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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 heaps of people. In Delhi, from babies in arms to ancient signalmen, last week they literally crowded onto the tracks where they were slaughtered by television cameras from at least four broadcasting stations. In a challenge to every health and safety regulation that has ever filled 100 bound files in the Brussels archives, people fell off the green plastic grass and red carpet onto the barrier-free rails.
The Heritage Parade of Steam Locomotives celebrated the end of Railway Heritage Month. Shri Lalu Prasad, the Hon’ble Minister of Railways, was the most distinguished guest. Second was Sir Mark Tully, former BBC Delhi correspondent and Vice-Chairman of the Indian Railways (IRS). Mark is a guru in his own right.
After more than 40 years in India (and indeed born in Calcutta where his father was then), he is a kind of Grand Elder, regarded with about equal feelings of awe and affection according to his status as a Saddhu. Being seen with him attracts more attention than a formal walk with Tony Blair would.
This is not an exaggeration. When Sir Mark once walked up the steps of Government House in Delhi with our esteemed Prime Minister, the crowd was delighted, but it was not Tony Blair who had caught their attention. They were shouting 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 host of very intelligent and important people. They sit on the platform in beautifully presented upholstered chairs covered in white and placed on plastic grass. On the opposite platform, a whole tableau of Indian history is played out with children waving colorful flags and a historical narrative of Indian railways in full swing as men run up and down behind planks carrying the moving trains.
No one pays much attention. Despite the precious collection of not only VIPs but VVIPs and the war on terror, security is conspicuously absent and the presence of a delightful chocolate brown Labrador led by a soldier along the seat, his tail wagging enthusiastically.
It is very Indian that in this contest the regular scheduled train, its 24 battered green and cream bogies so familiar to the 13 million people who travel on Indian railways every day, unloads its passengers. In fact, not once but twice, the passenger cargo is unloaded in the melee. People move towards the exit, not happy to be denied the opportunity. Street theater like this is part of Delhi life and attracts an instant audience.
Now sports fans are tidying up the back ends that adorn the front row of comfortable sofas called Railway Board. compere searches for silence in different languages. “Please everyone sit down.” No one gives a damn. Someone screams spontaneously into a microphone, partly in Hindi, interspersed with the regular “hey, hey, hey, test, test, test” and lots of echoing feedback.
Flowers and water bottles are now in place for VVIPs who are probably more than just VIs. Even the Railway Board has so far not been blessed with such magnificence. Here comes the sniffer dog again, obediently sniffing along our legs. An Argentinian gentleman introduces himself and his wife and engages in an interesting conversation. He is curious to know what a white Western European woman is doing here.
The greeting party begins to assemble, guarded by soldiers and various hangers-on. Mark arrives looking very suave in a lemon shirt and burgundy herringbone vest. Suddenly there is complete silence. The Minister welcomes everyone. cameras capture the moment from mid-tracks, and like the media everywhere in the world, they practically trample each other to death in their determination to get the best shot. There are crying babies, children running up and down the VIP chairs, and clearly a lot of people who are neither media nor invited here, but have found their way unhindered.
A female soldier’s bottom is literally in my face. A couch is moved to make room for the transmission wrangle, and the bottom is shifted a few inches, but an ever-increasing amount of media is headed for the tracks, though it’s hard to tell whether it’s intentional or by force of gravity.
They are putting us now, literally. I’m not at all sure if this is to keep us from arguing with Mark Tully or from trying to get a free ride on the Fairy Queen, the oldest locomotive still in operation, built in 1855 in Leeds and the pride of Indian Railway Society.
This piece de resistance (my regards to cross-cultural relations) chuk-chuk moves along the platform in its green and gold color, both dignified and friendly. Brightly dressed children waving flags and blowing plastic whistles add to the feeling that we’ve all slipped back in time to a more romantic, less menacing time when kids could be kids and railways were elegant, majestic and somewhat symbolic of everything that was better the newly industrialized world of the mid-19th century.
More to come…..
The Fairy Queen
A Guinness World Record holder, this engine is the pride of Indian Railways. It is the oldest working locomotive in the world. Built in 1855 by Kitson Thompson and Hewitson of Leeds, this engine was once again put into service by popular demand from 27 September 1997 and runs periodic tourist trains between Delhi and Alwar. This engine was the first exhibit brought to the National Railway Museum in Delhi at the time of its foundation stone laying in 1971. This locomotive is said to have hauled troop trains to Raniganj during the 1857 Indian War of Independence. The engine weighs 26 tons, has a gauge of 5 ft. 6 in., a carbon capacity of about 2 tons, wheel arrangement with 2-2-2T WT and Stephenson valve gear.
The other steam trains in the parade:
Built by the Vulcan Foundry Company Ltd in England in 1930, this engine was ordered by the Indian Railways in 1931 for the GIP Railway, now the Central Railway. The Madhya Pradesh Electricity Board at Korba purchased the engine in 1979. The span is 5 feet 6 inches, the weight is 196.42 tons and its length is nearly 79 feet. Its wheel arrangement is 2-8-2, piston stroke 30 feet, water capacity 6000 gallons, and coal capacity 14 tons.
WAR CLASS AWE-22907
This engine is one of the design war engines that was purchased in large numbers in 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 number 69703, GIP No 6128 and CR No 22907 identify the engine. It weighs 183 tons, has Walshaets valve gear, two external cylinders, a gauge of 5ft 6in and the wheel arrangement is 2-8-2
Given the majestic name Shere-e-Punjan, this engine had the privilege of hauling the last broad gauge steam train on the Indian Railways. This historic route was run between Firozpur and Jallandhar on 6 December 1995. It usually carried mail trains/mail trains and was allocated to Southern Railway and was based at Shonanur Shed. Later it was transferred to Northern Railway where it was initially based at Bhatinda shed. From there he was transferred to Ludhiana and finally to Firozpur from where he retired. The engine was transferred to the National Railway Museum in January 1996. Built in 1955 by the Vulcan Foundry, it has a 5ft 6in diameter, 4-6-2 wheel arrangement and is now based at the Steam Center at Rewari.
More to come….
Bull nosed WP locomotives were the mainstay of long gauge passenger train operations on the Indian Railways for a long time until the last locomotive was withdrawn in 1995. This exhibit number WP-7200 is one of the 16 prototypes received from USA before their production started at Chittaranjan Locomotive works. This engine was built by Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, in 1947 and was owned by the GIP Railway (later Central Railway). It is 5 feet 6 inches in diameter, weighs 102.4 tons and has a 4-6-2 wheel arrangement. Decommissioned in May 1987.
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