KF article top
Steam train on rails (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)
(All pics: Nanadakumar Narasimhan)

By Nandakumar Narasimhan

My name is Nanda (Instagram: grumpy_oldman_) and I work as a photographer in Singapore.

Of the many obsessions I had as a kid, trains were probably the biggest. It didn’t help that I spent a good proportion of my childhood living next to a railway yard in Bombay (Mumbai) where trains zipped past and also did their slow roll of shame into the yard for being cleaned and maintained. It looked like the trains were ashamed of this slow roll when all they wanted to do was speed on the rails and honk their horns in full glory.

A lot of the trains were coloured in maroon back then. Between the years 1997 and 2001, when I was in Singapore completing my high school education, I was completely disconnected from the trains. And within these five or six years the trains had changed colour to varying shades of light and dark blue, much to my disappointment.

My discontent lingered with me for a more than a decade and a half before a friend from Malaysia opened the coffers of my memories and a flood of childhood images flavoured with the sauce of nostalgia filled my head. I hunted down the few remaining red trains and started finding out where they still ran. I’d like to thank Mahen Bala who allowed me to take part in his magnum opus project called “Projek Keretapi Kita” (Our Railways) documenting the history of the Malaysian Railways. I had the privilege of shooting a few images for their book.

After that, I went back to India over a period of four years and shot the remaining red trains that still plied the remote routes of the country. They were metre-gauge trains that were being phased out rapidly in favour of the bigger broad-gauge trains. What you see here is a fraction of the images I shot and the project is still ongoing.

What started off a labour of love fuelled by inspiration, became a project of pain with the exhaust of resignation and almost halted by the brakes of frustration. I lost an entire camera bag with four cameras and all my exposed film in June 2017 and had to make do with whatever residual equipment I had from then on. Half a year later my mainstay medium format camera (the Pentax 67II) broke and could not be repaired without parting with an arm and a leg. Fortunately I was a photographer with severe GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) so I still had decent gear that allowed me to shoot on.

The photos you see here were shot on a range of cameras. The main cameras I worked with at the start were the Nikon F100, Fuji TX-1, Pentax 67, Nikon FM and FM2, Arax CM (refurbished Kiev-88CM) and the Mamiya RB 67 PRO S. As of now, I only shoot with the FM2, the Arax CM and a Mamiya M645 1000s, having lost one FM2, F3 and the TX-1 and all the lenses to a thief in 2017.

The films I used the most were the Orwo N74+, Ilford Delta 400 (120), HP5+ (120) and Fuji Neopan Acros (120 and 135). The Orwo was a film that was ubiquitous in India in the 70s and 80s and what started off as a quest for cheap film ended up being a serendipitous experience. The film was not just cheap but had beautiful grain and contrast which made for very easy darkroom printing. The N74 was discontinued and replaced by the N75 in late 2019. I do not shoot on the N75 anymore as it is an entirely different (and inferior in my opinion) emulsion. Covid came in after that in 2020 so it has given me some time to experiment with another film to replace the N74+.

The entire project is supposed to be a collection of hand-coloured photos that serve to accompany an autobiography of a train. The red train gives a kind of eulogy to itself before it gets scrapped for good and replaced by the bigger and more modern trains. But what you see here are mostly the black and white pictures (digital scans) as I am not able to scan the 12 by 16in hand-coloured prints with my limited resources. Barring the first photo (shot on Fujicolor C200), all the other photos are shot on black and white film.

I hope you like the images and write up of the train’s thoughts…

Indian train in forest (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

The red meter gauge trains that ply in some of the most remote parts of the country are fast being abandoned or replaced. These trains, which once made up 50% of India’s railway network, are taking their history and character with them to the scrapyard. In their twilight years they are associated mainly with the underdeveloped parts of the country, serving the less well-off and bringing them from one remote town to another. But they were and continue to be an important lifeline in these far-flung areas.

I am a living, moving museum….

