Since childhood I liked train journey. I was fascinated by engines. Earlier there used to be steam locomotives of two different models. One with tapering front end with headlight at the centre. My aunt told me once, this engine was called Canadian engine. I never asked why, but I was attached to this model. With a deep booming whistle, I felt, the engine had a personality of its own. Second engine was called Chittaranjan engine. This engine was manufactured in Chittaranjan locomotive factory in West Bengal. I did not like this model with headlight on top of the body of engine, like hood of a snake. Then came a third kind. The diesel locomotive. Madras mail, travelling from Howrah to Madras and back, was pulled by this engine. I saw one in Balasore. Though sleek compared to a steam engine, I never did like diesel engine. I felt it was too impersonal and lacked character.
I would travel at least three times a year from Kanpur to Howrah and back. Those days our favourite train was Toofan express. It was not the best train or the fastest train. Those in a rush could avail Howrah – Delhi – Kalka mail or Deluxe express, nowadays called Poorva express. Rajdhani express had just been introduced into service. But most people from our social strata felt Rajdhani express was for the rich and powerful and was beyond our reach. A bogey would be attached to Toofan express, as it came from Delhi, at the Kanpur station. Most people like me who were travelling from Kanpur would avail a booking in this bogey.
Unlike the name suggested, Toofan express hardly moved like Toofan. It would take close to twenty four hours to travel from Kanpur to Howrah. Most often it used to be late. Much to the annoyance of people that would come to pick me up at the Howrah station. Those days there was no internet, no SMS, basically no way to tell if train is coming on time or not. There was rudimentary phone service. Most of the time it was not answered at the station. Most families did not own a telephone set at home. One had to be physically present at the station to know the status. Except when there was an accident, people would hear it on radio and later see it on TV, those who had access to a set. I did not care if train got late. From my perspective if the train ran late, my vacation would be extended that bit longer.
Most of us used to travel in a three tier compartment. These compartments were not air-conditioned. Not that I ever felt the need. All I cared was to have a window seat. So that I could see the engine chugging along at bends from my compartment window. I would crane my neck and strain my eyes to watch the engine as it chugged along at the bends whistling all the way. Engine smoke would carry coal dust. By the time I reached Howrah station my face would turn blackish.
Engine would be changed at Mughalserai and at Asansol. I also remember between Jhajha and Shimultala, in present day Jharkhand, Toofan expressed would be pushed by a second engine from behind. I would pray to god please let our engine/s be a Canadian engine. I would make it a point, as I got out of the train and moved towards the exit at Howrah station, to see which engine was pulling us. If I saw a Chittaranjan loco was pulling our train, I would feel really sad and humiliated. How is Toofan express different from an ordinary passenger train, if it is being pulled by a Chittaranjan engine?
These days life has changed. I do not travel by train as much. Whenever I do, I travel by A/C two tier or three tier. Toofan express still runs and runs late often. Not many people I know travel by Toofan express. Most people do not even consider travelling by Delhi Kalka mail and Poorva express. Most of us prefer Rajdhani and Duronto express. Reduced travel time and improved convenience have become major determining factors. Steam engines have been replaced by diesel and electric locos. There is no way of watching the engine from compartment because windows are sealed. There is hardly any scope for face getting blackened by coal soot. Tea vendor or snack vendor cannot be accessed sitting inside compartment. Trains do get late even today. But that is more of inconvenience and less a matter of fun. Fun actually has gone out of train travel.