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
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
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
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
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
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