Steamy Encounters in India

Over the years I travelled many thousands of miles through India by rail, mostly hauled by diesel engines, but when I first went there, a lot of venerable steam engines were still in daily service, a honeypot for rail enthusiasts and history buffs alike. As is often said, the ‘Golden Age’ is never the present one; would one see the age of steam as being a golden age for India, or is that just for the hard bitten nostalgic ?

Steam trains were often of dubious reliability, most often due to the limitations of technology from a century ago; they were also incredibly dirty conveyances; at the end of even a short journey you could be smothered in sooty smuts – just part of the fun for a tourist heading for their hotel shower at day’s end, but rather a pain for local travellers with perhaps only two sets of clothes. Rich pickings for the ‘dhobi wallahs’ or washer people who could turn around your laundry in a couple of hours, thrashing your garments on riverside stones or under a street hydrant before drying them over a prickly bush which needed no clothes pegs. Sometimes you inherited a prickle or two as a souvenir along with the broken buttons on your shirt !

A steam train being filled with water
Filling up the boiler en route up to Ooty

The best known of the steam powered trains followed tracks up toward the elevated hill stations, to where the (European) civil service decamped in the hottest and rainiest periods. Most famous were Shimla and Darjeeling, along with a few others like Dehra Dun or Mussorie in the Himalayan foothills, usually nowadays associated with military camps, public schools on the English model, and honeymoon destinations. The latter popularity possibly derived from the hope that the cold and romantic settings (ensuring an extended time under the warm blankets) would cement a new relationship. I went most frequently to Udagamandalam – (where ?) – a place transformed to the Anglicised Ootacamund, and familiarised into Ooty.

A rail worker bends and rakes out red ashes from beneath a steam train
Routine maintenance, raking out the ashes from a steam train


Clouds of steam issue from a train preparing to depart. Banana leaves overhang the track
Getting up steam for departures

Ooty is reached by rail from a small station near to Coimbatore in Tamil  Nadu, at the foot of the Nilgiri Hills, a southern extension of the Western Ghats. The gradient simply wouldn’t permit a direct route by train, so a meandering route was devised although it meant crossing deep gullies and cutting tunnels here and there through untouched jungle and eucalyptus plantations. The objective, of course, was worth the effort. Cool air, open woodland and no settlements of any size encouraged the Brits to develop this corner of South India into a facsimile of the Home Counties. Houses were built as holiday homes, bungalows with flowery surrounds reminiscent of the cottage gardens left 6,000 miles away. The town still abounds with house names like ‘Dunroamin’, ‘Green Acres’, ‘Chatsworth’ – you get the picture ! The Ooty Club remains very much a gentleman’s preserve, (great snooker table), but its former membership completely changed to more cosmopolitan (but wealthy) patrons after Independence. The Botanic Gardens, along with Higginbothams bookshop and Charing Cross remain landmarks there.

Women look out from the windows of a crowded women only carriage
Crowded ladies only carriage on the steam train up to Ooty
A train guard seated at his station, confers with a colleague
Rail staff conferring on the Bikaner mail in Rajasthan
A puffing steam train with a large star on the boiler front chugs through the railyard
Shunting through the railyard (jumping out of the way !)

Large junctions such as Mysore in the south have many out of date steam engines, slowly disintegrating in the shunting yards, doubtless supplying spare parts for years to come. One area that is now devoid of steam engines is Rajasthan. I have vivid memories of the rail journey between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer on the edge of the Thar desert. Not only did we get showered with coal smuts, but were were comprehensively roasted in the old open carriages. This slow cooking arose because of the sluggish speed of our train, which could never get above 20 miles an hour – this on the flat, mind you ! Part of the reason was the aged stock, but mainly because of the rather wobbly track, often consolidated by skinflint contractors shovelling sand under the sleepers instead of rocks. The sand blew away in any wind, meaning any attempt at speed could be disastrous for the train’s stability. The first time I did this journey of some 130 miles, it took 13 hours, with a couple of extended stops at Pokaran and Phalodi (Indian nuclear testing grounds). With this foreknowledge, it was a life lesson in stoicism to maintain a cheery outlook on subsequent trips

An overjoyed trainspotter gets to ride on the footplate of a steam train
Trainspotter’s wet dream; riding the footplate on one of Rajasthan’s last steam trains to Jaisalmer


A baffling array of levers and switches on the footplate of a steam engine
At the controls
Two men chat at a station halt alongside a huge steam train
Taking a breather at a station halt




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