MORADABAD, India — "Here we are, chasing dinosaurs," said the tall Englishman with the wild nest of hair above his long, bony face.
Back home in Brighton, on England's south coast, Lawrence Marshall, 57, is a perfectly proper banker. But here in northern India recently, he was a hunter of steam locomotives--a "gricer" in the jargon of his railway cult--leading 22 fellow enthusiasts on what he has titled "The Seventh Great Indian Train Journey."
Their goal is to view, photograph and--when possible--ride as many steam locomotives as they can before the engines disappear forever from the world's rails.
"They are all doomed, I'm afraid," Marshall observed.
Surrounding him in the Indian Northern Railway roundhouse and engine workshop in Moradabad were about a dozen of the endangered species, steam locomotives hissing and snorting like great iron tyrannosaurs.
A few other engines stood cold and idle in various stages of mechanical undress. One "loco" even had a large, grimy rhesus monkey sitting on its boiler roof. The monkey appeared to be staring back in bemusement at the Englishman with the tousled hair.
To make the quest possible, Marshall had written more than 150 letters to various officials in the elephantine Indian bureaucracy, obtaining permission to take photographs and tour locomotive sheds.
Less scrupulous gricers--a term of uncertain derivation that was fostered in English railroad clubs--have also been known to sneak into the sheds late at night to get a clandestine glimpse of their beloved engines.
On this trip, Marshall hired a railroad sleeper car to attach to working steam engines. His was launched on a three-week, 3,548-mile journey that will take it from the Indian capital, New Delhi, along the course of the Ganges River to Calcutta, down the eastern Indian coastline to Madras and finally to a narrow-gauge run in the Nilgiri mountains of South India.
On a recent day in February, the grimy sleeper car was attached to the excruciatingly slow No. 308 train from Old Delhi Station to Moradabad, home of one of the world's last operating steam locomotive roundhouses, the sites where locomotives are switched and repaired.
The train's engineer, a burly man of the Rajput, or warrior, caste named Radhey Singh, was tolerant enough to let the foreigners hold the wishbone-shaped regulator that controls the flow of steam to the engine's pistons and pull on the whistle cord to their heart's content. He even stopped the train in front of a bridge over the Ganges River so that they could clamber out and snap pictures.
The No. 1 fireman, J. K. Sarkar, was a broad-shouldered fellow with a headband who was more than happy to let the foreign guests sling a few shovels of coal into the fire hole.
By late afternoon, the gricers were scattered around the Moradabad rail yard, notebooks and cameras in hand, recording the last breaths of the steam age. In intensity of purpose and action, they were like archeologists racing the rising waters of a new dam or anthropologists recording the customs of a dying tribe.
"When steam goes, it tends to go very fast," lamented one of the gricers, Eduardo Tonarelli, an Italian manufacturer of brass tubing who lives in West Germany. "If you look back only 15 years, there was still lots of steam in Western Europe, especially in Spain. Now it is virtually all gone."
World's Top Center
India, with the world's fourth largest network of track (36,000 miles) and third busiest passenger service (more than 10 million riders each day), has more working steam locomotives than any other country.
More than 5,000 steam engines still puff and toot here, ranging from the big American-designed, New York Central-style, broad-gauge engines to the tiny, narrow-gauge "toy" trains of the old British stations in the Himalayan foothills.
Although one country, China, still manufactures some steam engines, the number and variety of the engines are greater in India than anywhere else.
The Indian railroad is one of the most important and lasting legacies of 200 years of British rule that ended in 1947. Before the railroad network, and the introduction of English as a link language, what is now India was more a loose confederation of linguistic regions and small principalities than a nation.
It was the railroad that unified the new Indian state. And when independence came to the Indian people, it had traveled there on the power of steam.
Now Turning to Diesel
But what was once a steam-dominated railroad is now turning to diesel. The end of the steam age in India is in sight.
Raj Kumar Jain, 56, is chairman of the board of Indian Railways, a government-owned behemoth with 1.8 million employees, a work force twice the size of the Indian army, that the Guinness Book of World Records lists as the world's largest employer.