Charm of Chhuk-Chhuk

The Railways are one of the rare happy outcomes of colonial history. Rajmeet Singh, on a visit to Rewari, comes across our steam heritage

A modern poet recalls the nostalgia of the steam engine of old by saying, Every good fella out there has a rail, That goes to his mother’s home, Blowing smoke and whistling away. True, trains no longer blow smoke or whistle as they once used to but there are many who like to relive the old charm of the chhuk-chhuk locomotives.

At the Delhi Cantonment railway station, a group of German tourists led by a photographer and rail enthusiast, K.J. Hoffman, were inquiring about a steam hauled train to the Rewari steam heritage shed. Their tour operator had advised them that their bharat darshan of the steam heritage in India would be futile without visiting the Rewari centre, said to be the Mecca of the steam rail heritage in India.

Much their disappointment, the train had been cancelled due to technical reasons. I, too, was looking forward to the trip as I was in Delhi to participate in the annual national conference of the Indian Steam Railway Society. Not able to control my curiosity to experience the chugging of the steam of the EIR 22 locomotives, recalling the nostalgia of steam power, I drove down to Rewari.

This precious locomotive, built in 1855, was brought back to life in 1997 and is now legendary. The Guinness Book of World Records has certified this engine as the oldest working locomotive in the world. It rendered 40 years of service, hauling light mail trains between Howrah and Raniganj. It was re-christened as Fairy Queen in the year 1895 and phased out in Bihar in 1905.

At Rewari, my despair turned into joy. The magnificent machines with their nerves of steel and iron housed here illustrate the marvel of early engineering. Located 85 km from the Delhi junction on the Rewari-Delhi-Bikaner route, the Rewari junction is one of the biggest junctions of small line in Asia. Its importance decreased after steam engines were phased out in the early nineties. The metre gauge track built in 1873 from Delhi towards Rewari is India’s oldest and possibly the oldest steam shed for metre gauge in India. The brick arched shed is typical of the railway architecture of the Raj period.

Rakesh Aggarwal, Executive Director, Heritage, says the steam centre will occupy an important place in showcasing the preservation and maintenance of steam heritage in the country. Efforts are being made to integrate information on different aspects of the railway heritage.

The steam shed was inaugurated in December 2002. Two lines were removed to make way for a broad gauge (BG) line, connecting the shed with the Rewari-Bathinda main section. After this, a four BG engine and a 30-tonne steam crane were brought from the National Rail Museum. Then came a dual broad gauge and a metre gauge locomotive shed, a machine shop, a wheel pit, a turntable, a tool room and a mini exhibition hall. In addition to the metre gauge steam engine, five broad gauge steam engines have been restored and are being maintained for heritage service. These locomotives are available for Fairy Queen, Palace on Wheels, Royal Orient Express, film shooting, chartered services, special runs and commemorative occasions.

On several occasion, steam engines and old coaches have been`A0hired for Hindi movies. Two WP class BG engines, 7015 and 7200 had been hired to shoot a scene for the movie, Ghadar. Coaches of the erstwhile East India Company had been brought from Rail museum for the shooting of a new movie, Gandhi My Father.

The shed is central to the steam heritage tourism. Staff is being trained on old-world catering and dealing with heritage tourism at Railway Staff College. Around 53 heritage routes have been identified for promotion. The Railways are making efforts to integrate information of different assets related to railways, be it the building, manuscripts or locomotives. An effort is being made to preserve the information for it was the rail line that brought development to the country.

Mark Tully, vice-president of the Indian Steam Railway Society, says, "I am grateful to the Indian Railways’ focus on steam heritage. But it has to be marketed as an industry, not just a relic for the steam buffs. If Britain can earn 60 million pounds a year from steam runs, India could replicate the experiment."

R. MacDonald Stephenson and others made the first proposal for the construction of railways in India in 1844 to the East India Company. And then emerged the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIPR) Company. The Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, gave the go-ahead and supported the advent of railway in India.

It was a moment of immense pride when the first locomotive in India, named Thomson, started work on December 22, 1851, during the construction of the Solani aqueduct, 125 km northeast of Delhi. Lord Falkland started shunting at the Byculla yard near Bombay. Between 1853-1873 only broad gauge was used uniformly across India and railway tracks across the country connected Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras via Allahabad.

For this writer, it was a memorable experience to see one of the country’s oldest engines in one of the oldest sheds and the next time perhaps it will be a chhuk-chhuk journey on the Delhi-Rewari meter gauge that was started way back in 1873.