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Monday, November 29, 2021

Back on the rails: Steam locomotives need to be taken out of museums, restored and used in mountain railways

No one has manufactured steam locomotives in India since 1972. They’ll have to be imported, and I’m told one would cost Rs 2 crore.

Written by Bibek Debroy |
Updated: July 8, 2015 9:11:40 am
Indian railway, railway lines, mountain railway, Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, Kalka-Shimla Railway, Nilgiri Mountain Railway, Unesco World Heritage Sites, Unesco, Railways Fan Club Association, Fairy Queen locomotive, indian express The nostalgia for steam engines is even greater. Take the DHR, the idea for which goes back to 1879, when there was supposed to be a tramway company operating between Darjeeling and Siliguri.

For some railway lines, the expression “mountain railway” is used. When using this expression, people are often referring to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), Kalka-Shimla Railway (KSR) or Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR). These are the most famous and are recognised as Unesco World Heritage Sites. A little less famous is the Matheran Hill Railway (MLR), whose application with Unesco is pending. Finally, there is the Kangra Valley Railway and the hill section (Lumding-Halflong-Badarpur) of the Northeast Frontier Railway. People are fascinated by these toy trains. They have a whiff of an era long gone, a trace of nostalgia. At the risk of annoying those from Tamil Nadu and those who love “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from Dil Se and the rack and pinion system, the NMR is not in the same league as the DHR, KSR or MLR. That’s because the NMR is metre gauge. The real nostalgia is for narrow gauge.

The nostalgia for steam engines is even greater. Take the DHR, the idea for which goes back to 1879, when there was supposed to be a tramway company operating between Darjeeling and Siliguri. This didn’t work out and in 1881, it became the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Company, operated till 1948 by Gillanders Arbuthnot and Co. After that, it has been operated by the Indian Railways (IR). If you have travelled on the “toy” train, you may have visited Ghum Museum. There is a steam locomotive known as “Baby Sivok” (manufactured in 1881) there, which was restored in 2000. Good as a museum exhibit, it can’t really pull trains. The initial lot of steam locomotives built for the DHR weren’t good enough. Known as A class locomotives, they were too small and weak. The DHR’s staples, until other forms of traction took over, were B class locomotives manufactured between 1888 and 1927. Thirty four of these were built. If the DHR reminds you of Rajesh Khanna romancing Sharmila Tagore (or of more recent films), the engine shown was a B class locomotive.

The DHR has faced several problems, competition from road transport being one of them. If you travel from Siliguri to Darjeeling, you aren’t likely to use the DHR. You would opt for road transport. One would choose the DHR only for the nostalgia of a narrow gauge steam locomotive. Unfortunately, the DHR doesn’t possess enough steam locomotives now. There are only 11 B class locomotives, not all in working order. There was an experiment to convert two from coal-firing to oil-firing. But it didn’t work and now they have to be reconverted. By my reckoning, only five of the 11 are in working order. Therefore, under normal circumstances, you won’t get a steam engine. If you travel from Siliguri or Kurseong/ Ghum to Darjeeling, you will get a diesel locomotive. Steam locomotives are only used for the joy ride between Ghum and Darjeeling and in instances where you specifically ask for a steam charter. Note that World Heritage status requires steam engines. Steam traction is certainly more expensive than diesel. However, price-sensitive travellers have switched to road transport and passengers on the DHR are willing to pay the premium.

Why can’t the DHR get more steam engines? Because few still make them. No one has manufactured steam locomotives in India since 1972. They’ll have to be imported, and I’m told one would cost Rs 2 crore. But 34 were built and only 11 are with the DHR. Where are the others? Only one DHR locomotive was taken out of the country. That went to an American museum and now runs on a private railway, the Beeches Light Railway. Wouldn’t it be easier to rehabilitate the ones that are floating around? The Rewari Shed only seems to have metre gauge and broad gauge locomotives. Through the Indian Railways Fan Club Association, I managed to get hold of a list compiled by Geoffrey Coward, aptly titled “Steam Survivors”. Non-working DHR locomotives are in the National Rail Museum, Tipong Colliery (North Eastern Coalfields), Tindharia works, Dehradun railway station (plinthed), Lucknow railway station (plinthed), Rail Bhavan (plinthed), various workshops and divisional railway manager offices. They might still work. Tipong Colliery uses its to haul coal. But at least they are used. The others are museum pieces and might as well be used by the DHR.

Take the example of the Fairy Queen locomotive. Between 1909 and 1997, it was nothing but a museum piece. But it could be restored to working order and broke records. (It’s resting in Rewari now and the train is hauled by a much more modern locomotive produced by Chittaranjan Locomotive Works in 1965, the one you saw in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.) However, I don’t think such things will happen as long as mountain railways are under the control of the IR. They need to be taken out, a condition that must also be met to receive World Heritage status.

The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal.

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