Just everything about me is old, historic or nostalgic,
The tracks I run on, or the mechanical signals that still work like magic,

No fancy electronics where I run,
All I do is move people, and get the job done…

————————

Everything from the signalling to the recording of arrivals and departures are done by hand. No buttons to push, no screens to tap on. It was only fitting that these magnificent machines and the places they run be captured on film, a technology that pretty much grew concurrently with the railways. Below, a train departs a remote town called Nanpara in Uttar Pradesh.

Cyclists by pool and train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Signals and light trails (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

The signalling system comprises mechanical semaphores that have to be lowered and raised by hand using a series of levers like the ones shown below. And the station master communicates with the next station using an old telephone that only has access to the station before and after the station he works in. The office looks like a scene straight out of a sci-fi movie from the 1920s.

Man pulling lev ers (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Man in railway signal room (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

I unite the country like no politician ever has…

No fiery speeches or false promises to show my power,
I merely put one and all in the same coach and very near,

You can’t choose if you sit next to a Sikh or Mohammedan

I unite this country quietly, unlike the lying politician

———————

People boarding train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

The Indian Railways does not allow choosing of seats even on reserved trains so you never know who you’ll be seated next to. Even more so on these nondescript passenger trains with unreserved coaches where its every man and woman for themselves.

I am the helper of the poor, the mover of the downtrodden….

I leave no man behind, be they a prince or pauper,
A philanthropist or miser, an illiterate or the school topper,

They all come with the hope of a smooth travel,

In my old coaches their stories slowly unravel,

So regardless of race, language, religion or ilk, I carry people, things or even cans of milk!

———————-

Semi-nomadic family outside train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Semi-nomadic people use the trains to move their belongings in Talala, Gujarat. Entire families with all their belongings rush in to the trains as this is the cheapest option for transporting people and services anywhere in the country. To give you an idea, a 100km trip costs approximately Rs. 30 which is around US$0.40.

Bicycles on outside of train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

In Uttar Pradesh, bicycles are a common sight, being hung on windows, supported by the pedal.

Woman and cow walking past train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Sometimes it’s leaf bundles being brought to towns for sale to cattle owners who do not have grazing grounds to bring their cattle to. Here leaf bundles are hung outside a window of a train in Kalakund, Madhya Pradesh.

Milk cans hanging on train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Milk cans used to be a common sight on these trains but they’ve become very rare as these trains have been cut off from important milk-producing towns. This train from Pilibhit ended its service in mid 2018.

I am the stereotypical image of the Indian Railways….

Many a photographer earned their name, Showing me crowded was their route to fame,

It is not that common a sight in today’s age,
To see me like this, carrying humans like luggage.

———————

Passengers standing on roof (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

On special occasions like religious festivals, trains get exceptionally crowded with many choosing “top class” travel over the regular second class. Many of the lines in the cities have been electrified so people no longer ride on the roofs. But here in the remote towns, roof riding still happens once in a while.

I have a past filled with glory….

Allow me to show off if I may,
For those who think I should be done away,

In this very last run of mine,
This old man’s charm continues to shine,

You might say I’m due to be scrapped,
But see me huff and puff, trust me you’ll watch me rapt…

These words come from my locomotive’s mind,

One that ran on steam, truly one of a kind….

Steam train in shed (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)The last working meter-gauge, coal-powered steam locomotives are housed at Rewari Steam Shed and Museum. They have around 200-300 metres of track and are not brought to the mainline any more. Their broad-gauge counterparts are brought out for ceremonial runs but these locomotives do not have that privilege as very little meter-gauge tracks are left in the country, and none within 500km of this shed.

I have hopes and dreams……

I am due to be scrapped today or tomorrow, Few might express some regret, some sorrow,

But I’d like to tell you for what I hope and pine,
To be just like the trains on the beautiful Nilgiri line…

Oh what I wouldn’t give to be plying these rails,
To be hauled by these locos, from Switzerland they hail!

