Indian Steam Railway Society


Twenty second December 1851 marked the beginning of the steam era on the Indian Railways when THOMASON, a 4′ 8.5″ gauge locomotive started work during the construction of the Solani aqueduct 90 miles north east of Delhi. It was a six wheeled well tank (WT) engine probably an E.B. Wilson product of 2-2-2 wheel configuration.

The second steam engine to arrive in India was FALKLAND, which was a contractor’s engine used in the construction work when the line was laid between Boribunder (later Bombay VT and now Mumbai CST) and Thane. It commenced its working life at Bombay on the 23rd February 1852. This locomotive was later incorporated in the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIP) stock and became GIP No. 9. This is thought to be a 0-4-0 tank engine and was probably built by E. B. Wilson yet again

The most well known locomotives of however were the trio called came SAHIB, SINDH and SULTAN. These were 2-4-0 tender engines amongst a batch of eight locomotives built by Vulcan Foundry for the GIP in 1852. These three historic locomotives hauled the inaugural train on 16th April, 1853 from Boribunder to Thana (now Thane), a distance of 21 miles. Unfortunately no picture of this historic event has survived and the commonly seen picture of a train crossing the Thane creek is that of test train hauled by an unidentified single locomotive. The fate of SAHIB and SULTAN is unknown but SINDH was known to have survived the fracas of time and was seen plinthed at the Chief Mechanical Engineer’s office of GIP at Byculla in Bombay until 1953. The locomotive was brought to Delhi for the railway centenary celebration year but once the party was over no one bothered to take possession of the locomotive and thus this important part of railway history was lost forever.

Most of the earlier steam engines were of the six-wheeled type with 2-4-0 and 0-4-2 wheel arrangements. These engines were generally of the inside cylinder variety. In 1855, however, Kitson, Thomson and Hewitson built few outside cylindered locomotives for the Madras Railways and the East Indian Railway (EIR) and two of these locomotives; the EXPRESS (EIR No. 21) and the FAIRY QUEEN (EIR No. 22) are preserved at Jamalpur Railway Institute and the National Railway Museum in New Delhi respectively. These engines jointly take the cake for being the oldest preserved engines in the country.

In 1877, a 4-4-0 mixed traffic engine called the H class with outside cylinders was introduced for the Nizam’s Guaranteed State Railway (NSR) however the traditional British inside cylindered four-coupled design for passenger traffic did not make appearance on the Indian scene until 1879 when it was introduced on the GIP Railway. This 4-4-0 design continued as the mainstay of passenger services all over India for a long time alongwith the goods services remaining with the contemporary 0-6-0 engine. The main exception to this trend was a series of interesting small wheeled 4-6-0 engines with outside cylinders specially introduced in 1880 to cope with the heavy gradients on various state lines; the famous L class on the North Western Railway (NWR).

As the various railways grew in size and traffic at different pace, demand for larger and more powerful locomotives also increased. Due to individual practices followed by different railways and the local tastes the various railway systems adopted to their own configuration of engines and this led to considerable delay in supply of these engines from various manufacturers in England. These railways had to turn towards German and American manufacturers and this led to a bitter debate in the British Parliament. Attempts at standardisation of locomotives were made as early as 1872 and 1879 but these were not conclusive.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Indian railway system was perhaps using the most numerous types of locomotives anywhere in the world and an urgent need was felt once again to go in for some standardisation in the designs of steam locomotives. Thus it was decided that a committee should be appointed for preparing designs of a limited number of standard classes with the hope that the future requirements of various Railways would be ordered accordingly. The committee was to draw standards based on the existing practices and experiences with locomotives already in operation in India as well as other places outside the British Empire. The first report of this committee in 1903 specified a 4-4-0 locomotive for passenger and a 0-6-0 for goods both inside cylinder designs with a 180 psi working pressure, a Belpaire firebox, balanced slide valves and Stephenson link motion. Most parts were common to both engines and they had 6’2″ and 5′ 1.5″ coupled wheels respectively and these were choosen so as to match the sizes already in use on the greatest number of working engines. Later in 1910 an alternative larger boiler was also specified for lines requiring more power and that can also take more axle load.

