Starting a journey without knowing where it will end has its problems. When I set out with Nick Lera, a remarkable cameraman-director and an authority on railways, to make a film called Steam’s Indian Summer, we could not be sure where steam engines still ran.
The last known steam-hauled express had run from the railway junction of Jalandhar, in Punjab. The only steam we found there was a wonderful Heath-Robinson contraption, a coal crane with no coal to lift any longer, operated for us by a railway worker who explained, ‘I am the superintendent of steam locos without a loco.’ Standing on a rusty turntable on which the majestic steam locomotives that hauled historic trains such as the Frontier Mail and the Punjab Mail had changed direction, a former steam driver talked scornfully of diesel and electric locomotives. ‘Anyone can drive one of those,’ he said. ‘To drive a steam engine you need four eyes, two in the back of your head as well as the two in the front, there’s so much going on all the time.’
When we reached Delhi we visited the Railway Museum. I was filmed standing beside one of the sturdy little engines that are still pulling trains up the mountainside to Darjeeling, my favourite Indian hill-station. It is my favourite partly because I used to travel on the narrow-gauge railway to school, partly because my father was a director of that railway, and partly because of the magnificent view of the Himalaya seen from the town. On top of all that, of course, there are the picturesque Darjeeling tea gardens that produce the champagne of teas.
In Delhi’s Railway Museum, I also sat in one of the erstwhile maharaja’s own luxurious personal coaches and talked to the chairperson of the Railway Board. He told me steam had to go because, mighty though they appeared to be, steam engines could not pull trains long enough to accommodate all those who wanted to travel by rail. I was very happy to be reassured by the chairperson that India was one country where there was no question of rail traffic being in decline. He also said that steam engines could not match diesel or electric for speed.
From Delhi we travelled down the mainline of the former Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway, the western route from the Indian capital to the city now known as Mumbai. We got off about halfway between the two cities, at the railway town of Ratlam in central India. We had been assured that steam was still running on the metre-gauge line to Indore and beyond. To my dismay, however, the first train arriving from Indore was hauled by a diesel. Still, later in the day a steam engine did back slowly onto the late afternoon train.
The train for Indore and beyond was officially classified as ‘fast passenger’, but it went very slowly. That did not deter travellers. I had to sit in the luggage rack to interview one of the passengers. Others who could not even find a luggage rack to sit in, or who wanted to avoid the attention of the ticket collector, sat on the roof. Many of the passengers were milk vendors. The sides of the carriages were lined with milk churns. When I ask one of the vendors why they used this slow train every day, he pointed out of the window to a bus clambering in and out of potholes, labouring even more slowly than the train along what passed for a road – enough said. An added benefit for the milk vendors was the piping-hot water the engine driver obligingly provided them with to sterilise their churns at one of the interminable halts the train made.
Beyond Indore, on the same metre-gauge line, we met the divisional railway manager. He had found us a steam engine that gave diesel trains a helpful push as they crawled up one of India’s steepest gradients. The engine was elaborately decorated in our honour. We travelled down to the bottom of the valley in the manager’s personal coach. On the climb back we travelled on the footplate of the steam engine. I saw what the driver in Jalandhar had meant about needing four eyes. Our wheels spun as the train pulled slowly out of the station, with our engine bursting a gut doing its bit to help the diesel at the front get up enough speed to tackle the incline. On the footplate the driver and his crew got about their business. The driver had to keep his eye on the track ahead, watch all the gauges, make sure the firemen were doing their job and check that there was an adequate supply of coal from the tender. I thought I was going to be asphyxiated by black smoke as we roared through a tunnel, but the crew was far too busy to worry about what was clearly seen as a minor inconvenience.
A day later, we reached the town of Wankaner in Gujarat. There, we stayed with the 91-year-old maharaja in his vast palace, a mad mélange of European architectural styles with a bit of Mughal and Hindu thrown in. The centrepiece was a tall clocktower. The maharaja still remembered travelling in his royal carriage painted in blue, the state of Wankaner’s official colour.
We were in Wankaner because of a report that India’s last steam-hauled freight train ran from there. It did and, to my delight, I rode in the guard’s van. I had always thought sitting peacefully and watching the countryside roll by would be an idyllic life. I was convinced by the time we reached the Arabian Sea and the remote saltpans of the Rann of Kutch. Our film ended with an elegiac shot of the evening sun with, in the distance, smoke funnelling from a steam-engine pulling a salt train across the saltpans, a satisfactory but sad end to a journey with an uncertain start. Sad because it was clear we had seen the last of steam’s ‘Indian summer’ and, as far as we knew, the last of mainline steam on any of the world’s great railway systems.