Bibek Debroy: Locomotives of History
Have you stood by the side of a railway line at night and seen a train with a steam locomotive thunder past, the red tinge lighting up the driver’s face as he shovels coal into the fire? The age of steam locomotives is over
I wonder what happened to Lady Curzon. I do not mean Mary Victoria Curzon, wife of the viceroy. In addition to a rose, she also had a steam locomotive named after her. The first indigenous locomotive was built in 1895 by Ajmer Workshop (now part of North Western Railway). This was the metre gauge F1-734, “F” signifying mixed traffic. Before that, locomotives were assembled in India, not quite made. F1-734 retired in the 1950s and you will find it housed at the National Rail Museum, cow-catcher and all. Jamalpur Locomotive Workshop, set up by East India Railway in 1862, followed in 1899 with “Lady Curzon”, numbered CA-764. In those days, that locomotive cost Rs 33,000 to make. Lady Curzon retired in 1932 and I have been unable to find out what happened to her. “Her” is right. Jamalpur has an intimate connection with Indian railway history, in several ways. Rudyard Kipling visited Jamalpur in 1888 and wrote three pieces (not very charitable) on his visit in The Pioneer. Subsequently, these were published as “Among the Railway Folk”. Those descriptions also covered the workshop. “Walk into a huge, brick-built, tin-roofed stable, capable of holding twenty-four locomotives under treatment, and see what must be done to the Iron Horse, once every three years if he is to do his work well. On reflection, Iron Horse is wrong. An engine is a she — as distinctly feminine as a ship or a mine.”
Not everyone read Kipling, or followed his injunction. Most engines were named after males. This includes engines that figure in a question that’s staple quiz fare. Which was the first train to run in India? It’s not quite the April 1853 run from Boribunder to Thana/Thane, the staple quiz answer. That’s certainly the first commercial passenger ride. But there were non-commercial and non-passenger trains/locomotives earlier. That 1853 train was pulled by three engines — Sahib, Sindh and Sultan. No photograph exists of that train. If someone shows you a purported picture, a fast one is being pulled. Like Lady Curzon, no one seems to know what happened to Sahib and Sultan. They just vanished. Sindh was luckier. He was last seen on a plinth at the Byculla office of what used to be Great Indian Peninsular Railway. But Indian Railways (IR) decided to celebrate 100 years in 1953. Sindh was brought to Delhi and vanished thereafter. Between 1865 and 1941, India produced 700 locomotives. Between 1853 and 1947, 14,400 locomotives were imported from Britain and 3,000 from other countries. That’s what economic historians tell us. This import promotion was probably a combination of low tariffs on imports of railway material, the way standards (also for locomotives) were determined, routing of railway contracts through India Office (in London) and the fact that most railway supervisors and engineers were European.
Though details are awaited, we know the World Bank will now partner with IR to set up a Railway Development Fund. In 1949, India borrowed from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/World Bank. The report, on appraisal of India’s loan application, makes for interesting reading. “Since India does not at present manufacture locomotives and tank wagons, to correct the shortage of motive power, the Indian Railways began placing orders late in 1947 for 863 locomotives, spare boilers, and spare parts from the USA, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France… The goal is to reduce the locomotive fleet from the present figure of more than 7,000 engines to 6,000 engines within the next 10 years. Accordingly, lines which receive new engines are required to scrap old engines in return, at a ratio varying from 12 to 17 new engines for every 10 new engines delivered.” On India’s behalf, this loan agreement was signed (on August 18, 1949) by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, then Indian ambassador to the USA. In case you are wondering about the term “tank wagon”, those are the ones used to carry liquids and gaseous stuff. I felt a sense of déjà vu when I read about the World Bank anchoring the Railway Development Fund.
Compared to 7,000 engines then, we have 10,500 engines now — not much of an addition, considering the number of years that have passed. In 1960-61, we had 10,624 — even less of an addition in more than five decades. Sure, there are many kinds of locomotives and an aggregate number can be misleading. Nevertheless, it is an indication. Every year, we junk about 100 locomotives. We should probably junk twice as many. Every year, we produce around 600 locomotives. That is a net figure of 500. We probably need a net figure of at least 1,000. Over the next 20 years or so, we probably need to increase the stock of locomotives to 30,000. We will import some, as is being done for the Dedicated Freight Corridor. We will have additional domestic capacity, including private ones, like in Madhepura and Marhowra, both in Bihar. But don’t get the wrong idea. Even now, India also exports a few locomotives, to some Asian and African countries, though these can occasionally be metre gauge. Modern locomotives don’t have fancy names like “Lady Curzon”. Those early ones seem to possess more individual character.
