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COLUMN ONE : Last Breath for India’s Steamers : In a land shaped by its railroads, coal-burning trains soon will give way to modern models. Officials cite progress, but others lament their loss. Without them, asks an engineer, ‘Where is the fire of life?’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A metal dragon exhaling orange sparks and a scalding plume of vapor, this vintage steam locomotive rumbles over the rails, shattering the stillness of India’s plains at twilight.

First Fireman Anil Sharma, a bandanna wrapped around his head to keep out coal dust, yanks open the firebox. With a few expert flicks of the shovel, the square-shouldered 26-year-old piles more A-grade Bihar coal onto the flames, then clangs the door shut.

The New Delhi-bound train--made up of 10 cars, a tender laden with 20 tons of coal and 5,000 gallons of water, four crewmen and several hundred passengers--accelerates. Its trembling speedometer needle shows a bone-shaking 75 kilometers per hour--46 m.p.h.--and the thick steel plate under foot in the cab vibrates weirdly.

In fields greened by the recent arrival of the monsoon rains, naked children taking the day’s final dip in muddy ponds and drovers coaxing water buffalo homeward look up at the sudden approach of the hissing, thundering engine. Many smile and wave.

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Such scenes on the plains of Uttar Pradesh may seem like the quintessence of Indian life, tableaux virtually frozen since the years of British rule. But their days are numbered. By the end of this year, if the officials who run India’s railroads implement their plans as scheduled, the bullet-nosed locomotive that makes the 100-mile run west from Moradabad to the country’s capital will be no more.

By 1996, steam is to be gone from all regular rail service throughout India, to be replaced by diesel or electric traction. The reasons are cold considerations of efficiency and cost, and the decrepit state of many aging steam locomotives.

“You simply can’t afford to keep an antique in operation,” says Jasbir Pal Singh, chief mechanical engineer on the Northern Railway, the largest of India’s nine regional rail networks.

For a vast land where railroads were indispensable in creating an industrial economy, and even the movement for independence and national identity itself, the passing of steam will be the end of an era.

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In many fields, India is striving to modernize and open itself to the outside world. But many feel the country is losing much of its uniqueness and heritage in the bargain.

“A steam locomotive is like a human monster,” Rajagopalan Gopal, Singh’s counterpart on the Bombay-based Western Railway, says with evident emotion. “But today, neither the puff is there, nor the fire. Where is the fire of life?”

For more than 140 years, chugging steam locomotives have been a ubiquitous feature of the Indian landscape. They rushed British reinforcements to the rebellious Northwest Frontier, brought tea from the Himalayan foothills to ships waiting at Calcutta, and carried untold billions of passengers, many in cattle car-like third-class coaches that no longer exist, others on the roof.

In the middle of the last century, Lord Dalhousie, India’s governor general, advocated railroads--they were all steam-powered then, of course--along with the telegraph and uniform postage, as three “great engines of social improvement” to hasten the modernization of Britain’s premier colonial possession.

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On the afternoon of April 16, 1853, guns boomed from the ramparts of Bombay’s fort as three small steam engines, spouting smoke, rattled off with 400 passengers on a maiden 21-mile run. The “iron horse” had come to India. The Bombay Times gushed that “a sun is rising on the darkened land.”

Not everybody rejoiced, however.

“Railways accentuate the evil nature of man. Bad men fulfill their evil designs with greater rapidity,” Mohandas K. Gandhi, the “Great Soul” who turned hostile to Western technology, once fulminated. “It may be a debatable matter whether railways spread famine, but it is beyond dispute that they propagate evil.”

The apostle of nonviolence never said whether trains might not help propagate good, but no Indian took greater advantage of what is today the world’s second-largest rail network to spread his views.

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(Asked why he always traveled in third class as he crisscrossed India, Gandhi answered, “Because there is no fourth class.”).

Steam-powered trains, although enough of an endangered species in this age of supercomputers and interplanetary probes to lure many rail buffs to India, have grown increasingly unpopular with administrators and accountants at the Ministry of Railways. Steam is labor-intensive, they say, and the cost of labor is increasing in India these days.

Digging and then transporting coal throughout the nation is also becoming more expensive, and burning it pollutes the environment more than other fuels now available.

“Ultimately, these locos will have to go into a museum,” concludes Singh, who half-jokingly presents himself as “the man who is killing off steam” on the Northern Railway.

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Conscious of the valuable drawing power of steam, railroad officials have modified their original plan and will allow half a dozen old engines to remain on routes popular with foreign and Indian tourists, like the “toy train” that climbs to Darjeeling or the ritzy “Palace on Wheels” in Rajasthan. But for the ordinary Indian passenger, steam will pass into history within the next two years.

The process is already well under way. In 1992 and 1993, 786 steam locomotives were retired and 38 sheds where they had been based were shut down. In the same period, the number of electric engines in service topped steam for the first time. The share of passenger trains pulled by steam, as high as 15% a few years ago, is dropping every day.

Such trends cause pangs of regret even among those responsible for them. In 1944, when he was 7, Gopal watched from his home in Meerut as a crack express, the Frontier Mail, roared by, sending glowing constellations of sparks into the night sky. He dreamed of being at the throttle.

Instead, he went into the mechanical side of railroading. Two summers ago, as chief official in his field on India’s second-biggest railroad, he phased out all steam-powered locomotives of the class designated WP--for wide-gauge/passenger--and a sister model designed for pulling freight trains. It left him heartsick.