Further in 1906 with the revision of permissible standard dimensions (in 1905) as well as a demand of more powerful locomotives by some railways, further designs were prepared – a 4-6-0 and 4-4-2 for mail trains, a 2-8-0 for heavy freight traffic and a passenger 2-6-4 tank version off the 0-6-0 goods design. Indeed the Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) and the GIP, the two most progressive railways of their time had already introduced these types of locomotives in 1903 and 1904 respectively.

These standard types were known as BESA classes (British Engineering Standards Association) and were built in large numbers. Superheating was introduced in 1912. A table listing various classes of BESA locomotives is given below. To this have been added the particulars of a 2-8-2T design which came up later and also the alternate 2-8-0 Heavy Goods design which never materialised.


Standard Passenger 4-4-0 74 18.5 X 26 (1358)# 25.3 180 16.75 52
Standard Goods 0-6-0 61.5 18.5 X 26 (1358)# 25.3 180 16.75 49
Passenger Tank 2-6-4T 61.5 18.5 X 26 (1358)# 25.3 180 15 76.5
Heavy Passenger 4-6-0 74 19 X 26 1990 32 180 17 69
Atlantic Passenger 4-4-2 78 19.5 X 26 1990 32 180 17.5 67.25
Heavy Goods 2-8-0 56.5 20 X 26 2087 32 180 16 71.5
Heavy Goods (alternate) 2-8-0 61.5 21 X 26 2218 35 180 16 71.5
Heavy Tank 2-8-2T 51 22 X 26 1567.5 27 180 17 90.5

# Alternatively Total Heating Surface 1603 and Grate Area 27, increasing Axle load by .75 tons and Estimated Weight by 2.5 tons.

The BESA standards came into practice but were not accepted so easily by the various railway companies who did not wish to deviate too much from their earlier standards in practice. Even the attempt to standardise the engine classification were followed strictly only by the railways operated by the state and to some extent by the EIR.

After World War I, the demand for locomotives in terms of numbers as well as power increased due to a big upsurge in traffic. Accordingly a Locomotive Standards Committee was set up in 1924 by the Indian Railway Board to update and restandardise the existing BESA designs and to recommend new types of more powerful locomotives suited to the Indian conditions. This committee came to be known as the Indian Railway Standards Committee and locomotives designed by it came to be known as IRS class of locomotives.

For Broad Guage, 3 types of passenger 4-6-2 and two types of freight 2-8-2 locos were recommended and these constituted the various X (for broad gauge) classes of locomotives on the Railways (see table below). It was intended that only a small batch of locomotives would be ordered initially and then put to rigorous trials before more were ordered but the demand of the hour was so great that further orders were placed before prototypes were actually put into service.


Class Type Service Year Number built(#)
XA 4-6-2 Branch Pass 1928 113
XB 4-6-2 Light Pass 1927 99
XC 4-6-2 Heavy Pass 1928 72
XD 2-8-2 Light Goods 1927 194
XE 2-8-2 Heavy Goods 1928 93
XF 0-8-0 Light Shunting 1928 6
XG 0-8-0 Heavy Shunting 1928 3
XP 4-6-2 Experiment Pass 1937 2
XT 0-4-2 Light Tank 1929 77


(#) These numbers also include the locomotives that went to Pakistan after partition.

Apart from the above four XS experimental four cylinder 4-6-2 engines were also made for the NWR, all of which went to Pakistan after partition, and an enormous four cylinder XH 2-8-2 locomotive which sadly never materialized.

The goods locomotives performed well but soon enough news started pouring in about track distortion and subsequent derailment of the new passenger engines, the XB in particular. A disastrous accident in 1937 at Bhita in Bihar that caused over 100 fatalities was to change the fate of XB class forever and it was thereafter relegated mostly to passenger trains with a speed restriction of 45 miles per hour. Experts disagreed on the cause of the accident but a committee of experts formed to probe the cause concluded that the fault was mainly due to three bad design features affecting the front bogie, the hind truck and the drawgear between the engine and the tender, which together made the engines unduly susceptible to track irregularities.

