike the modern diesel and electric locomotive, the working parts of the steam locomotive were visible to the beholder and this was one of the single most important common feature in attracting both amateurs and connoisseurs alike. It was Walt Whitman who in his all-embracing 'Ode to a Locomotive in winter' provided the most complete set of the outsider's response to the great machine.

"Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel,
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods,
Gyrating, shuttling at thy sides...............
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves,
The tremulous twinkle of thy wheels"

Many view the steam locomotive to a human being. The exhaust from its cylinder is its breath, the firebox its heart, the connecting road and pistons are its limbs and so on.

The romantic appeal of the steam locomotive is incomplete without any mention about those independent minded aristocrats of the railroad - the engine drivers. The locomotive cab has always been a center of attention for the enthusiasts and steam loco drivers have always been considered as the king of the railroad whom every adolescent boy has revered in his childhood. During the Golden Age of railways there was hardly any young boy in England who did not want to become an engine driver. The public's fascination with railroading in the 19th century elevated the driver to a status of a folk hero and it was heightened by the American description of 'Engineer'. Ballads and legends, especially in America, glorified this courageous man who dared bad weather, damaged tracks and mechanical failures to bring his train in safely and on time.

"Come all you rounders, I want you to hear
The story told of a brave engineer................
Who on his trip to the 'Promised Land'
Cllmbed into the cab with orders in his hand,
Vowing he would run her till she leaves the rail
Or make it on time with the south bound mail"

So begins the immortal ballad of Casey Jones, an American steam locomotive driver who died in one of the most legendary wreck in railway history. Casey Jones had made even in his lifetime a legendary reputation for himself. Controllers regarded him as a fast roller, a runner whom they could depend upon. Casey was disciplined nine times for breaking the rulebook!

By 1900, at the age of 36, he had worked upto the Illinois Central Railroads crack express running between Chicago and New Orleans. His stint was between Canton, Mississippi and Memphis. On the night of April29, having finished his northbound run, he was asked to replace a sick engineer on the southbound run. He agreed if he was given his regular engine, a 4-6-0 No 382. The train was 95 minutes late and Casey along with his fireman Simm Webb set out for the 188 miles run to canton. They did the first 50 miles in less than 47 minutes.

"...and all the switchmen knew by the engine's moans,
That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones."

"Jones had hollered to me over the boiler head", Webb recounted many years later: "Oh! Simm, the Old girl has got her high-heeled slippers on tonight. We ought to pass Way on time." That was the last thing he ever said. A freight train that should have cleared the tracks at Vaughan, 14, miles short of Canton, was held up on its siding by the malfunctioning of yet another train further up ahead and several wagons were still on the main line. Suddenly Simm saw two big red lights and yelled: "We are gonna hit something." He heard Casey apply the brakes as he himself jumped to safety. When he came to the station half an hour later he found No.382 lying demolished in the wreckage of three freight cars and Casey Jones was dead. Casey Jones was the only one casualty but more importantly, true to his post, was only two minutes late at Vaughan and would have surely made it on time with the southbound mail.

Though I sincerely believe that the Indian loco men have also performed such heroic driving feats but it is unfortunate that such ballads and songs were not written about them. While I was at Kharagpur as a student of the Indian Institute of Technology, I had an opportunity to make friends with several railway men of Kharagpur. One of them, M S Narayana, currently a diesel driver became a very close friend. Whenever I used to meet him, he recounted the thrill of working as a fireman on the leading WP locomotive of the Puri Express along the East Coast route between Kharagpur and Khurda Road. Incidentally, the Puri Express was a heavily loaded train by the steam age standards, having more than 18 coaches and two WPs were required to haul it.

Narayana recalls that his driver was called "Speed King " since he had created a fantastic punctuality record. Though the driver's had much more importance and were respected more than the fireman in the railway hierarchy as well as by public, Narayana says he used to enjoy his job as a fireman. Many loco crewmen believe that firing remains the toughest footplate job. Mr. Halder of New Jalpaiguri, another wonderful railway friend says that locomotive firing is a form of dance. He says that it is an art to balance oneself while firing the locomotive when it is negotiating a curve at speed.

Yet another ex-firemen at Kharagpur, DV. Rao also recalled his thrill of working as fireman on the East Coast Route. While approaching a station as the driver called out "Distant Green" Rao would put in a few quick shovels of coal in the firebox. And by the time the driver called out "Home Double" Rao had already closed the firebox and the train would thunder across the station without any smoke. It must have been a wonderful sight!

Many of us as child have lain awake on the berth throughout the night to listen to the hypnotic beats of the steam locomotive. But we had never thought of those loco men whose hard labour and skill lay behind our enjoyment. I feel that the time has come when the steam locomotives and the railway men are given the due recognition. And I am sure that the Indian Steam Railway Society will live upto this expectation. Let me end by sharing a strange feeling I have whenever I stand in from of the prototype WP/P 7200 locomotive preserved at the National Rail Museum. I feel that the WP is not a deceased monarch but a dethroned emperor waiting to return to its subjects in hour of need!