India is a land of dreams. Despite the creep of modern globalist consumer society into all things like a cancer, I still find this statement rings very, very true.
In short, India has demonstrated to me that it is a place I should have a lot of hope for, at least within the span of my remaining lifetime.
TO start off, I must outline the reason why I ventured to India in the first place. When there is nearly nothing of what you need to be found in the place in which you dwell and the conditions prevent you from creating it, the solution is to fly far, far away and look for it elsewhere. I would hope this is the logical conclusion that others arrive at as well.
In the United States thusfar, love and enthusiasm for what I am passionate about earns my colleagues and I immense scrutiny and disrespect. The culture around things such as working steam power, and in fact anything that is remotely niche or rare, has become completely ruined by those both in and out of the field lacking education and patience. Furthermore, anyone in the field who does seem to know what they are doing have had their opinion of anyone trying to "break in from the outside" equally ruined as it were by the screaming, opinionated and fowl masses that dwell on online forums.
Working something like a steam locomotive in the United States has become largely impossible, and not for the reasons directly apparent. Having talked to people on many projects including the J class 611, a former man on the project of Berkshire 765, an informant on the Durango & Silverton, and having worked on steam locomotives myself, I have seen many statements made not add up, and many more statements made greatly disturb me.
Unless thought-numbed regulation is directly side-stepped by someone who knows what he or she is doing, anyone will tell you it takes on the order of a quarter of a million dollars to several million dollars to restore a steam locomotive to working order, even one that has run very recently or has not but is in fantastic mechanical shape otherwise, of which there are surprisingly many in museums. If asked, they will eagerly cite the reason of "not enough skilled labor, and the cost of materials is too high." Why do they say this? They do not say it because it is in any way correct, they say it because of course this is the easiest answer. Working steam power here has become far more political than it has mechanical, the people who excel in it are those with politician's minds, not those of engineers.
The fact of the matter is that firstly, in this country it has become impossible to work a steam locomotive or in many cases any sort of fired pressure vessel because of regulations written by those who had either no idea what they are doing, or those who did but did not understand the eventual repercussions of the regulations they wrote.
The Claytor brothers assisted the FRA in writing boiler certification procedures after the hilarious episode that was the Gettysburg incident much in the way a teacher in a classroom bans all firecrackers simply because the intellectually arrested child in the room swallowed one with its fuse lit. Rather than let the intellectually arrested child's injury serve as a humorous indicator of his lone inadequacy, instead in typical American fashion it must be used an excuse to ruin something nice for all the rest of us.
In terms of state boiler and pressure vessel code, the same case applies to the traction engine boiler explosion in Ohio. For those who do not know, both of these incidents were caused by people with very low levels of intelligence and patience causing catastrophic boiler failures by quite possibly some of the highest negligence and worst treatment, operation and maintenance practices I have ever seen exhibited anywhere at any time in the history of this technology.
To back my claim, detailed reports on both can be found here www.ntsb.gov/safety/safety-stu…
and here www.dli.mn.gov/CCLD/BoilerInci…
The above reports should, if anything, be a testament to the strength and safety factor of these boilers and how deliberately one must work to cause them to fail in this manner.
It should be known there is a wonderful principle out there called Darwin's law. In industrial human society pertaining to industrial machinery I have always seen it manifest in that the smart and well adapted tend to survive while the stupid and slow to learn do not, the machines of course being the great and unforgiving deciders. I believe this is rightly so. Belying all the insurance culture and safety mania, I do believe if we let these machines begin picking off those who refuse to understand how to take care of them, society around them will grow collectively smarter. This I deem as wholly acceptable and sadly under-practiced. It is not cruel, it is simply a matter of there being eventual consequences for one's actions.
Let it also be known that in the 1920's, the United State's railroads alone were causing roughly one catastrophic boiler failure explosion per week. This does not count boilers unrelated to railroad locomotives.
Our solution to this problem is backwards. Rather than educating the people who are working with and want to work with this machinery and fostering in them common sense, we are simply writing regulations to be blindly followed for boilers to be overbuilt with tremendous and unneccesary safety factors at equally unneccesary expense, expense which makes it prohibitive to complete any task. I also surmise that the task of teaching people in and of itself is nearly impossible here as any such infrastructure of knowledge of working steam power and any sort of authority on it has been eroded by the regulatory bodies in charge of it now, consisting largely of people who have never touched or seen a traditional steam boiler, as well as by thousands of amateurs in the field who, disturbingly, own or otherwise possess engines and operate them with no deep understanding of them. I have had alarming conversations with people in this country who cannot understand even the most simple things such as the principle of superheated steam, or the application of copper in boiler fireboxes. Dispassionate engineers with no interest in this field in other countries seem to have a far higher general knowledge of these machines than those enthusiastic about them do here.