When I was a kid, I remember travelling along the hill section of Indian Railways (IR). The train stopped somewhere and the engine driver, a handkerchief tied around his head and his face covered with soot, came to say hello to my father. My father went up in my esteem. To kids of that generation, an engine driver was a hero. I dare say many boys wanted to become engine drivers then, extremely unlikely today. Have you stood by the side of a railway line at night and seen a train with a steam locomotive thunder past, the red tinge lighting up the driver’s face as he shovels coal into the fire? The age of steam locomotives is over. Every once in a while, a steam engine needed to stop, to top up water and coal, more the former. Once tenders were introduced, these water stops were needed, say every 100 miles or 160 km. (Before tenders, there were more frequent water stops.) A stop meant passengers could get down, stretch their legs and purchase food. Cleaners could get onto the train and clean coaches and toilets. As one switched from steam to diesel/electric traction, these water stops became unnecessary. In US, there is documentation of ghost towns, created because water stops became redundant.
Sure, every train is not a Duronto, which doesn’t have any ticketing stops. Shatabdis and Rajdhanis also stop, more or less in synch with those water stops. Remember, every 100 to 150 km, there is a junction. However, there is a difference. Even if everyone was super-efficient, a water stop would take at least 15 minutes. Shatabdis/Rajdhanis stop for two minutes. Therefore, food moved from platforms to on-board trains. To clean coaches/toilets, one needed other solutions. But I want to focus on something else. As passengers, we continually complain of lack of cleanliness in toilets. Incrementally since the 1870s, toilets have been introduced in coaches, beginning with upper classes. For instance, the famous Okhil Chandra Sen letter in 1909 is believed to have been instrumental in introducing toilets in lower classes. I am not sure how many train drivers/loco pilots IR now has. If one includes loco pilots, assistant loco pilots and guards, the number is probably 100,000. If it is loco pilots and assistant pilots alone, the number is probably around 60,000, my guess being that around 20 per cent of positions are vacant. While we incessantly complain about comfort in coaches, rarely do we think about comfort in cabs, where loco pilots are. Think of this. A noise level of100 decibels and more. A temperature that can shoot up to 55 degrees centigrade. Seats without backrests. Sometimes, seats with terrible designs, so that you need to stand up to drive the train. And, no toilets.
It’s true locomotives don’t have toilets in them. The sole exception is the WDG5 locomotive, known as Bheem. A quick word about that alphanumeric combination – W means broad gauge, D means diesel, G means goods train and 5 means 5500 HP. This diesel locomotive will be used for broad gauge goods trains. But it is still a prototype, it isn’t yet operational. The guard’s van has a toilet, but not the locomotive. What do the loco pilot and assistant loco pilot do? As long as there was a water stop, there wasn’t much of a problem. As long as it was just mail/express trains, there wasn’t much of a problem. But we now have super-fast trains like Rajdhani/Shatabdi. We have non-stop trains like Duronto, which only stop for technical reasons. We will have bullet trains. We have already started to have women loco pilots. (Mumtaz Kazi is the first diesel loco pilot, not just for IR, but in Asia.) In 2013, there was a D P Tripathi Committee to “review duty hours of running and other safety related categories of staff”. This too flagged the issue, suggesting waterless urinals in the interim and full-fledged bio-toilets in the future. Meanwhile, Indian Railway Loco Running Men’s Organization has complained to National Human Rights Commission.
Until this is sorted out, grin and bear it. Earlier, just behind the engine, there used to be an SLR (second class luggage rake), also called assistant guard’s cabin. The toilet there could have been accessed. But most trains no longer have this. In superfast trains, there is no through access to passenger coaches, so a loco pilot can’t access toilets there either. In dire emergencies, one can get in touch with the control room and ask for a replacement pilot, at the next stop. Otherwise, wait for scheduled or unscheduled stops and make a dash for it. The control room might also agree to an unscheduled stop, especially if it is a slow train. In 2009, there was the incident (at Panbari, near Guwahati) of the assistant loco pilot from Rajdhani Express, who got down to relieve himself on the tracks and was run over by Amritsar Express. When you see an empty water bottle inside a locomotive, you will now know what this is used for. Finally, most engine drivers are pretty good at urinating from moving trains. No, not too many boys will want to become engine drivers now.