I Drove A Steam Engine Passenger Locomotive Train - A True Life Story

Railway Station Uchippuli

This is a true life story about how I drove a steam engine locomotive passenger train from one station to another, about 18 kilometers away. Those days, I was staying in a small place called Ramanathapuram in the state of Tamilnadu, in India. We stayed in a hired house in a small village called Uchippuli, about 25 km west of Ramanathapuram. Tamilnadu as such, is a sandy barren place with Palm trees scattered all over. Tamil Nadu receives rain only in November and December, when retreating monsoon brings in some clouds.

So as far as the eyes can see, it's all sandy plain with thorny bushes and Palm trees spotting the landscape. Being close to the sea, the groundwater level is fairly high and does not deplete. So whatever little agriculture happens in Tamil Nadu is due to the bore wells dug into the earth. People of Tamil Nadu, especially the poor fishing folk, are very simple people, who only know how to love. They are so nice even to visitors like us who despite being from South India, cannot speak Tamil language.

Tamil is The Oldest Language in the World - A True Life Story

All the South Indian languages namely Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu came from the mother of all languages called Sanskrit. So if you speak any one of these south Indian languages, then you should be able to understand a little bit of the other three. Tamil is probably older than Sanskrit language and therefore did not develop its alphabets completely when compared to other Indian languages. Yet, Tamil speaking people are so ingenious, that despite this alphabetic handicap, they could use the Tamil language to communicate much better than people speaking the other Indian languages.

It is known that movies made in Tamil beats most other language movies. This can be established by the fact that a few Tamil movies were nominated for Oscar in the past few years. Also, out of all the South Indian languages, the most beautiful songs and lyrics are produced in Tamil language. I think Tamil songs are far richer in lyrics and tune as well as orchestra than any other language.

The World's Best Musician is From TamilNadu - A True Life Story

No wonder, the world renowned music maestro named Mr Ilayaraja is from Tamil Nadu and he mostly composes music in Tamil language. I have seen in TV, how musicians from other countries come down to Chennai, the Capital of Tamil Nadu called Madras before getting renamed as Chennai, to create fusion music and learn from this great music guru of all times. Mr Ilayraja is a very small dark pleasant personality. But don’t be fooled by his figure. He is too large a figure in the Music world, a living Legend.

Our working hours are over by about 2:00 pm. Thereafter, the two of us would sleep for an hour post lunch, after which we just would start watching movies till midnight. This true story was happening sometime in 1990 when there were no mobile phones. Those days we used to watch movies on video cassette players using video tapes. We used to rent half a dozen videotapes once in a week and watch it over and over so many times, that we literally memorized every scene and every dialogue in each and every movie, of each and every actor in all the movies.

Work, eat, watch movies and sleep were the only things we were doing every day and we got totally fed up of this monotonous routine. So we started going for a walk about two hours in the evening aimlessly wandering more than ten kilometers around the countryside. It was fun for a few days but, we were getting bored again. So, we started going along all small footpaths in between the fisher folk’s houses. The fisherman families lived in small thatched huts.

Fishermen The Most Humble People in The World - A True Life Story

The huts were made of thatched coconut and palm leaf walls and roofs. Even the door was made of thatched coconut leaves or some other type of palm leaves. Whenever we stop to talk to them, we blurted out in our own local language in Tamil tune. This was because we could neither speak nor understand Tamil which is fairly different from our mother tongue which was Malayalam Language, spoken in the neighboring state of Kerala where the two of us belonged.

The fishing folks would ask us questions in Tamil Language which the two of us could not understand and what we replied the fishing folks families in Malayalam Language, they did not understand. This would go on with every fishing family we met as we went past their huts. But one common thing every fisher woman told us, was to come inside their thatched hut for Shaapaad. Shaapaad in Tamil means food.

The Unmatched Hospitality of Fishermen - A True Life Story

These fishing folks did not have enough to feed their own children and here they were inviting us into their hut offering us whatever food they had at home. The two of us never went inside those huts into which we could as such see without using any X-Ray machine because the braided palm leaf walls had so many holes that we could see what is inside with our naked eyes.

We did not enter their huts because we did not want to eat into the meagre food supplies they had, which was grossly insufficient for their own family. But the hospitality showed by each and every Tamil fishing folk family was amazing. They actually wanted the two of us to come into their hut and have Shaapaad. Their invitation was genuine.

Boredom Made Us Drive A Steam Engine Passenger Train - A True Life Story

In a week's time we got bored of this fishing village walking too. Then the two of us decided to walk along the railway line till the next railway station called Mandapam, which is almost 18 km away and take a bus back home. As we walked along the railway tracks the evening train pulled by a steam engine would pass by. When the steam engine locomotive came, we would get off the track and wave frantically at everyone in the train starting from the steam engine driver or pilot.

