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Steam-Hunting in Mhow.

Steam was to officially vanish from our tracks on the 31st of March, 1998 or so we heard. Panic attack. Something had to be done fast. Mhow and Wankaner had been on the cards for a while. On a trip to the Gir Sanctuary in Dec 1996, I had caught a tantalizing glimpse of steam on the Rajkot-Jetalsar-Veraval section.

Jan 22, 1998 and Bharat had the required letters from the CPRO and we were set. A long weekend Friday-Monday was nigh and we bought tickets for the Frontier, a favourite with us.

Ratlam arrived early the next morning misty and very cold and we headed for the canteen for some omelettes and toast. Breakfast done, the TXR (Train Examiner) had to be found. We sat in his office for a while and then were guided to the ART (Accident Relief Train) saloon RA 30 where we washed and relaxed for the evening departure on the 89 Up to Mhow. Ah, the sheer luxury of a saloon. Burma teak interiors, khus coolers, and crisp linen. The ART was parked, along with other decrepit rakes in the area which was once the old Ratlam BG steam shed!! One could just feel the ghosts of the old Broad gauge steamers all around. The shed housed 130 locos in its prime!!

15:30 p.m. and we were ready to go. The rake had pulled in on a steamer but- disappointment!! It was to go the rest of the way on a YDM4, a treat in any case as neither of us had foot-plated on one before!! We would, of course have preferred steam!! The cabin is really cramped as compared with the WDM2, expectedly. The driver, Sirajuddin Ansari was very smartly turned out in a woollen suit, practical, as it was very chilly, especially if one had to spend a while with ones neck stuck out of the window of a moving loco. The assistant driver arrived and we were set to go! Oh, the feeling of being in a diesel loco at idle, and then revving up to go, sheer bliss!! The YDM4 lacks the delicious asymmetric thrum of our beloved WDM2 at idle, its straight 6 powerpack has a more definite beat. One of the tasks for the assistant driver is to make sure that the windshields are cleaned before departure and we watched as he wiped them clean with a moist cloth.

We had the long nose ahead on this run and so had a chance to evaluate the visibility for the drivers in that configuration. It wasn’t really bad if one had one’s head out of the window, but it did reduce a bit if one used only the windscreen.

We obviously didn’t want to get in the way of the driver or the assistant so we took turns at peeking out of the window next to the assistant driver. Hearing the two exchange signal sightings is an amazing experience. We tried sighting the signals with them, but it was impossible. It was experience that told, they could see the signals and confirm them with each other well before we could sight them!! The entire route had multi-aspect upper quadrant semaphore signaling (MAUQ) and that was another treat.

On approaching each station, the assistant prepared to pick up the new token and drop the old one. The procedure worked like this, he tossed the old one down as the loco approached the platform and then crooked his elbow to pick the new one, held up by the station-master halfway down the platform.

We also sensed some of the resentment felt by the MG drivers towards the BG drivers, when we passed Indore. A WDM2a refused to dim its main beam as we passed...a courtesy usually extended when two trains pass each other at night. The YDM4 driver did the same.

Our muscles were cramped after standing in the cab for over three hours and we were glad to see Mhow’s lights as we approached the city. As we thanked the driver and the assistant driver and disembarked at Mhow, the Loco Foreman (LF) was there to meet us. He left one of his orderlies to guide us to the guest-house. First we wolfed down a hot dinner at the station canteen! The guest house was a typical railways establishment and had the barest of fittings, still it would be home for the next two days.

Early the next morning, we headed for the loco shed. The fog was so thick you couldn’t see beyond an arms length! As we approached the shed we could see the hulks of a couple of tenders. On entering the shed area, the glow from a firebox confirmed that steam was still very much alive in Mhow!!

It was too dark to shoot just then and we sat in the warmth of a footplate, waiting for the sun to make an appearance. We shot off a few rolls of film and got chummy with a Loco Inspector (LI) by the name of Stanley who told us of the days he had been a fireman on the WP hauled Frontier Mail. We were informed that the same used to clip a 120km/h with impeccable WP’s, which at idle could hardly be heard, so well maintained were they!! Compare that with these leaky, hissing YP’s and YG’s we have these days.

He was right, the YP/G's did seem to have a great deal of trouble with their injectors as we were to find out the next day when we traveled on the Republic Day special loco.

