A Boy’s Favorite Iron Horses

The domain of transportation often introduces us to dramatic, otherworldly creatures: the precision engineered soaring airliner, the majestic ship cleaving through oceans, the sleek automobile whizzing down highways. The steam locomotive was one of its most distinguished representatives; it quickly became, across country and culture and time, the vehicle–no pun intended–for a very particular romantic notion of travel.

And no aspect of that romance was more vivid than the first glimpse of the awesome, clanking, fire and brimstone behemoth, its pistons furiously pumping away, the hiss and sizzle of the steam it emanated from its every pore, the roaring flames of the combustion chamber, the grimy, soot-covered engine-men, the piercing whistle. A steam locomotive pulling into a station with a full load of passenger coaches, blasting through a countryside trailing a plume of smoke, taking a turn, or best of all, slowly, irresistibly grinding into motion, were all memorable sights that brought together power and beauty. A young boy, when confronted with such visions, could offer no resistance; his soul was putty.

The most common railroad journey in my childhood–that to my grandfather’s home in Central India– tracked the displacement of the steam locomotive quite well.  When my family began undertaking it, we caught the Upper India Express from New Delhi, a coach from which was attached to the Bombay Mail at Allahabad. The Mail then took us to our final destination. At first, a steam locomotive powered the entire trip. Later, a diesel locomotive took over for part of the journey. Still later, when portions of the railway lines had been electrified, an electric locomotive took over partway. That line is now fully electrified. The changes sometimes took place at night, sometimes at day, but I could feel the difference in the way the train first moved out of the station – the acceleration of the engines was quite distinct. At night, lying in my berth, still awake, I could hear the difference in the whistles.

When a train journey in the days of the steam locomotive was over, and I had reached my destination, one of my first tasks was to shower and wash my hair; the soot blowing back from the locomotive had swept in through the open windows of my coach and come to rest on my scalp. That washing out, that cleansing, was tinged with disappointment, not relief; it signaled the end of not just a holiday but a journey as well. And that is always cause for a peculiar melancholia all its own.

Note: The Wikipedia entry for steam locomotives has a disappointingly short section on their use in India:

In India, steam locomotives were built as late as 1972 and in use until 2000; they were replaced by a combination of diesel and electric locomotives. A steam locomotive celebration run was organised between Thane and Mumbai to commemorate the 150th year of railways in India.

The brevity of the passage above is partially compensated for by its seeming accuracy. Even though, as Wikipedia notes, worldwide, steam locomotives were, from ‘the early 1900s…gradually superseded by electric and diesel locomotives‘, in India, they were still being used extensively much later; I think the last time I might have seen a steam locomotive in action would have been in the mid-eighties.

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