The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - Anglo-Indian Connections
Part 1 Derek Rabel

Terry Case has been writing about his travels for steam, click here for the Case Notes Index. This is something a little different (and special RD).

Anglo-Indians ( were a distinctive part of the Indian Railway scene after independence, particularly on the operating side. Terry as a 'steam train' traveller as much as a dedicated steam photographer often met them when 'footplating'. Later he corresponded with two in particular who had migrated to Australia, as the Wikipedia article relates many others moved to other parts of the Commonwealth as well as the USA. These notes were originally published in the Australian Railway Enthusiast Magazine.

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Derek with Alco designed WDM2 18462 (DLW 1967)

During my trips to India I met many train crews who showed me great hospitality, some of the drivers I met were Anglo-Indians whose families had worked on the railways from the early days; I later found many Anglo-Indians had migrated to Australia. I first got to know Derek in 1985 when he was based at Jolimont depot; he showed some of my photos to other drivers and Less Ross commented on a photo of Agra Fort station, in which the Driver’s Rest and Retiring rooms were visible. Less had been a steam driver in India and had stayed in these rooms between duties, his brother Leo (who also was worked on VR) used to compete with another senior driver, Ron Clark for the Governor’s Shield; awarded to the best decorated WP.

Derek found work colleagues who also were fans such as Gerald Dee who showed Derek his collection of plates and locomotive blueprints which included material from Chittaranjan Locomotive Works in India. Derek used to travel from his depot Bitragunta (code BTTR) located near Madras, on the south east coast of India all the way to West Bengal and collect brand new WP and WG class engines from the Chittaranjan plant (located 238 km from Howrah on the Mughal Sarai mainline) for his depot. The journey to Chittaranjan would take a number of days and after examining their new locomotive and giving it a trial run they would set out on a journey that would take them through three (or four) states.

The journeys were great way of meeting other railway men, hearing the different regional languages and trying new food. Derek’s wife had a cousin, Joe Mitchell who at that time was loco foreman at Gondia (Central India on the SER Howrah - Nagpur line); so Derek would contrive to be routed through there and spend a little time with Joe whilst the engine was re fuelled and given a lengthy inspection.

On 31st January 1981, Nagpur driver Rupert Murze, wearing a head cloth, checking a p.w. warning (Photo Terry Case).

Derek was part of the Post 1947 (Independence) intake, by which time Apprentices were referred to as “A” grade they spent 3 months at a Systems Training School, learning about steam, rules, safety and signals, then 3 months working with fitters, 3 months with boiler makers and 3 months with shed turners.

Derek first fired on many of the older and smaller engines such as the V and U class 4-4-0s; these were standard BESA designs. Derek also remembered the depot had some BESA 0-6-0s (MSMR class N). These locos were fitted with a sloping grate, you had to fill the corners first and then towards the centre; otherwise you’d get hole in the fire which then caused a whistling noise through the chimney.

On the older saturated engines lubricators were a problem, especially those with Detroit type, they had to be cooled down with soaked waste and buckets of water or they would rapidly run out of oil. When the WP/Gs arrived those days were past as they were fitted with Wakefield lubricators, sight glasses and blow through steam jets to clear the passages. They could be filled without trouble, even on the run as long as the steam cock was shut. Crews on WP/Gs seldom ran out of oil, but they still carried a 10lb can of superheater oil, plus black oil Caster oil and grease sticks for the axles.

4-6-0 BESA designed Mail locos were built for many Indian railways, the MSMR version were the W class, built by Kitson, from 1907-1913, by Derek’s time many had been superheated and had updated valve gear; all the Caprotti variants were based at Bitragunta. The W’s held sway on important trains until the WPs arrived; some had a steam rocking grate which made the job easy, Derek thought they were a piece of cake being easy to fire.

Derek graduated to the large pre-war standard XD 2-8-2s and the flawed XB pacifics, “I liked the XB/Ds, although they had a small tender capacity, but they were lovely locos to drive and fire.” The engines were assigned to individual drivers who had their names painted on the cabsides. Derek liked the XBs and commented they rode well, whether this was due to the changes to the leading bogie design or because they were restricted to 45 mph I am not sure.

In the 1950s and 60s his depot received new Pacifics and Mikados of classes WP/G which finally meant the old 4-6-0s and XBs could be retired. “One of my WGs had my name and Fireman’s name under the number plate and it was a beauty to handle and drive.”