That afternoon we climbed on to a YG that was to travel light to Kalakund for banking duty on the 73 Up from Khandwa. What an absolute treat!! We traveled tender first all the way down and sat perched atop the large chunks of coal, enjoying the unobstructed view as the loco felt its way down the sharp gradient ( 1 in 40 among the steepest on the WR sector). We even stopped for a breather at a point from where a waterfall was visible, the driver and the YG waited patiently while we clicked away and loaded fresh film for the rest of the trip!! We reached Kalakund from where the line branching off to Khandwa was visible.

Finally the YDM4 led Ajmer bound Passenger arrived and we watched as the YG maneuvered around on the tracks and positioned itself to be attached to the rake. As one leaned out of the cab and looked back at the rake, one could see a row of milk containers hanging from the windows. With the YG coupled, the rake was set to go. Steam banking diesel!!! A few curious tourists looked on as the YG moved around.

We weren’t really sure how the drivers of the two locos communicated, but the general idea was that once they were on the climb, the loco at the rear was to push at full power. As we went through the tunnels en-route the cab would get filled with the thick black smoke that the loco was putting out with all the effort. The drivers had thoughtfully provided us with cotton scarves for covering our heads. They helped, but not much as we discovered later while bathing tiny bits of coal had to be cleared out of one’s hair, ears and nostrils!!

Back in Mhow we went off in search for some food, and were advised to walk to the town square. There we found a couple of jazzed up dhabas and restaurants serving dal-fry, naan, mutton curry and salaad, as a typical meal. They didn’t seem to be very different, so we walked into one of them. A VERY loud stereo system blared out completely unrecognizable noise. We had that turned off!

The food turned out to be quite good, or were we just hungry? Whatever it was, we had a solid meal and then headed back to the guest-house to relax for a few hours before starting out on an evening shoot.

The light was just right and the banking loco we had traveled on that morning was now on shunting duties at the station. As we walked up to the shed we could see it busily chuffing up and down the length of the station, pushing, and alternatively, pulling a few carriages.

That evening preparations were in full swing to get YP 2825 ready for the next day, it had been selected for a very special duty : to haul the republic Day special 90 Dn. As we watched, it was scrubbed, given a brand new coat of paint, the smoke deflectors were adorned with religious deities and the smoke-box was lined with shiny metal disks (as you can see in photographs 17 to 20). Nothing was left unattended. The tender was painted black and red and lined with yellow at the weld lines. It was steamed up late that very evening in preparation for an early morning departure.

The finishing touches were bunting (saffron and green) strung out along the side of the loco and two enormous loudspeakers fixed to either side of the smoke-box, the purpose of which we would find out the next morning. We returned tired after an eventful day to grab a few hours of sleep before the orderly came to wake us up very early the next morning. 4:00 a.m. and we were out of our rooms. After bundling up against the freezing cold, we headed for the station. YP 2825 was there already and in addition to everything we had seen the last evening, there were a couple of powerful light bulbs fixed to illuminate the artwork on the smoke deflectors. We wondered if they wouldn’t ruin the drivers’ forward vision.

As we left, the loco set off the caps that had been placed on the tracks, and we were off with quite a few bangs indeed!!! I often wonder, in retrospect, how the sight of the loco under way must have appeared to bystanders en-route if there had been any that early, cold January morning. A gaily decorated steam engine rushing down the tracks, belching smoke and with two huge loudspeakers blaring out every conceivable patriotic song from every conceivable patriotic movie ever made!!! They wouldn’t have believed it. I still don’t.

Mid-journey, we had to shift over to the leading coach as the injector was giving too much trouble and the crew had to move around a lot, turning a valve here and there to nurse the ailing loco along. The coaches were old IRS stock, very bare and basic: wooden benches, very poor lighting.

A huge welcoming committee was ready to receive the train as it pulled into Ratlam Junction. The DRM (Divisional Railway Manager) with all of his flunkies, a video camera team and lots of curious onlookers. The Frontier Mail back to Mumbai was at 20:00 Hrs that evening, so we had the whole day to tour the Junction, and we did. Ratlam is a very busy junction and there was lots of action. WAG5/7 headed freights, WAM4/WAG1/WAP1 headed passengers and MG YDM4’s. Not enough steam action, alas.

And so ended a perfect trip to Mhow.

By Siddhartha Joshi