After about four days of walking along the railway tracks and we were bored and tired of walking 18 kilometers daily. It was really tiring and it would be almost dinner time when we reach back. The thought of walking 18 km was preventing us from getting out of the house for the next few evenings. We would rather sit at home and watch the same movies we had already seen a dozen times.

That is when I got another idea, to board the train from Uchippuli and get down at the next station and walk back home so that we don’t have to wait for the crowded bus back home. So the next day onwards we would go wait at the Uchippuli railway station for the steam engine locomotive to come, board in any compartment almost all of which were empty on week days, because after another 35 km, the steam engine locomotive ends its journey at a Hindu religious pilgrimage place called Rameshwaram.

The Down To Earth Steam Engine Locomotive Train Driver - A True Life Story

From Rameshwaram this passenger train will revert back the next morning along the same route with a different name and train number. Pilgrims go to Rameshwaram normally on Saturday and Sunday. On the second day we decided to befriend the steam engine pilot whom we have been waving at, while walking along the track a few days back. Like any other Tamil speaking people, the steam engine pilot was also very friendly and down to earth natured.

For the next two days, we were travelling in the steam engine pilot cabin to the next station and walking back home by night covered in black coal dust. Once again boredom started and we thought of dropping the travel in steam engine. One reason was that the steam engine driver cabin was unusually hot because of the coal burning furnace and we use to sweat like pigs. Not only that, from the second day onwards the old steam engine pilot even made us put some coal into the steam engine furnace making his assistant in the cabin to sit idle and smoke cigarette.

And that is something we did not like at all. When we objected, he said that he will stop the train and throw us out. We said, don’t you worry old friend, before you start moving we would have boarded the passenger coach behind the engine. So don’t threaten us. He would just smile. He was just joking. This locomotive steam engine pilot had actually started liking us boarding the driver cabin.

We Worked As Apprentice For Steam Engine Locomotive Driver - A True Life Story

Being a loco pilot, he has to run this train twice in 24 hours between Madurai railway station and Rameshwaram railway stations for a distance of about 170 km, taking a little over three hours one way. He belonged to Madurai and this was probably his last assignment before his retirement that year. But putting coal into the steam engine furnace was too tiring in that sweaty hot cabin and we were completely black with coal dust on our body and our clothes.

The two of us came home and discussed the behavior of the steam engine pilot who made us work for him for travelling without ticket in the steam engine locomotive that day. Once again I had a new idea. Why not help him put coal into the furnace a few more days and coax the steam engine locomotive pilot to allow each of us to drive the steam engine locomotive passenger train from one station to the next.

Although it looked impossible a goal to achieve, we decided to give a try. We boarded the steam engine locomotive once again the next day and voluntarily started helping the pilot put coal into the furnace. Yes it is hard manual labor. It didn’t matter to us now, because we had an aim in mind. Even otherwise if one just stands in the loco pilot cabin, one will start sweating profusely and get coated with coal dust. So it just did not matter whether we helped him or not.

We did this trick of helping the loco pilot for about three days boarding the loco cabin at Uchippuli and getting down at the next railway station called Mandapam, 18 kilometers west of our hired house and walking back all the way. Since we were eager to drive the locomotive at least once between any two stations, walking back 18 kilometers no more felt like a long distance anymore. In fact, we both were eager and looking forward to it.

For the next seven days the two of us kept boarding the pilot cabin of the steam engine. I would put coal into the steam engine furnace at least once during the 30 minute ride, getting fully covered from face to ankles in black coal dust and after alighting at Mandapam railway station, walked back 18 kilometers all the way back home looking much blacker than pure African people, walking along the unlighted railway tracks, at night.

We Demand To Drive The Steam Engine Locomotive Train - A True Life Story

I mustered enough courage on the eighth day and told the old man loco pilot that I was not helping him for free. I expected him to teacher the two of us how to pilot the steam engine of the locomotive train and finally allow us to drive his steam engine train between Uchippuli and Mandapam railway stations.

Amazingly, the old man agreed, despite his assistant who has been working with him for over a decade and yet was never allowed to drive the train by himself. There is another reason why the old loco pilot agreed. Where we work, we have our breakfast, lunch and dinner next to the railway track in an open hut. The railway track runs along our boundary fencing just twenty yards away. Our kitchen was an old abandoned railway hut.

We have been waving at all trains whenever they pass by, during our meals time. Most people in the train and the loco pilots also wave back at us. When we met this old man loco pilot a few weeks ago, the first question he asked us was really funny. He asked if our job was to keep eating the whole day, because whenever he saw us it was meals time and we were sitting in the small open air thatched roof dining hall. So he knew we are from the Navy and we can be trusted.

