Railways ‘Treasure Hunt’ triggered seniority debate: Fairy Queen’s rival for oldest steam loco tag — its Express twin retired early

Without any official records available to confirm seniority, the Railways is planning to approach the Guinness Book and Unesco to grant Express the same status as Fairy Queen.

Written by Avishek G Dastidar | New Delhi | Updated: March 15, 2018 4:17 am
Both built in 1855 but no records to prove seniority: Fairy Queen (left) and Express.

TWO DECADES after it was crowned the world’s oldest running steam locomotive, the Fairy Queen may have to share its Guinness record with its lesser-known twin, Express.

Fairy Queen and Express were built by Kitson, Thompson and Hewitson in the UK in 1855 and sent to India. However, Fairy Queen carries the number “EIR (East Indian Railway) 22” while Express is tagged “EIR 21”, indicating that it may be technically older.

Without any official records available to confirm seniority, the Railways is planning to approach the Guinness Book and Unesco to grant Express the same status as Fairy Queen.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Ashwani Lohani, chairman, Railway Board, said, “We will approach Guinness to say that India has two running steam locomotives that are the oldest in the world, instead of one… I tried to find the company in England that manufactured these locos to get the original records, but it does not exist anymore.”

The seniority debate gained traction after the Railways launched a “treasure hunt” this month for heritage items to preserve and showcase.

Fairy Queen, which received the Guinness tag in 1998, is currently stationed at the loco shed in Rewari, which is a museum. Express was hauled from Howrah to Perambur Loco Works in Chennai, where it was resurrected in 2010.

“It turns out the British stopped paying much attention to the Express because it had a lot of maintenance issues and was retired early. Fairy Queen was a slight improvement on it and ran for 52 years until the early 20th Century,” said Ranga Samy, who resurrected Fairy Queen before retiring from Perambur Loco Works. Samy later guided the workshop in the resurrection and maintenance of Express.

“The two engines were built in the same year. But to prove which one is technically older, we need records and that is something we don’t have,” said Arun Devraj, chief of loco workshop in Perambur.

The Indian Railway Fan Club Association, the largest community of rail enthusiasts, maintains that Express emerged before Fairy Queen from the production line but both were pressed into service together.

“We have spoken to the Railway Board chairman and appealed that the record should be set straight on Express. There is no need for any controversy. India can say we have not one but a pair of running steam locomotives that are the oldest in the world,” said J L Singh, a retired Railways official who heads Rail Enthusiast Society, a civil society group of rail heritage experts working with the Railways.

Meanwhile, officials in all 17 zones, production units, workshops, and around 8,000 stations are scouring the Railways’s 150-year repository of assets, following an order from the Rail Ministry.

For instance, a wooden goods wagon from the 19th century, tagged as scrap in Kharagpur, has now been labelled “to be preserved”. Also, the old iron frame of the erstwhile Jubilee bridge over Hooghly, commissioned in 1887 to mark the Golden Jubilee celebrations of Queen Victoria’s reign, may now be moved to the regional rail museum in Howrah.

First-generation diesel and electric locomotives, retired after four-five decades of service, have been added to the list. Officials are also looking for artifacts like old tickets, engineering drawings, and photographs. Officials at stations and workshops have found “heritage” benches, uniforms, semaphore signals, utensils, clocks and flags to be preserved and indexed for the first time.

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