Monday, August 26, 2013

My experience with steam in India, 1984

There has been a substantial interest expressed in my account of seeing steam locomotives in action when I visited China in 1981, as part of a metallurgical delegation. The high point was walking through the Datong Locomotive plant, as described at: .
     On another trip connected with a professional conference, I also had the pleasure of seeing working steam, this time in India. I was scheduled to present two talks at the quadrennial International Conference on Fracture, or ICF, the sixth convening of which took place in New Delhi in December 1984. (The series continues; the 13th ICF is this year in Beijing.) Since I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the time, this was a long journey. In fact, a quick glance at the globe shows that New Delhi is pretty much the other side of the world from Pittsburgh.
     This gave my wife Mary and me an idea. Why not fly around the world, halfway to get to India, the other half returning home? We arranged to take Pan American’s eastward Flight 2 from New York, which reached New Delhi via Heathrow, and after the conference got back onto Flight 2, continuing via Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Honolulu to San Francisco. The domestic U.S. legs were on U.S. Air, as Pan Am did not cover those routes. Flight 2 turned out to be a bad choice, as both Mary and I are “night people,” and going eastward means you are always out of sync with the time zone at bedtime. For us, the westward companion flight, Pan Am Flight 1, would have been better.
     The conference organizers had arranged travel itineraries in cooperation with the Indian Ministry of Tourism, to facilitate addtional tourist travel before or after the conference, so we signed up for that, visiting Kathmandu (Nepal), Varnasi, and Khajarao, along with tours during the conference itself. A highlight was a bus trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, definitely one of those sights that is much more impressive in person than in photographs, and in fact I believe photographs simply do not do it justice.
     Anyway, I had not expected there would be any opportunity to see railroads in steam, though I was aware that steam locomotives were still running in some parts of India. But as our plane was on final approach to Varanasi, we flew diagonally across a rail line, and there was a train just passing under us, with steam power on the head end! I knew I was going to have to find time to track it down during our day and a half in Varanasi.
     As soon as we had checked into our hotel. I asked the people at the desk about where the depot, or else the railroad yard, might be. They seemed blank, but helped me examine a map, and the depot was immediately evident, and not too far from the hotel. My wife was a little weary and wanted to take a nap before dinner, so I grabbed a taxi and went to the depot. It was the right choice.

Like most of the passenger and freight power I saw, this is a Mikado, or 2-8-2. Passenger power typically sported red smoke lifters like these, along with a red tender (below), nicely decorated.

This part of India is the North East railway zone, with three divisions, one of which is Varanasi. The large characters on the tender identify the NE zone. The cab had  an obvious English flavor, but the decoration was distinctly Indian.

     Before long, a lad came up to me, partly to practice his English, which was pretty good already, but also because he was a train spotter, with a notebook in which he was writing locomotive numbers. I was delighted: here was a local expert on these engines. His name was Sanjay (I don’t recall his last name). I was soon disappointed to find he had no idea of locomotive classes, where and when built, etc., just collecting numbers. But he was friendly and enthusiastic.

Behind Sanjay is a typical heavy Mikado, just arriving, which Sanjay said was usually in freight service. It has a plain black tender and no smoke lifters.
     It is difficult to convey the sheer press of people in the depot area. I usually had to wait for numerous people to pass before taking photos. And they were everywhere, not just on the platform, but crossing the tracks (apparently oblivious to trains and moving locomotives), and going in every direction. You can see a few examples in some of my photos. One objective these people had was water. The water column plumbing leaked a stream of water and frequently people came to collect a bucketful and depart. This young woman was bathing in it, without disrobing, just washing the garment and herself at the same time.

     These are only some of the scenes at this very active depot, where in the space of two hours I saw dozens of trains, nearly all steam-powered, along with additional light engines moving to and from the fueling facilities and what appeared to be a shop. It was difficult to tear myself away, and return to the hotel for dinner with my wife. She was, of course, less than impressed with my excitement about my afternoon’s activities; but then, she hadn’t seen it like I had. I had to say, “Just wait till you see the photos!”
Tony Thompson

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