Just watching the locomotives being fussed over, I reminisce my bygone days of glory and power!

Train on forest viaduct (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

The only metre-gauge line that is preserved in its entirety is the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The heritage status was accorded by Unesco so most of its infrastructure and rolling stock have been maintained in its original form. The NMR attracts tourists from all over the world and there are several sections of metre-gauge railways in other parts of India that have similar scenery and infrastructure but lesser known and accessible to tourists. The route traverses through the dense Nigiri forests and many a time trains get stopped by elephants and bisons crossing the tracks. The bridges built in the late-19th and early-20th Centuries by British engineers continue to support the packed trains to this day.

Steam train at station (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Besides the scenic route, the other main attraction are the Swiss-built X Class steam locomotives. They are what make the NMR different from other railways in India. They have been modified to be operated by furnace oil rather than coal, but they continue to function as steam locomotives. These modified steam locomotives haul the heritage train from Mettupalayam to Coonoor in Tamil Nadu, India.

Train travelling past forested hill (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Not only the forest but also the idyllic human settlements with picturesque tea plantations justify this line’s special status.

Steam train workshop (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

The locomotives on this line are serviced at Coonoor steam shed and they are possibly the best maintained steam locomotives in the country.

Close-up of train wheels (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

 

The beautiful mechanical parts of the steam locomotive are a treat for the eyes. The beautiful harmony of moving mechanical parts interspersed with the hissing sound of the exiting steam is not just an attraction for children, even the most uninterested adults would pause and ponder on how the symbiotic interaction of steam and metal causes these machines to move.

Oiling part of train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Hammering part of train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

A hammer test to identify loose parts takes place at stations. The locomotive takes on water when the moving parts are tightened and lubricated to ensure the loco performs optimally at the steep climbs. This is all in a day’s work for Mr Shasheed (top) and Mr Pazhaniappan (below). The NMR has the steepest gradient in Asia (1 in 12) and is the only rack railway. A rack railway basically has a toothed wheel in the centre of the locomotive that attaches itself to a third toothed rail in the middle of the two tracks to allow the train to climb up steeper slopes in the hilly areas.

I am but an image of the people I carry….

I can tell you lots about how great I am or the deeds I’ve done, But I am merely dancing to the tunes of the human,

For it is the human effort and need that makes me roll,

The driver is my guide, the passenger my soul….

Have a quick glimpse of the people I carry,

 The cultures and age all seem to vary….

None love me more than the kids in their innocence,

Be they inside or outside they thoroughly enjoy my presence…..

Kids love trains. Whether they are seated in one or watching one go by. Looking out of the window and having the wind blow in the face is an indelible memory in every child who has travelled by the trains here.

Kids in train doorway (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Kids love trains. Whether they are seated in one or watching one go by. Looking out of the window and having the wind blow in the face is an indelible memory in every child who has travelled by the trains here.

Child waving at train

Animals also form part of the passenger crowd. In many villages, the train is the only connection to the outside world so everything from animals to bicycles find their way into the train.

Goat and man in doorway (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

The further you go from the cities, the more exotic the dress codes get.

Group of men in carriage (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Vendors form a significant part of railway travel in India. Selling anything from black currants (pictured below) to tea and coffee, it’s become a right of passage for any train passenger to consume food from the vendors in the train.

Train vendor and child (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

And because seats are over-rated, the leaf vendors just make use of their leaf bundles for the short journey from Kalakund to Mhow in Madhya Pradesh.

Leaf vendor sitting on leaves (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Mornings in winter can’t be started without a cup of hot tea. Mr Ladu is the tea vendor at Khamlighat station. He boards the train and refreshes everyone on the morning run of the Mavli-bound passenger train.

Tea seller at window (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

People leaning out of train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Men drinking in train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Mendicants are also a ubiquitous group of people. Often shunned from seats by ticket inspectors many travel at the door ways or in the luggage coach battling it out for space with the other occupants.

