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The Days of the Chhuk-Chhuk – Even in India, Old Steam Trains Bring Out the Crowds
India’s steam train heritage still brings out a lot of people. In Delhi, from children in arms to former one-time signalmen, last week literally piled on the runways where they met with television cameras from at least four broadcasting stations. In a challenge to all health and safety regulations to fill 100 files bound in the archives of Brussels, people fell from the green plastic grass and the red carpet on the rails without obstacles.
The Steam Locomotive Heritage Parade celebrated the end of Railway Heritage Month. Shri Lalu Prasad, the Hon’ble Minister of Railways, was the most distinguished guest. The second was Sir Mark Tully, the former BBC Delhi correspondent and Vice-President of the Indian Railway Society (IRS). Mark is a guru in his own right.
After most of 40 years in India (and indeed he was born in Calcutta where his father was then stationed), he is a kind of Grand Old Man, regarded with roughly equal emotions of fear and affection suited to his status as Sadhu. Being seen with him attracts more attention than a formal walk with Tony Blair.
This is no exaggeration. When Sir Mark once walked the steps of Government House in Delhi with our honorable PM, the crowd was in a frenzy, but it wasn’t Tony Blair who had caught their attention. They shouted in Hindi for Mark Tully.
There are many other dignitaries present: the mayor of Delhi, members of the Railway Board, the chairman of the IRS and a whole row of very intelligent and important people. They are seated on the platform in well-presented upholstered chairs covered in white and placed on plastic grass. On the opposite platform, a whole tableau of Indian history takes place with children waving colorful flags and a historical account of Indian railways in full swing as men run up and down behind tables carrying trains into movement
No one pays much attention. Despite the precious collection of not just VIPs, but VVIPs and the war on terror, security is conspicuously absent, except for the presence of a delightful chocolate brown Labrador led by a long-legged soldier, its tail wagging enthusiastically.
It is very Indian that in this spectacle the normal train, its 24 battered green and cream bogeys so familiar to the 13 million people who travel on Indian railways every day, disgorges its passengers. In fact, not once, but twice, the passenger cargo is dumped in the melee. People moved towards the exit, not happy to be denied the opportunity. Street theater like this is part of Delhi life and commands an instant audience.
Now the coolies clean the exit boards that adorn the first line of comfortable Railway Board designated sofas. The buyer is looking for silence in different languages. “Please sit down everyone.” No one pays the slightest attention. Someone screams gutturally into a microphone, part in Hindi, alternating with “hi, hi, hi, hi, try, try, try” and lots of reverberating feedback.
Flowers and water bottles are now in place for VVIPs who are presumably more than just VIs. Even the Railway Board has not been treated to such magnificence. Here comes the sniffer dog, obediently sniffing along our feet. An Argentinian gentleman introduces himself and his wife and makes an interested conversation. Curious to know what a white female from Western Europe is doing here.
The greeting party began to assemble, guarded by soldiers and hung sundry. Mark arrived in a lemon shirt and burgundy herringbone waistcoat. Suddenly there is complete silence. The Minister welcomes everyone; cameras capture the moment from halfway down the tracks and, like the media everywhere in the world, they practically stomp themselves to death in their determination to get the best shot. There are crying children, children running up and down the VIP chairs and clearly many people who are neither media nor guests there, but who found their way in without any obstacles.
A female soldier’s bottom is literally in my face. A settee is transferred to make room for the transmission frequency and the bottom moves a few centimeters, but an ever-increasing number of media take to the tracks, although whether deliberately or by force of gravity is difficult to say.
Now we’re on the ropes, literally. I’m not sure if I want to get away from mauling Mark Tully or trying to get a free ride on the Fairy Queen, the oldest locomotive still worthy of track, built in 1855 in Leeds, and the pride of the Indian Railway. Society.
This piece de resistance (my regards to intercultural relations) chuk-chuks along the platform in its green and gold livery, both dignified and friendly. Brightly dressed children waving flags and blowing on plastic whistles add to the feeling that we have all stepped back in time to a more romantic, less threatening era when children could be children and railways were elegant, grand and somehow symbolic way of all that was best in the newly industrialized world of the mid-nineteenth century.
More to follow…..
The Fairy Queen
A Guinness World Record holder, this engine is the pride of the Indian Railways. It is the world’s oldest locomotive in working condition. Built in 1855 by Kitson Thompson and Hewitson of Leeds, this engine has been pressed into service again by popular demand since 27 September 1997 and has periodically hauled tourist trains between Delhi and Alwar. This engine was the first exhibit to be brought to the National Railway Museum in Delhi at the time of laying its foundation stone in 1971. It is said that this locomotive brought troop trains to Raniganj during the War of Independence of in 1857 in India. The engine weighs 26 tons, has a bore of 5 feet 6 inches, coal capacity of about 2 tons, wheel arrangement with 2-2-2T WT and Stephenson valve gears.
Other steam trains on parade:
Built by Vulcan Foundry Company Ltd in England in 1930, this engine was commissioned by Indian Railways in 1931 to GIP Railway, now Central Railway. The Madhya Pradesh Electricity Board at Korba purchased the engine in 1979. The gauge is 5 feet 6 inches, the weight is 196.42 tons and it is nearly 79 feet long. Her wheel arrangement is 2-8-2, piston stroke is 30 feet, water capacity is 6000 gallons and coal capacity 14 tons.
WAR CLASS AWE-22907
This engine is one of the war design locomotives purchased in large numbers during the early 1940s and was used for both passenger and freight services. Built by Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, in 1943, it was owned by the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. Maker’s number 69703, GIP No. 6128 and CR No. 22907, identify the engine. It weighs 183 tons, has Walshaets valve gears, two external cylinders, bore 5 feet 6 inches and the wheel arrangement is 2-8-2.
Given the majestic name of Shere-e-Punjan, this engine had the privilege of hauling the last broad gauge steam train on the Indian Railways. This historic run took place between Firozpur and Jallandhar on 6th December 1995. It usually carried mail/express trains and was allotted to the Southern Railway and was based at the Shonanur Shed. He was later transferred to the Northern Railway where he was initially based at the Bhatinda shed. From there, she was shifted to Ludhiana and finally to Firozpur from where she retired. The engine was taken to the National Railway Museum in January 1996. Built in 1955 by the Vulcan Foundry, it has a gauge of 5 feet 6 inches, a wheel arrangement of 4-6-2 and is now based at the Steam Center at Rewari.
More to follow….
Bullet nose WP locomotives were the mainstay of broad gauge passenger train operations on the Indian Railways for a very long time until the last steam engine retired in 1995. This specimen identified by the number WP-7200 is one of the 16 prototypes that were received by the USA before their production was started at the Chittaranjan Locomotive works. This engine was built by Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, in 1947 and was owned by GIP Railway (later Central Railway). It has a bore of 5 feet 6 inches, weighs 102.4 tons and has a wheel arrangement of 4-6-2. It was withdrawn from service in May 1987.
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