However in spite of the earlier teething problems the various IRS classes increased in number over the years and were put through great deal of hard work especially during the war years. The most popular ones being the XA, XD and XE.

This period also saw the evolution of huge articulated Garratt locomotives and the deGlehn compound 4-6-2s on the Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR, now South Eastern Railway). Then in 1939-43 a new series of modern tank locos WM (2-6-4 T), WU (2-4-2 T), WV (2-6-2 T) and WW (0-6-2 T) were introduced for suburban heavy traffic, with only WM design being accepted for further orders.

During the World War II (1939-45), there was a heavy increase of traffic on the Indian Railroads and imports from USA and Canada were resorted to in heavy numbers starting 1943 and no fewer than 909 locomotives had been imported by the end of the year 1949. These consisted of mainly 2-8-2 A/CWD (American/Canadian War Department/Design) locomotives. The other locomotives built under this standard were AWC (2-8-0) and AWE (2-8-2). There were popularly referred as war-time designs and they adopted bar frames and a wider firebox to burn inferior coal.

After the War, WP, a 4-6-2 type of passenger locomotive was introduced after years of research on boiler efficiency, valve gear and rail wheel interaction. This locomotive drew heavily from the experience drawn from the straightforward American/Canadian design of locomotives used during the war. Bar frames and wider fire boxes were adopted as a result and indeed a good number of these locomotives were actually built by Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia and Canadian Locomotive Company at Kingston, Ontario before series production commenced at home at Chittaranjan Locomotive Works. The WPs had a maximum axle load of 18.5 tons and ultimately 755 such engines were put on rail before bowing out in 1967. For certain important routes that were restricted to 17 ton axle load at that time, 104 lighter 4-6-2 locomotives with a smaller boiler named WL class were put into service. In addition 30 tank locomotives of 2-8-4T arrangement using the same parts as the WP but smaller boilers designated as the WT class were built for heavy suburban services

By far the most important steam locomotive in the history of Indian railroad was the postwar design goods locomotive called the WG, a 2-8-2 engine which had many of its parts including the boiler interchangeable with the WP, its passenger counterpart. It had smaller coupled wheels and somewhat larger cylinders than the WP and with 18.5 tons maximum axle load it was indeed a remarkable class that was found all over the system in its heydays. Altogether 2450 engines of this type were put on line, a record for the maximum engines of a single class produced anywhere in the commonwealth. These two designs continued to be the mainstay of steam traction in the country till the early nineties.

Most people remember the WPs from their unique whistle and the bullet shaped smokebox cover that had little utility but its aesthetic value was quite unmatched. The WPs used to work the most important mail trains in the post war era and were hauling prestigious trains like the Taj Express into the early eighties up to a speed of 120 kilometers per hour. The WGs could be seen just about anywhere, without much charismatic appeal as that of a WP still quietly doing whatever chore was assigned to them from hauling a stopping passenger to heavily laden 1500 ton mineral train.

Several other designed were proposed from time to time but unfortunately these never materialised. For heavy passenger trains a 4-8-4 engine was proposed having a large tender with two six-wheeled bogies. For very heavy goods trains an improved version of the old faithful XE locomotive was visualized or alternatively a WHG 4-8-2 + 2-8-4 Garratt type and at one time there was even a talk of using two WGs back to back with a huge twelve-wheeled tender in between. For heavy shunting work there was to be a WH class 2-8-4T engine and for hump work an extraordinary 2-10-6 tank locomotive was envisaged. Alas with the growing fascination for diesel and electric traction, all these designed merely remained as the figment of imagination of the great men who saw them as the future.

Steam loco manufacture in the country got a fillip with the setting up of Chittaranjan Locomotive Works in 1950 where steam locomotives of various classes namely the WP, WG , WL & the WT were continuously produced till 1972. The production of BG steam locomotives ended with the manufacture of Antim Sitara, a WG No. 10560 in 1970.


Indian Steam Railway Society