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“Is efficiency all we look for in life?” asks the mechanical engineer with the soul of a romantic. “What about beauty? Or class? There is something truly beautiful and song-like about a steam locomotive. In comparison, diesel or electric is dead.”

For the average passenger, the demise of steam is probably a welcome thing.

After chugging off one recent Saturday in a nimbus of black smoke and steam from Moradabad, and sounding a shrill whistle as cows grazed on the neighboring track, this New Delhi-bound passenger train took no less than 7 hours, 53 minutes to reach the Gothic-arched station at Delhi Junction only 100 miles away.

When it panted to a halt at 1:27 a.m., Train No. 307 was more than an hour late.

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“Steam locomotives are very unreliable. They have a very high running cost,” groused one passenger, Usman Ali, 18. “Diesel locos are fast and economical.”

In microcosm, the train carried the picturesque universe of humanity that is India. There were three eunuchs dressed as women, and at least as many Hindu religious ascetics with Christ-like coiffures and some unbiblical aluminum lunch pails.

Farmers who had sold their milk that morning in Moradabad slung the empty cans from the bars that run across the glassless apertures substituting for windows in second class, and stretched out on the hard wooden benches to sleep.

The doors to the toilets had been torn off. Inside, holes in the floor opened right onto the tracks. Not a single ceiling fan was working. Vendors plied the filthy aisles, selling peanuts mixed with chopped onions and tomatoes, slices of fresh melon and coconut, hot tea spiked with sugar and milk, spiced lentils and boxed lunches of unleavened bread and potatoes.

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There was just one track on several stretches of the route, so passengers piled out at four different station sidings to wait for higher-priority expresses, none pulled by steam, to go by. (Those enforced halts, driver Madan Singh later said defensively, were why he arrived at Delhi so late.)

Rail travel is cheap in India, and a ticket in second class--the only class available for the Moradabad-to-Delhi run--costs just 77 cents. But like passengers almost everywhere, the people riding Train No. 307 complained about service. A farmer worried about what the demise of steam would do to the price and availability of diesel fuel, which he uses to run irrigation pumps. But it was day laborer Satpal Singh, 45, who had the last word.

“The trains never run on time, so it hardly makes a difference whether they run on steam or electric,” he said philosophically. Many other passengers agreed.

The experts, though, say there is a difference and that India’s steam locomotives, of which 1,725 remained in service as of March, 1993, are relatively old and slow. The country hasn’t manufactured a steam-powered engine since 1972.

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“If there is proper maintenance, these locos can run 75 to 80 kilometers per hour (46 to 50 m.p.h.),” said Niaz Ahmad, an official with the Northern Railway Locomotive Training School. “But the maintenance is decaying these days. These are outdated engines.”

Steam is also notoriously temperamental. One recent day, Train 307’s opposite number bound for Moradabad from Delhi had to be pulled by diesel when a steam crew bungled and had to drop their coal fire onto the tracks to prevent the boiler from blowing up.

Engine No. 7102 showed its age badly. Its rounded nose was jauntily adorned with the spread white wings that mark a steam locomotive based in Moradabad. But the rest of it looked aged and shabby.

The plates that compose the engine’s metal skin were pitted, ill-fitting and caked with soot. The whistle stuck. The nameplate in the cab that should have shown the locomotive’s serial number and age had fallen off. The crew guessed No. 7102 was around half a century old.

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It is a humble end facing a machine that for decades had figured among the thoroughbreds of India’s railroads. Gandhi might not have approved, but the genesis of the WP-class locomotive can be traced to 16 American-made prototypes built and delivered to India by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia in 1947. By 1970, when production ceased, 755 had been built.

In railroad jargon, the 102-ton locomotive is called a 4-6-2 because of its wheel configuration. The “6" means three pairs of driving wheels, which stand more than five feet high, move the engine and the train. They are linked on both sides by a connecting rod to a large piston, which is shoved back and forth by steam.

Such technology, now almost ancient, gives an exhilarating sensation of speed. In the locomotive cab, buffeted by gusts of pungent coal smoke and steam, it feels as if the crew can barely control the awesome power unleashed by the heating of water into vapor. The engine hisses and seethes, like a giant pressure cooker, and seems ready to burst.

As the modernization of India’s railroads continues, skills that allowed people to earn a living through steam are becoming more and more irrelevant. Sharma, a railroad employee since 1988, uses his shovel like a precision instrument. He can heave coal evenly throughout the firebox and appears to know intuitively when it’s time to toss in more to maintain an even, 12-inch-high layer of burning anthracite.

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Singh, No. 7102’s 43-year-old engineer, or “driver,” as they say in India, has worked with steam so long that he seems to have organically meshed with his handlebar-shaped regulator handle and reversing wheel. By manipulating those two controls as he stands by the engine’s right-hand window, he regulates the flow of steam and motion of the pistons that make the driving wheels speed up or slow down.

As steam locomotives are retired, their crewmen are supposed to be provided by Indian Railways with new jobs. Sharma, though, isn’t confident. Sweat streaming down his bearded face, he says he will likely be transferred to work as an assistant in an electric or diesel locomotive, but will probably never advance because of quotas that reserve some railroad jobs for people of lower castes. Sharma is a Brahman, a member of Hinduism’s highest stratum.

On impulse, Second Fireman Ghan Shyam Singh grabs a hunk of coal, and sends it spinning into the darkness. The 24-year-old joins his hands together in a sign of reverence. He has given the sacred river some coal as an offering, he says, because he isn’t carrying any coins.


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