Black steaming beauties and the old world charm

Vintage delight:A miniature working model of a steam engine on display at the National Steam Congress at Rail Museum in New Delhi on Sunday.– Photo: S. Subramanium

“The unique sounds, the rocking gait, the shrill whistle, the throbbing body and an open design are features that impart an irresistible charm to these black beauties,” writes Ashwani Lohani of the Indian Steam Railway Society (ISRS) by way of explaining ‘Why talk of steam now?’ It is the same “charm of these black beauties” that brought Mr. Lohani and many other steam enthusiasts to the tenth National Steam Congress here on Sunday.

These die-hard steam enthusiasts believe in the unique personality of each steam locomotive and are pushing for the growth of a niche tourism segment in the country known as “Steam Heritage Tourism” so “children know what our heritage is”. Yet with the United Kingdom boasting of 1000-odd steam engines, India hardly has a handful. “The 1990s were bad years for the steam locomotives in India especially with a massive drive by the Indian Railways to sell scrap and get money out of it. What could be better than a steam locomotive which has 150 tonnes of steel?” asked ISRS president L. K. Sinha. “Thankfully, a handful of steam enthusiasts scampered for the last of the engines and put it on a pedestal.”

While the steam engines are “about passion, love, and commitment they get lost in the daily grind of the Indian Railways”, said Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor CEO Amitabh Kant, who suggested creating a unique centre to manage this heritage. “All of us need to participate vigorously. This is a huge legacy that India has to preserve in the best possible manner.”

Among the vigorous participants was Anil Kapoor, a lab assistant at a Railway workshop in Amritsar who was presented with an award of excellence for his philatelic collection on steam locomotives. “I’ve been collecting stamps since I was 18. My father was in the Railways and I have always been fascinated with the Chuk Chuk Gaadi ,” he said.

Among the stamps which were on display at the Congress include that of the ‘World’s First Railway Locomotive Richard Trevithick’, ‘Chief Mechanical Engineers of Britain’s Great Western Railways’ and stickers from India’s South Eastern Railways which was known as the ‘blue chip railways’. “Steam heritage is common to all countries so you will find a lot of my stamps from places such as Maldives and Zambia with pictures of Indian locomotives,” said Mr. Kapoor.

More die-hard enthusiasts such as Mr. Kapoor were commended for the efforts in furthering the cause of steam and among them were representatives who work with the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways and the Nilgiri Mountain Railways. But there are also others who conjured up images of the black beauties with their words such as former BBC journalist Sir Mark Tully and writer Bill Aitken.

For all those who wanted to know how it all worked, there were two working steam locomotives and a working miniature model on display.


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