A Paean to the Sooty Steam Engine

Published: 10th June 2014 02:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th June 2014 12:38 AM   |  A+A-

One can scarcely find a person who has not been fascinated by a steam engine pulling a long line of carriages speeding by. This interest may have waned a little bit as steam engines have been replaced by diesel engines, which to me, always seems very impersonal and indifferent. Not so the steam engines which ruled the Indian tracks for close to 100 years.

The first journey I undertook by train was way back in 1962. The travel was for about 230km and the running time nearly seven hours. I travelled second class. I could see the engine through the window bars—a black stallion that spewed black smoke and was raring to go. A long thin whistle, the engine cranked and creaked and we were off. There was the familiar “chug chug” of the engine and slowly the train gathered speed. I kept my face glued to the window and was soon rewarded by soot in my eye. I retreated and my grandmother deftly removed the offending particles. The train was an hour late and we trundled into our destination station after eight hours or so—tired, hungry, and my hair and clothes covered in soot. But I never felt happier and excited for the journey was like a trip to the moon.

The train from Trivandrum to Madras crossed the Western Ghats. The tracks curved, passed through tunnels and ascended at many places. A second engine was connected at the rear of the train for support. The two-engine train fascinated me and I craned my neck to get a glimpse of both engines as they puffed and pushed the train up the steep slopes. The engines looked almost human as they goaded the train; like guardians protecting their family through difficult times. One could see the best scenery—the mountain peaks of the Western Ghats, the greenery and the cool breeze. The bridges over chasms built by British engineers were a marvel; it was slightly unnerving to pass over them—the train shaking and swerving as it traversed them slowly but with quiet assurance. These places were a favourite with film-makers as numerous “car chases” had been filmed nearby.

But alas! Now, cold, tall, imperious diesel engines with raucous sirens that blast one’s eardrums dominate the scene. They seem unapproachable as they stand in front of 22-carriage trains eyeing the scene disdainfully. To me they are inhuman; they may be efficient as they clock speeds of 100km per hour, unlike their predecessors. There are electric engines also that have their long claw hooked into an overhead power line. These engines are clean, no smoke or soot and work like robots. But the charm has gone.

Recently while traveling, I saw some discarded steam engines at a station. They were standing forlorn, like cattle awaiting the butcher’s axe. How they must have ruled the tracks once! I almost shed a bitter tear. I went to the doorway and without anyone noticing saluted them.

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