Mendicant smoking marijuana (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

While smoking is banned in Indian Railway trains mendicants claim the marijuana they smoke is divinely sanctioned by god and it has to be consumed at the right time.

Man lying with sick child (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

The bench becomes a bed for the weary traveller bringing his child to the town to see the doctor.

Monkeys gathered outside train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

The simians know the train timetable better than the humans. It doesn’t help that the human generosity is making the monkeys bolder and they’ve started becoming temporary occupants of the train when it halts at Goram Ghat station for a few minutes.

Wherever I go I catch your attention…

Be it a fisherman or farmer, schoolboy or shepherd, I make heads turn, the moment my horn is heard,

Even if I don’t honk, my rumble on the tracks,

Makes animals wary as if under attack…

It will be this respect that I miss the most,
I once rolled like this from mountain to coast.

—————————

Lock of sheep and passing train (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

While humans take their chances at level crossings, even sheep err on the side of caution and wait for the train to pass before crossing over to their homes. A vigilant shepherd signals to the train driver to hold back the honking so as to prevent the sheep from scattering in fear.

Cyclists and train fog (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Possibly the trickiest time to be waiting for a train would be in the north Indian winter where fog envelopes most of the plains. The fog doesn’t just cut visibility but also muffles the rumble of the train and it’s not until the train is very close that it appears to the eye, emerging from the fog as a phantom of the winter. The kids here know when the train is close enough and prefer to stay away from the tracks until the train has passed.

Man watching train pass (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Mr Mithun gets to see the 4.30pm train pass over Choral Bridge No 2 everyday as he heads out to collect firewood for his family. The train in this part of Madhya Pradesh passes over many beautiful bridges criss-crossing the Choral River.

Of Bridges and Crossings….

I can’t tell you how much I love bridges, Be they over rivers or mountain ridges,

While I get a glimpse of the lives below, People look up as if to say “Hello!”

Then come the crossings where a sort of race begins,
The cars think they can beat me until the crossing bell sings…

As I roll alongside the cars, they might seem pretty fast, But once the crossing approaches its I who laughs last!

——————

Train in far distance (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

The bridge over Kachbali Nala in Rajasthan has the impressive Aravalli mountain range watching over the train like sentinels from the gods.

Train in dense forest (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

While the lush greenery of the Choral Valley makes for a visual treat for passengers who take the trains in the monsoon.

Faces in train windows (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Whether you are a passenger on board….

Boys in boat by bridge (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Or the kid that jumps into the water to pick coins thrown by passengers as an offering into the holy Narmada River.

Group of young coin gatherers (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Man in boat with train behind (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Or just a fisherman on a boat watching the passengers zip by…

Bridges will continue to draw attention from those whose lives go over it on board trains or those whose lives slip right underneath on boats or other means.

Crowd around train crossing (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Manned railway crossings offer a safe way for vehicles to cross the tracks.

Boys watching trains (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Perhaps the ones who obey the rules of the crossings most willingly are children because a sight of a chugging train is never worth missing.

Train and people at level crossing (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

Unmanned crossings require caution on the part of the pedestrian or motorist. Accidents on these types of crossings are not unheard of.

Train behind ricefield (Pic: Nandakumar Narasimhan)

 

End of Part 1…..

Part 2 will feature a collection of photos from railway stations, the staff and passengers who use the trains together with more scenic shots of the picturesque villages these trains pass through.

PIC 46

Support Kosmo Foto

Keep Kosmo Foto free to read by subscribing on Patreon for as little as $1 month, or make a one-off payment via Ko-Fi. All your donations really help.

4.7 15 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
2 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Clive Richardson
2 months ago

Fantastic! My two main interests, trains and photography.
I buy spares and repairs film cameras to repair and use and the same with model trains, I prefer something I have to work on before it works to my saisfacion.

Stephen Dowling
2 months ago

Happy to hear, Clive – I think Nanda shares your passions!