Puffs of white smoke heralded the arrival of the steam locomotive engine as it roared its way in front of Taj Mahal at the rail yard at Agra Fort railway station.
Captured in 1983, this photograph by Steve McCurry stands as a significant part of our history as steam locomotives paved way for diesel and electric locomotives.
Reminiscing the glory of steam locomotives, Indian Steam Railway Society recently organised ‘Full Steam Ahead’, a photographic exhibition displaying these ‘black beauties’, as they are fondly called, from the early 1930s at the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society.
On his way up the ladder in his career, Mukesh Kumar, a chief locomotive inspector in Indian Railways, also drove these black beauties early in 1975.
He remembers, “Back in 1975, I started as a fireman for steam locomotives. Later, I drove these black beauties on different routes, crossing Delhi to Rewari, Rewari to Hisar and many others.”
“I think we were alert minded and very hardworking during those years. The train used to run maximum at 75 to 90 km per hour.
Now, they run at 160 km per hour but there’s hardly any manual labour involved,” says the locomotive inspector.
Joginder Singh, a locomotive pilot in Northern Indian Railways, says, “There are still a few steam locos operating around the country, like the one in Darjeeling, Kalka’s toy train, and others.
But their use is mainly limited to being tourist attractions or filming.
The Heritage Steam shed at Rewari is the sole treasure trove to spot these steam locos now. Families drive down to the shed to enjoy a picnic at this heritage location.
Apart from lending them out for filming, the shed also operates a steam express between October to April.”
“Remember how Ranbir Kapoor rolls down a track in Darjeeling in the first few scenes of Barfi! It was one of our steam locos that was used for the film,” said Joginder pointing to a picture of the steam loco in Darjeeling, clicked by Guy Brigden.
Mukesh chips in, “You would have also spotted them in films like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, where the young Milkha steals coal from a train, and ofcourse, Gunday, where these featured prominently. That’s how they seem to evoke interest and continue to have a connection with the young generation now.”
With happy faces and excitement in their step, as the two walk us through the gallery, reviving the past of the steam locomotives, they halt to describe, “See this picture clicked back in 1976 in Lucknow.
Lined in a row, these are all steam locomotives participating in a Black Beauty contest.”
The exhibition featured pictures clicked by celebrated photographers like Steve McCurry, Bearn Seller and Guy Brigden along with the ones clicked by young enthusiasts and amateur photographers like Ashok Sharma, Arjun Singh, Sameer Bhatnagar and Vikas Arya, besides several other photographs clicked by anonymous photographers.