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the-south-asian.com                         November  2000

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Page  2  of  2

Steam Nostalgia - Back on Tracks

Saikat Neogi


steam_engine1.jpg (40673 bytes)
Sher-e Punjab, made by UK based Vulcan Foundry, was the last operating broad-gauge locomotive of the Indian Railways

Some of the locomotives that the society wants to rejuvenate are the Sher-e-Punjab, the Ramgotty and others that simply go by numbers---WL 15005 WP-7200 and E-207. These were phased out at various points of time and are exhibited at the Rail Museum in Delhi.

The Indian railways through a corporate policy in 1985 decided to completely phase out steam traction by 2000. Only two circuits were spared --'The Nilgiri Mountain Railway' and the 'Darjeeling Himalayan Railway'. The only reason these were spared was that no alternate traction mode was found suitable for these lines, which do not conform to conventional track specifications.

The Nilgiri Mountain Railway was one of the more profitable trains before independence but now it is in a financial mess due to the stiff competition it faces from passenger buses plying on well laid out roads, which are both faster and have a more frequent service. The unrealistically low fares charged by railways for the rail journey combined with high maintenance costs and over-sized staff have made this once star sector into a hugely unprofitable venture.

On the other hand the Darjeeling Himalayan Locomotive is all set to create historydarjeeling_train_engine.jpg (32348 bytes) as the UNESCO's International Council of Monuments and World Heritage Sites has listed it as the world's second heritage train. This will give the locomotive a new lease of life in terms of increase in revenue and technical expertise for renovation.

steam_engine-fairy_queen.jpg (34296 bytes)Three years ago the Rail Museum authorities in Delhi rolled out the prestigious Fairy Queen--certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's oldest surviving locomotive.  It was test run between Delhi Cantonment and Alwar with three carriages in tow. Encouraged by the positive publicity the event generated world-wide, the railway authorities decided to run it on a regular bases for tourists. Currently the vintage locomotive runs once every month chockfull with tourists. Manufactured by Kitson Thompson & Hewitson of Leeds, UK in 1854, Fairy Queen first steamed out of the Howrah station for Hooghly--a distance of 254 miles--on August 15, 1855. This locomotive also hauled troops to Raniganj during the 1857 War of Independence. In the first year itself the tourist route clocked an occupancy of 60 percent and now it has started making robust profits despite the steep fare.   "Like the Fairy Queen we have to imaginatively package steam heritage. It could prove to be a major tourism earner," says Harsh Vardhan, a member of ISRS.

Like the Fairy Queen, another vintage locomotive, the Ramgotty is the second oldest exhibit in the Rail Museum. It is perhaps the only locomotive in the world that has undergone a change of gauge. Used until 1895 on the 4-foot gauge Nalhati Azimganj section of the East India Railwa,. it was modified for 5-1/2-foot gauge and used as a shunting locomotive in the Jamalpur Workshop. Tragically, the Ramgotty ended its working life in disgrace, hauling garbage wagons to Entally for the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. But now it is all set to get a fresh lease of life with the proposal to revive it.

So is Sher-E-Punjab, the steam locomotive that earned a place in railway history for altogether different reasons. It was the last operating broad-gauge locomotive of the Indian Railways and made its final run between Ferozepur to Jalandhar on December 6, 1995. This locomotive made by UK based Vulcan Foundry mainly hauled mail and express trains and after it was retired it was shunted from shed to shed in Bhatinda, Ludhiana and later at Ferozepur till it was brought to the Rail Museum in January 1996.

Another steam engine, the WP-7200 was the pride of the Indian fleet. The bullet nosed broad-gauge passenger locomotive was operational in the Central Railway till 1995. Currently it stands as an exhibit in the Rail Museum. But not for long. The locomotive manufactured at Baldwin Locomotive, Philadelphia in 1947 is getting ready to regain its lost glory.

So is the F-734, the first locomotive to be fully manufactured in India in 1895 at the Ajmer railway workshop. This locomotive with exterior connections and side rods was variously used on the Rajputana-Malwa and the Bombay-Baroda circuits before being phased out. It will now be running all over again.

The railway ministry is also evaluating proposals to have a steam locomotive pull the 'Palace-on-Wheels'. Similarly the Matheran Light Railway is also being proposed to be fully operational soon. The 90-kilometre track runs from Mumbai to Neral on broad-gauge from where a 2-foot gauge takes it to the hill resort of Matheran, which is proposed to be done by a special steam locomotive. The route was opened in 1907. " There are numerous such small patches where we can very economically run steam engines. This will not only preserve heritage but will bring back nostalgia among the thousands of steam engine lovers," says Harsh Vardhan." The only thing is we have to move fast to cash in on the quaintness of these great locomotives that moved nations in the olden days."




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