On the MAS-BZA sector, Madras - Bitragunta to Vijayawada (renamed from Bezadawada); three new WPs were fitted with tender scoops and water troughs were installed in order to eliminate water stops when running the GT (Grand Trunk) express in this sector. The experiment failed when the coal quality deteriorated and crews found the WPs could not be relied on to cover the 420km forcing unscheduled stops to change locos at BTTR. The 300 WPs from the bulk orders in 1949 were supplied with 15 ton capacity tenders and had a 5,500 gallon tank capacity. Later batches built in India from 1963 received 18 ton capacity tenders with a 5000 gallon tank.

Derek made his transition to diesels in the sixties, becoming a driver on long distance passenger and freight workings before migrating to Australia. Like most migrants he left behind family, his father Samuel Watson Rabel had been an express and Mail driver on the M.S.M.R Railway, he had also been a Secretary and treasurer of the Railway colony institute. He bought a house in Madras and lived close to Derek’s grandfather who had also been a driver on the MSMR; but his grandfather died at 65 after a hard life on steam engines.

Derek resigned from the Indian railways in 1968, he had served 15 years on steam before transferring to diesels. Following his resignation he was issued with a 1st class free pass which stated; D.Rabel and family in 1st class reserved – with extra luggage and one servant to travel 3rd class only!

After migrating to Australia Derek’s final work was from Jolimont depot where he drove Melbourne suburban trains till his retirement; his career had covered 41 years of interesting railway service. Derek moved to Perth in 1971, where he enjoyed catching up with other retired drivers such as Doug Mathews who had once worked with Derek at Bitragunta in steam days.

Returning to India in 2008 Derek sought out the Bitragunta Railway Colony cemetery and put some flowers on his brother’s grave, being part of a tight knit community many relatives and neighbours were buried there; almost all railway folk. Derek remembered the Gallyots, he fired with George when the WPs first arrived, there were Irishmen like Mr Faraday; “he was dad’s permanent driver.” The Prestons, the Rondos and the Browns who were of Welsh background; passing their graves he thought of how much these men achieved and how the Anglo-Indian community is now spread around the world making new lives in distant countries.

BTTR used have an important roundhouse with 47 bays and a turntable with lots of staff; it was part of the MSMR (Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway) then absorbed into the Southern Railway (SR) network and later became part of the South Central Railway (SCR). The work shops used to be a cacophony of noise from men and machines, steam engines puffing around the depot sounding whistles and the sounds of steam from cylinder cocks or from blow downs.

There was a thriving closely knit railway colony to staff the depot and the station, many of these colonies no longer exist; or are extremely run down. Derek remembered the vigour of youth; after firing tons of coal young energetic firemen would head for the Railway colony’s institute for shows, plays, billiards, tennis, soccer and their main sport; hockey. Best of all were the annual dances and balls, especially the “Bachelors’ Ball. If you did not know how to waltz, play billiards, black jack or play in the band you were not a railwayman!

1949 built WP 7272 arrives at Madras on an express from Arakkonam, the wires are up and steam was shortly to finish; 26th December 1979 (Photo Terry Case)

Derek made a visit to number 1 platform at Madras Central where he used to look down from his engine after working in on trains like Calcutta Mail (2 Up) and Delhi Exp (16 Up); watching passengers from diverse places passing; “In those days even Ministers and millionaires travelled by train and would thank you; though they must have been amused looking at our dark and coal dusted and oil covered faces.”

Derek and a friend visited Bangalore, (BNC) to see the now defunct Enginemen’s College where they did their theory and rules (a 3 year course). Derek used to travel there from Madras on the overnight express to Bangalore, in the steam era there was a tough section of hills to climb. Now the hills are forgotten as the electric hauled train cruises through the countryside; the morning train leaves Madras at 6am and arrives in Bangalore at noon; in time for lunch. Derek’s friend Eugene D’Cruz was a senior driver responsible for express and Mails on this and other SR sections.


Place names. Besides some obvious place name changes, Madras to Chennai, Bezwada to Vijaywada there have been some variations to accepted spelling in places such as Derek’s old depot at Bitragunta and Chittaranjan; (which Derek spells differently). I have taken a 1994 Indian Bradshaw as my guide.

DLW Diesel locomotive Works Varanasi

Rob Dickinson