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Steam Locomotives of India~ the complete site on Indian steam

 

Wankaner - the last bastion
Photographs and content - Dileep Prakash
Worldwide railway systems are retaining and reviving some of the steam locos. India, however, is still realising the beauty of steam. India has discontinued, rather dieselised, most of the sections running on steam in the 1990's. The Indian Railways have recently woken up to the charm of the steam locomotive. The last bastion of steam was the Wankaner section of Western Railway.
Steam had been an integral part of childhood. From Ajmer (one of the biggest steam loco yards in India) the Mayo Special brought me from school to Delhi four times a year for 9 years. It was always pulled by a steam engine. I still remember the coal bits that would wander into my shirt pockets and my scruffy hair by the end of the 16 hour journey. We used to occasionally steal a ride on the footboard of the YP watching the fireman stuff coal into the boiler and the driver pull the whistle. However, as the years passed these memories of steam gradually ebbed. It was while watching a BBC programme on India, which showed some excellent footage on steam locomotives, that suddenly refreshed my childhood experiences of steam. The hisses and the puffs, the whistle and the chug and of course the bits of coal. That's when I got 'steam fever'.
The Indian Railways is a very difficult organisation to access information. From when I started my hunt for steam in India and to the day I finally got to experience it, it took me almost what it takes a human to produce a baby! Well after having done all the research I could, I was headed for Wankaner in the Rajkot division of Western Railway with 8 copies of the permission letter in hand!

After a super-fast over-night journey on the Ashram Express to Ahmedabad I boarded the Bhopal-Rajkot Express for Rajkot enroute to Wankaner. It was a long 3 hr journey when I suddenly saw smoke and jumped at the sight of Wankaner. There they were the last few (16 in all, 9 working) YG and YP class steam locos made by TELCO in the late 1950's. All waiting to be shot. The sky was overcast and a strong breeze blowed away the steam and smoke from the engines filling my nostrils with the age -old aroma of coal and steam.
I went straight to the drivers' shed. It seemed to be instinctive (from the experience of school days). There I got the details and future of the steam in Wankaner. "The rail-bus will be here in a month and the goods operation is going to be blocked in the next few days" said an old driver. Phew !, I am really lucky to have made it to the last bastion of steam in India. The Darjeeling and Ooty trains are the more touristy steams and may not close down so soon. But this is the last place to have general goods and passenger movement on steam locos. The older staff, the drivers, firemen and linemen swear by steam. They refer to the engines as 'power'. "This is what earned the money for the Indian Railways. And you see the emblem of the IR it has a steam loco on it. If you put a diesel or an electric engine there it will not have any impact or power that the steam engine has," says Ahmed whose last 3 generations have been drivers for IR.
The track from Wankaner connects the broad guage main line that runs from Gandhidham. It goes through Makansar, Rafaleshwar, Morbi (which was, till independence, the 'Morvi State Railway'), Dahinsara and finally Maliya Miyana at the mouth of the Little Rann Of Kutch.

The ride to Morbi is quite exciting with the track meandering around the shallow hills that occasionally crop up along the route. I wait for the 7.15pm loco to Morbi after shooting the down train from a small hill (the camera almost got blown off by the 40 kmph wind!) about a kilometre from Rafaleshwar.

The station at Rafaleshwar seems almost as if it is in no man's land. A strong cool breeze blows coal bits that my hair has collected since the steamy and smoky morning of documenting steam. And except for the mellowing tweeting of birds the only other faint sound is of the gatekeeper's radio as he tunes into some Tamil songs on his radio and seems to enjoy himself. It can get quite lonely manning a small gate crossing at a place like Rafaleshwar. The lamps to be placed at the gate still run on kerosene and look quite antique.

The gateman feeds the sparrows, pigeons, and doves that come in droves to peck and drink water. The railway station is a cool open shed supported by steel gurders made by 'Dugree' in 1927. The wrought iron benches are also of the same antiquity. Their wooden planks smoothened by the wind and generations of human touch. The grey paint on the gurders has cracked and looks like lichens on a rock. The sleepers below the iron rail have worn into earthy rock looking creatures and so has the wood of the benches. The feeling is of a place that has gone through eons of aging and will soon die to be born as an ugly concretized 'modern' vista of rail civilization. The sweet whistle of the engine will soon be gone. Probably much before this writing reaches the press. As the weak sun goes lower into the horizon the distant cries of a jackal fill the air. The steam 'power' can be heard from a distance as it is carried in with the wind.
Morbi is a dirty developing town with hundreds of pigs, autorickshaws and trucks that move about the town spewing fumes and dust. There is a large temple at Morbi, which I only saw from the outside. It is by a river very near the railway station. The railway station is beautiful. The terrace is even better. It seems to have been built by the Maharaja of Morbi some 200 yrs ago for his private state railway that operated here. I stayed in the retiring room, which was huge with old shisham furniture, and a four blade huge fan that moved as in the good old days at Mayo. Infact that entire first floor of the station was so much like school. Having got sick of Gujarati food I decided to try Friend's Food as suggested by the foreign travellers which was not so good and quite expensive for a budget traveller.

The journey from Morbi to Maliya Miyana is quite disheartening. The entire way is being broad gauged and there is hordes of material lined up on both sides of the track. However, peacocks abound and come very near to the hissing and panting steam trains. They seem to be used to the sweet sounds the steam locos make. Anyone can guess what will happen to them once the diesel brays out its honk! There is acute water shortage after Dahinsara. So the train has to carry both drinking water for the villages enroute and water to feed the engine at Maliya Miyana. At Maliya the situation is even worse - the engine has to be filled with buckets. It takes a good 5 people about 2 hours to satiate the YG's thirst enough to get it back to Dahinsara.
At Maliya the lazy Station Superintendent refuses to issue me a ticket back to Morbi. He can't even figure out the permission letter from the railways that I show to him. The ticket has to be bought on the train where a travelling ticket clerk cum guard opens his ticket pandora's box and doles out tickets (all within Rs. 5) to the entraining passengers. A Bengali family has travelled all the way from Calcutta to see the eclipse. But to all our dismay the sky was overcast heavily. A group of labourers from Andhra, working on the broad-gauge and bridges, boarded and sat with me. The whole family works and travels together. Only one man knows Hindi. He says he's been all over the country and picked up several languages in the bargain.
Is this the end...
Sadly so....

 

 

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