Pillars of Rock Sounds Music At Meenakshi Temple - A True Life Story

We too never imagined that we will be befriending this old loco pilot. This steam engine locomotive passenger train starts from Madurai railway station which is about 140 km from Uchippuli railway station and goes all the way till Rameshwaram, which is around 35 kilometers from Uchippuli. The train runs just two trips in 24 hours between Rameshwaram which is famous for the Sun temple, and Madurai, which is famous for Meenakshi temple, completing about 175 kilometers one way. The Meenakshi temple in Madurai is famous for its “Musical Pillars”.
Meenakshi Temple Musical Rock PillarsThe singing stones are nothing but a few pillars carved from a single solid granite stone, which when hit with a wooden stick makes sound. Each set of these singing stones have got seven granite rock carved like hanging pillars, each giving out the sound of one of the 7 music notes. You have to see and hear it to believe it. I had also visited Meenakshi temple and tested the singing stones with a wooden stick. They actually make sound like music notes by just a small tap of the stick on granite pillars. It was like magic to me. I understand that such musical stone pillars exist in many other temples throughout the Indian peninsula. The Sun temple in Rameshwaram is where most old Hindus go to worship. It is known to have 18 Wells inside the temple.

All the eighteen Wells inside the temple dug along the inner corridors, never dry up and all of them contains sweet water and not sea water, despite the ocean located just 50 meters away from the temple. The pilgrims run from one well to the other, pouring at least one bucket of water over their head and body from each of the 18 Wells. I could never believe it is sweet water.

Rameshwaram Sun TempleSo, one day I visited the Sun temple in Rameshwaram and tasted the water in all the 18 Wells. I would not have believed this at all, had I not tasted these well waters that day, because I found all of them to have potable sweet water in them. This is nothing less than a miracle. ven in my wildest dream I would have never thought that the old man loco pilot would agree to let us drive his steam engine locomotive.

I thought rules do not permit that. Probably, those days the regulations were not as hard and fast as it is today. And on a railway track to Rameshwaram, only people on pilgrimage travel in this train, due to which even train ticket examiners don’t board it to check tickets. So, there is no way the railways would come to know, if I drive this train.


Our Steam Engine Passenger Train Driving Classes Commence - A True Life Story

The next day the old man started teaching the two of us how to drive the locomotive steam engine. He did not teach us anything more than what is required to start the train moving, how to control the speed of the train and then how to break and bring the steam engine train to a stop by reversing the steam into the engine cylinders.

He also taught us how to pull a cord tied across the cabin, that can be pulled standing anywhere inside the engine driver cabin, to sound the typical steam engine whistling sound made by using the high pressure steam, which I have been hearing right from my childhood days and something which I have always felt to be soothing. I have always loved hearing the steam train engine whistle. Even in our school days the text book used the same steam engine whistling sound amplitude, increasing and then decreasing, as felt by an observer on ground, to teach the Doppler Effect.

But the old loco pilot placed a funny demand. He said the next day he will let both of us drive that locomotive from Uchippuli station to Mandapam and from there to the Rameshwaram railway station, so that both of us can get a firsthand experience in driving a steam engine passenger locomotive provided, we bring one full grilled chicken along with us, which he said we will eat together to celebrate our achievement on reaching Rameshwaram.

A Train Driver Taught Two Aircraft Pilots - A True Life Story

In fact, the old loco pilot seemed to be happy to have two students under him, both of whom he knew were actual naval aircraft pilots. The old man was about to retire from active railway service and could not have wished for more in life than the satisfaction of having taught two pilots, how to drive a passenger train. The old man declared that the test drive of the locomotive steam engine train will not be tomorrow, but will be done only on the Sunday morning trip.

What the old man wanted was that one of us drive the train from Uchippuli railway station to Mandapam railway station 18 km away and the other from Mandapam Railway station till Rameshwaram railway station where the train stops finally, both distances being 18 kilometers each. Not only that, the old man was very considerate as well because, he did not want us to walk all the way back 35 kilometers to Uchippuli.

The old man loco pilot also told us that we have the option to board his train after visiting the Rameshwaram temple four hours later, when his train restarts in the evening as Rameshwaram to Madurai Passenger. In the last few weeks when we were traveling inside the locomotive steam engine pilot cabin, the old loco pilot had been introducing us to a lot of his railway staff friends, all of whom had become our friends too.

So, we were very sure that no one is going to make a complaint against us traveling in loco pilot cabin of the Madurai Rameshwaram local train. Moreover, the railway staff in both these stations had started treating the two of us with respect as the old man loco pilot had started treating us like his two sons, whom he was missing a lot, because they were married off long ago and are working in some other part of the country and they do not visit him regularly anymore. Often, during our half an hour train drive every day he would tell us about the childhood stories of his two sons. He actually used to shout over the loud sound made by the steam engine locomotive engine and winds.