Another problem is our culture itself. As I mentioned above, ours is a country that is behind in almost everything technologically, and ours is a culture that cannot admit when it is deficient or in the wrong. We could not master a four-speed automobile gearbox while the europeans had moved onto five and six, and we were never able to get a compound locomotive to work correctly. Our machining skills collectively were so bad and done so cheaply that a brand new locomotive from a works like Baldwin would often be in worse mechanical condition than a locomotive in a european country that was about to go in for overhaul after many thousands of miles working.
Compound all things above with the fact that in our culture today prevails a very odd phenomenon in the form of "sue culture", in which the law structure created by insurance companies and regulatory bodies has made a system in which anyone can be sued or legally otherwise charged for damages in the most minute cases.
All of the above means that most of the money, and I mean quite truly most of the money someone would tell you it takes to bring a steam locomotive into operation quite literally goes into empty space. It pays not for labor or materials, but goes instead into immense and wholly unnecessary insurance policies. Magnify these policy costs many times if this locomotive is to run on a main line, or in fact any track controlled by the Federal Railroad Administration. Also magnify the costs of the unnecessary labor factor on the machine itself due to the fear-mongering that comes with these insurance policies and which in fact fuels the imaginary need for them.
It also should be noted that from preservation engines which do no real work and intermittently, all the way to non-preservation "going concerns" such as the Pratt Institute Power Plant which must provide high pressure steam every day and all day to Pratt Institute, these insurance policies massively ramp up operational costs because when there is any work that must be done, such work is usually given out to a "certified contractor", one that of course holds all the paperwork, knows nothing of the subject at hand, uses a very limited range of modern and improper equipment and does the job at ten times the cost of a regular effort. Conrad Milster, Chief Engineer of the powerplant mentioned above, has been banned from doing a lot of his own work at this power plant by his administration and now contractors do work that he once used to take on himself. The completely failed installation of the new gas burner on Boiler No. 3 is testament to this.
Because of this, whenever you hear someone complaining about a lack of skilled labor, it is simply not true. There is plenty of skilled labor and POTENTIAL skilled labor out there that will work for free on preservation projects, the problem is that in this country very few of these people are allowed to work, and as such, never allowed to hone their skills. Social elitism prevails as well in these circles. This is why in this country, an "enthusiast" is generally someone who stands behind safety barriers with a camera, snapping photographs excitedly and is quite content to do so, and somehow feels "involved". Very rarely do you find an "enthusiast" inside a boiler turning staybolt taps. The exceptions are usually people "in the family" so to speak. Working on steam here becomes not a matter of skill or even credentials, but of privilege. As such all efforts on it become highly unrealistic and those who should be doing the job are turned away.
On to India.
Whereas my enthusiasm and passion for what I love often earns me the ends of the problems I described above, in India it landed me a trip that was almost entirely payed for by the Indian government.
Upon finding the effort to restore derelict steam locomotives at a shed called Rewari in 2010, I made incessant efforts to contact the men behind the effort, and these efforts succeeded. After this and subsequent contact with these people, and telling them just what was in my heart, this earned my friend and I an arranged stay in that country with the express purpose of working steam power.
My friend and I were payed for entirely, only having to make up the cost of the air line tickets. We were assigned our own driver, and we stayed in a Victorian palace free of cost due entirely to the generosity of an ex railwayman Mr. Sinha. Every accommodation possible was given to us, even the cost of setting up our telephones to work within the country. Food and drink was payed for and was of good quality, no sickness was caused by what they gave us. And besides all the practicalities, we were treated with the utmost respect.
India is a civilised country. It is a place many people call backwards, and yet despite its abject poverty and challenges, the entire country excels. It is a human country, it is not sterilized either literally or figuratively. It is a place of color and of warmth. Many cultures, many religions exist there in a more or less harmonious fashion without violence. It is a cradle of civilisation.
It's railways, even after the death of steam, should be looked at as the admiration of the world. They are a feat not only of engineering but of human effort and of consistency.
As I mentioned before, the United States ran Steam locomotives from the 1830's to the very early 1950's. In the period of running steam as railroad traction, by the 1920's was causing roughly one catastrophic boiler failure per week.
In India, this so called "backwards" country, the period of working steam as railway traction was far longer, from 1850 to 1995, also having far higher numbers of steam locomotives working at any given time than the United States ever did. From 1850 to 1995 and onward still into the preservation era, it should be noted that there has only been one (one) catastrophic boiler failure of any kind on the entirety of Indian Railway networks. That is a record safer than Britain, France or Germany, nevermind ours.
