Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Iron Road

I suppose one of the things that really dates me – and, incidentally, the state of this nation in the time I grew up – was the fact that when I was a kid, one of the things I dearly wanted to be was an engine driver (that’s “engine” as in “locomotive”, for those who don’t know).

And, of course, by “engine”, I meant “steam engine”.

                                                              Like this
Now, I don’t know what the kids today hang their dreams on when they’re eight or ten years old. What are their ambitions? To be a pro video game player? An investment banker? A space shuttle astronaut? Back in the 1970s (and earlier in other nations), any red blooded young male had as one of his top ambitions to be a steam engine driver. Most of us older ones will know what I’m talking about.

Oh yes, I grew up when Indian railway trains were still dragged around by black smoke-puffing steam engines with wonderfully (if subliminally, at that age) phallic boilers mounted in front. I remember once – at the age of six – sitting at the window of a railway carriage watching a steam engine parked right beside, so I had a glorious view of the interior of the cabin. You never saw so many dials and levers. Paradise.

Steam engines. I had a book on them, talking about how wonderful they were (it was a British book published long before I was born and catered to the aforesaid boys who wanted to drive ‘em). I used to drive those engines in my imagination, leaning out of my bedroom window and imagining I was one of those engine drivers leaning out of their cabins, the better to see the signals by. I must have circumnavigated the planet the amount of engine driving I did from my bedroom window.

Well, you know what? I’ve been thinking about it – and the job of a steam engine driver would have sucked.

Consider the idea for a moment. Let’s have a look at a typical steam engine cab.

                                                            Actually, that's kind of clean. And rad.

Now, the first thing that ought to strike anyone is that those guys really did have to lean out of the cabins because with that whacking great phallic boiler in front of them, they couldn’t see a damned thing in front. Sure, they had two tiny windows up on the sides. You try and imagine steering your car looking through windows like that. Sounds like fun?

                                                                            Great fun.

Now, remember that this thing is burning coal, and that there is this firebox near your knees that’s full of – well, obviously – fire. Every few minutes, your fireman will have to shovel in a load of coal – and that means coal dust as well, naturally – fouling the atmosphere, and probably raising the temperature inside your non-air-conditioned, metal box to sauna levels.

                                                                 But without the babes.

And then there are those blazing pieces of coal which will spill out and burn your legs and the fireman’s hands (of course you never thought of being a fireman, only a driver, though in the Indian railways you’d get to be a driver only after years of being a shovel jockey) and the cinders that would shoot out of the stack and drop into your eyes. And the speeds you’d have to maintain, and the signals you’d have to watch out for, not to mention (on Indian tracks) the cows, goats and fucking morons who use the railway tracks as a pedestrian way, and who also, quite routinely, try to get across at level crossings even when a train is not just on the way but visibly in sight.

And all on a salary that…well, I have no idea how much it pays, but I guess the average person makes more.

Oh the delights.

The last steam engine I actually saw in action was in 1990 or thereabouts (though I believe heritage trains catering to the foreign tourist trade still use them). It was in a railway station in Bihar state, puffing the regulation clouds of dirty smoke and steam in equal amounts.

No, thinking back, the last thing I’d have actually wanted to be would be an engine driver. But at the same time, I rather pity the kids of today.

As far as I can see, they’ve forgotten how to dream.


  1. Bill, I, too, wanted to be an 'engine driver' when I was a kid. Later, it was an astronaut.

    I settled for blowing up outhouses and the like.

    Kids today truly have forgotten how to dream.

    1. Kids today truly don`t have forgotten how to dream.

  2. lose the 'dream', lose all :(


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