Finally, We Were Going to Drive A Steam Engine Passenger Train

And finally that Sunday came. We had already tied up for two full grilled chicken the previous evening itself, one each for the old man loco pilot and his assistant, who was the only guy who could report this matter to railway authorities. So keeping him happy was a necessity. With the two grilled chicken packets in hand, the two of us waited eagerly at the Uchippuli railway station. Unfortunately everyone knows us in this railway station, they all wanted to know what was in the packets we were carrying.

We said, we were going on a picnic and it was our lunch. The steam engine came and stopped at its usual position. The two of us jumped on board. We tossed to see who should drive the steam engine locomotive passenger train first. I lost the toss and my turn to drive the steam engine locomotive passenger train was to be from Mandapam to Rameshwaram. I looked out for the signal and indicated thumbs up.

My friend in his eagerness to drive allowed the steam into the cylinders uncontrolled, by rotating the rotary valve so fast, that the steam pressure made the engine wheels to slip on the rails and rotate on the same spot, but did not move the train at all. The old man took over and showed him once again how to let in steam slowly to start the train moving from rest as he had done the previous day. The rest of the procedures were alright and the old man again helped him to bring the steam engine passenger train to a stop at Mandapam.

I Drove A Steam Engine Passenger Train Between Two Railway Stations - A True Life Story

The ten minutes stop at Mandapam railway station looked as if time had stopped. Those ten minutes must have taken at least one hour to pass by, because I was all ready to start the train moving, all by myself. Now it was my turn. I had watched all the mistakes my friend had made and I did not want to repeat them so that the old man does not take over the controls of the train from me like he did with my friend. The signal turned green and immediately I pulled the cord to sound the whistle. It was so thrilling just to sound the Steam Engine Whistle.

I did everything as demonstrated and taught to us by the old man and the train started moving very smoothly. The old man was impressed. He somehow felt he could relax with me on the controls of his train. I kept a good watch of the track ahead for any danger pulling the cord to sound the whistle every now and then as it was giving me some sort of thrill to do that. The old man knew I am using the whistle a little more than required, but did not stop me from doing it. He seemed to be having the satisfaction of having taught us how to drive a steam engine train in such a short time.

Steam Engine Locomotive Train

Then came the famous Pamban Bridge which connects the Rameshwaram Island with the main land. The road bridge is comparatively new. But the railway bridge on which we were crossing the sea is considered as an engineering masterpiece as it could open upwards to allow the ships to pass under it and then, close again for the train to pass over it, being the only such railway bridge in India capable of achieving this feat for over a century. The Pamban Bridge also happens to be the longest railway bridge over the sea in India.

I was so engrossed in driving the train that 30 minutes went past in just about five minutes and the Rameshwaram railway station was visible far away on the horizon with the Sun Temple touching the sky. The old loco pilot got up to take over control from me. I looked at him with protest that it is unfair not to let me stop the train as per our unwritten grilled chicken contract agreement. The old man somehow seems to read my eyes. He sat down and looked relaxed.

I Drove And Stopped The Steam Engine Passenger Train Flawlessly - A True Life Story

I wanted to make no mistakes. I stopped the train using brakes and the reverse steam technique and brought the steam engine locomotive passenger train just a foot short of the mechanical stop at the end of the railway track. If I were to overshoot, I would have pushed the steam engine train through the railway station building in front. I was thrilled with my achievement.

The two of us shook hands with the old loco pilot and his assistant. Even they both looked thrilled which I do not know if it was our achievement or the grilled chicken packets we presented, which never lost heat in that super-hot oven like loco pilot cabin. This true life story was not over.As we were about to get down from the loco pilot cabin, the old loco pilot hugged the two of us. He knew that we were not going to come back again.

The two of them kept waving at us till we went out of the railway station exit. We took a bus for our 35 kilometer journey back home. Unlike other days when we used to take a bus at night, after getting down from the loco pilot cabin of this coal burning steam engine train, completely covered with coal all over our body and dress, today we were out of the loco cabin much early and broad day light at 2:00 pm.

Driving A Steam Engine Passenger Train Is Intoxicating - A True Life Story

And travelling in that dress and without a bath was something we had forgotten to cater for, before starting from home. The local people in Tamil Nadu are mostly dark skinned. Even these dark skinned people did not want to come anywhere near the two of us completely covered in coal dust from head to toe and stinking with the mixed foul smell of our sweat mixed with de-odorants.

So we went back into the railway platform, bought a bathing soap, a couple of Bermuda and T-Shirts from the railway station shop, took a bath in the railway waiting room and changed into them. Then we walked out of the Rameshwaram railway station like two tourists wearing a pair of new T-Shirts and Bermudas, but wearing the same coal covered, jet black socks and sneakers which we had to reuse, because we were left with just enough money for the bus ride back home.

As I tried to sleep that night satisfied with the achievement and intoxicating feeling that Sunday, I was in deep thoughts thinking this, “What do we do in the evenings from tomorrow?”

A True Life Story