For contrast, as far as I know, the safest railway boiler record in the world goes to Iceland. No boiler explosions in all history, and this mainly due to the fact that Iceland had one railway in all history, that railway running for a rather short time and possessing only two small dockyard locomotives, both of which survive today. India is only one away from this, even with over 200,000 steam locomotives and at one time nearly 100,000 miles of track.
In India, in 1998, restoring the 1855 built single "Fairy Queen" cost the equivalent of 18,000 United States Dollars and required only new bearings and a new set of flue pipes. The engine has continued running in good condition with fairly minor overhauls to this day. In India, it took a severely under-equipped Rewari steam shed to get eight derelict locomotives into steam in under one year, using government money.
Steam in India died only twenty years ago. It is in living memory of vast numbers of people working for its railways. The guide who was assigned to us, the respectable and kind Mr. Ramesh Kumar, is also a locomotive inspector (and did a marvelous job of looking after us while and at the same time fulfilling his role as a locomotive inspector), remembered working steam power and in fact had been taught formally in steam locomotive operation. He regaled us with a tale of part of his training was to walk around the sideboards and pilot deck of a steam locomotive with his colleagues as it rushed down a mainline as fast as it would go.
Because of the closeness of working steam power to the living memory of India's railway, because of the incredible amount of dedication and passion that is put into an occupation by workers in India and because of common sense prevailing to a much higher level, working steam in India is far easier and far less costly. There are no costs that go into getting a locomotive working which do not actually go into the physical restoration unless the labor force is wholly unskilled or corrupt. I was told by the director NRM in Delhi that restoring any of the steam locomotives I requested to inspect was as simple as a hydraulic test and a steam test. In many ways, I find the requirements almost lacking, as unless there are railwaymen on the project who are familiar with the nuances of steam power, things such as chassis condition and appliances will be overlooked.
The political situation in India is very different, and I was very lucky to be eased into it by those who I can now call steadfast friends. If there is a problem or deficiency present in something, you do not call it out in an insulting manner nor do you do it in a way that can cause someone in a higher position to lose face. Whereas this may seem an archaic manner in which to communicate and one that would slow any progress to be made, it is in fact a much more civil system in which people are forced, if by nothing more than etiquette, to get along with eachother. Working together is a skill that has been utterly lost in almost all facets of life in the United States, but it seems to survive well in India. Respect is something irrelevant in the United States, whereas in India it is a hallmark of interaction.
I found it very good for me to practice both. I found that when I treated those around me with this respect, I was rewarded with trust, friendship, comraderie and more importantly, a common goal.
I was made the keynote speaker of the National congress on steam traction, I talked with the minister of culture/tourism, the Member Mechanical of Indian Railways, the director of the national railway museum, and countless others, each one I begged for resources and specific education to keep steam working in India, and I was requested by each of these brilliant men to return to India at my nearest convenience for a longer time period.
I was taught IR signal aspects in Hindi by loco inspector Ramesh Kumar so as I could then drive a broad gauge WP class pacific, at speed, on the signaled main line. I was given the controls of the world's oldest working steam locomotive, the East Indian Railway No. 22 "Fairy Queen." I also was able to work an Orenstein & Koppel monorail locomotive at the NRM. Me, who is a 23 year old upstart with no professional credentials whatsoever, entirely self taught in steam power and wanting very much to cut his teeth. My friend also was given these kindnesses.
Because of the lack of resources at Rewari Shed, the pacific in question "Akbar" was not in the best working condition, but she took us across India at a blinding speed, and I found being behind her controls to be on parallel with some sort of enlightened state of which the Buddhists speak. India's mustard fields and railway track stretched out ahead of me, my Guru Amar Singh stood behind me and for a time, I was truly free, and truly young, and the broad gauge sun god made beautiful music all around me. Apparently someone shot a video of this trip which caught me in the window during a stint as fireman as the train passes at 1:03.
In a powerful discussion with the director of the NRM, I found myself using my artwork to better describe requests for heavy tooling at Rewari shed.
All in all, there is much work to be done, MUCH work to be done, to get working preserved steam power to where it should be in India. But there is a big difference, India is one of the few countries and cultures where I have hope that this can actually be accomplished and where I can actually make a difference. I am tremendously impressed with that beautiful place.
As Gonzo once sang in the middle of a desert; "I'm going to go Back There, Some Day"
(Apologies for the lateness of this entry, the trip occurred in November but I have had a hideous backlog of things since that time.)