The last gasp for India's age of steam: Drivers mourn locomotives that united a nation

MOHAN SINGH was lighting up the Desert Queen. It had taken nearly four hours. The rusty puffs from the locomotive would soon turn ash-white, and the Desert Queen would be ready to roll, ferrying rich tourists to Rajasthan palaces. He leaned out to admire the gleaming locomotive, its shining brass and copper piping, its painted lions and stars.

'It's pitiful,' said Mr Singh, 56, as he pulled the long steel bow of the regulator, bringing up a whoosh of steam from the Desert Queen's giant wheels. 'Look at the other engines. Disgrace.' He gestured at the dozen steam locomotives in the Jaipur shed: sooty, exhausted carcasses of iron. 'Before, every engine was as beautiful as the Desert Queen. A driver and his engine were partners for 20 years, and his own money he would spend on dressing it up.'

Today, there is no point in prettying the locomotives. The age of steam engines is ending in India. Within six months, the last whistle will blow on the 175 steam locomotives still working the Western Railway, which, throughout the past century, has chugged across the Great Indian Desert and beyond. By 1996, all of India's remaining steam trains will be replaced by diesel ones, which cost less to maintain and are faster and more muscular.

Mr Singh, like the old steam locomotives he drives, is due to retire soon. His arms and back still ache from all the years he worked as a fireman. To cover 120 miles through the scrub deserts and parched hills of Rajasthan, he and the other fireman had to shovel six tonnes of coal. In summer, the temperature might reach 50 degrees - and by the glowing mouth of the boiler it was hotter still. 'The young people don't want to do this job now,' he said with regret in his voice. 'They're too soft.'

When an engine driver retires, he is garlanded with flowers, lifted on to a horse and led home in a festive procession by his workmates. But no ceremony exists when a steam engine reaches the end of the line after 40 years on the tracks. A few can prolong their working life in the shunting yards or at the huge Ajmer railway workshop for steam engines. The locomotives are sold for scrap, at around pounds 4,000 each. But any enthusiast thinking of bringing one back to the United Kingdom would find it an ordeal: an Indian steam locomotive weighs around 80 tonnes.

My first encounter with one occurred a few years ago at a level crossing at 3am, on a road somewhere in the middle of India. Steam and sound exploded from everywhere; it was like a boiling tea kettle skidding across the kitchen floor. The locomotive's whistle had a mesmeric musicality which cast a spell of silence over cars, insects and people. In India, this is no small feat. The steam train's rhythm was different, too, as intricate as that of a tabla drummer. Unfortunately, that train speeding by at 3am was one I had hoped to catch.

Riding in a locomotive outside Ajmer, a lake city surrounded by craggy hills, I asked the driver, Mahi Pal, if he liked steam engines better than diesel ones. 'With steam locos you get the feeling of power in your hand,' he said, adding with a grin: 'You can also brew tea.'

For four generations, Mr Pal's family have toiled on steam engines at the Ajmer railway colony, a huge city-within- a-city where giant sheds and foundries tower over schools, a hospital and a tidy row of garden huts. It has been a good life for the workers. The colony is insulated from the religious and caste suspicions sweeping India today. When the British set it up in the late 1870s, they hired Muslims, Hindus and Christians, giving the better jobs to the Anglo-Indians. There are many among Ajmer's 9,000 railwaymen whose links to steam trains stretch back as far as Mr Pal's. They are all sorry to see the locomotives go.

In the ancient repair shed, where mammoth cranes thunder overhead in the blackness like prehistoric flying reptiles, a foreman, Bhag Chand, explained: 'These are the engines that our grandfathers and fathers worked on. If they go, then the connection is finished.'

India's sense of identity, of nation, was forged largely by the steam engine. In a country as wide as the distance between London and Moscow and as long as that between Helsinki and Crete, with 870 million people speaking a dozen distinct languages and hundreds of dialects, the railway has united India far more than any conquering army. Since the first steam locomotive began the 20 mile run between Bombay and Thane on 16 April 1853, India has been woven together by hundreds of thousands of miles of track. Seen for the first time by farmers in their fields, the steam locomotive was often mistaken for a hissing, living creature. Now, Indian Railways say they cater for nearly 4,000 million passenger journeys every year, and more than 100,000 potters earn their living just by making throw-away clay tea cups for passengers' chai.

Even today, many British train enthusiasts make pilgrimages to India to ride on the old steam engines. In colonial times, Ajmer and Jamalpur workshops manufactured more than 500 broad and narrow gauge steam locomotives between 1895 and 1920. But in the post-war depression, engine- building was switched back to the UK to give jobs to Britons.

After independence in 1947, India began building its own steam engines at Chittaranjan. More than 3,000 locomotives were hammered together before the last one rolled out of the Chittaranjan shed in 1970. Its name, Anthim Sitara - 'Last Star' - paid homage to the Evening Star, the final British steam engine, built in 1960 at Swindon.

Indian Railways seldom sacks its workers, so the steam engine workers in Ajmer and Chittaranjan will be given other jobs. Meanwhile, the debate between steam and diesel puffs ahead. Steam engines may be slower and more puny than diesel ones, but they are safer. Out of every 100 accidents on Indian railways, only two involve steam trains. Diesel drivers are more likely to fall asleep or get drunk, while steam drivers are on their feet, adjusting gauges, torquing gears and releasing pressure through the long, S-bend regulator.

But driver Mohan Singh thinks there is another reason: 'Maybe 20 men are sharing one diesel engine, changing always. Useless to dress it up. But with steam locos, one man spends maybe his life with the same engine. He cares. He feels like he is owning it.'

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer is recr...

Langley James : IT Support, Bradford £16k - £22k

£16000 - £22000 per annum + Benefits: Langley James : IT Support, Bradford £16...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager / Invoice Finance £75k OTE

£40000 - £50000 per annum + £75,000 OTE Car+Mobile : h2 Recruit Ltd: Business ...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager-Managed Services-£80,000 OTE

£45000 - £80000 per annum + £80,000 OTE + Car,benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Busine...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital