Gathering steam for preserving Railways' heritage

It took an officer with a boyhood passion for steam locomotives to power India’s first project of its kind


Shivani Chaturvedi | October 7, 2010

Rewari Queen at steam loco shed
Rewari Queen at steam loco shed

A drawn, phlegmatic whistle announces locomotive engine come to life as it bounces off the huge shed’s walls and high ceiling. Steam billows from underneath the engine and out its chimney. The Rewari Queen always makes a grand start in the loco shed, amid the white stage-smoke steam. Soon, the engine rolls and the time-travel begins.

The steam-powered locomotive is a signature of the railways’ past. At a fit fifty and a few odd running years, the engine still chugs along 180 metres of track — running on parts that belong at a museum. But when the Rewari Queen rolls, the engine’s hot breath and the white smoke enveloping it inspires nostalgia for a past which one may or may not have lived.

There was a time when trains hauled by such engines linked Cawnpore and Conjeevaram. But with the coming of diesel and electric engines, they just ran out of steam. Retired, some were sent to scrap-yards, others to the rail museum.

But at the Queen’s palace – a shed taking up a little less than an acre of the eight housing the railway heritage centre in Rewari, Haryana – nine other ageing royals of the rails bring history to life everyday. All, thanks to Ashwani Lohani, a divisional manager with the Northern Railways at Delhi.
The first-of- its-kind project in the country came up seeking to keep steam locomotives alive and rolling for tourists and history buffs alike. Previously, Rewari Junction was known as the biggest junction of metre gauge (MG) lines in entire Asia. The shed had its own claim to record books as the biggest for MG engines, housing about 70 to 80 of them.

In 1993, the steam traction was phased out and the metre gauge lines were converted into broad gauge. By September that year, most of the steam locos were off the tracks – dismantled, auctioned or dispatched to other railway zones. Just two or three were kept in the Rewari shed for special trains like Royal Orient Express, a heritage train.

A few broad gauge steam engines were brought from different sheds to this place. A line was laid down for these to run. In 2002, the then railway minister Nitish Kumar inaugurated the shed as a heritage centre. At that time the shed was under Bikaner division of the Northern Railways. With new zones and divisions coming up, this shed came under the jurisdiction of Delhi division of the Northern Railways in 2003.

Then, everybody seemed to have simply forgotten everything about heritage, steam engines and Rewari until January, 2010 when Lohani chose to revive the shed.

“The first time I visited the shed as a DRM, I was offered tea. I refused as it felt like I was in a graveyard for dying steam locos,” says Lohani.

The shed was crying out for maintenance and not one of the engines could run. As the director of National Rail Museum from 1994 to 1998, Lohani had suggested moves to revive the shed but nothing materialised due to unspecified reasons.

But soon after he took charge as the DRM, he knew he had to bring the shed back to life. The shed was repaired. Engines were procured from other zones, bringing the number up to ten – taking up the entire shed. Most of these engines were built in the 1940s. A special addition to the heritage centre is engine WP 7200 an American locomotive engine gifted by the country’s ambassador on August 15, 1947.

Engines were repaired to get them running, tracks were refurbished, dents mended and shells painted. The heritage centre finally lost its legacy of neglect.

Lohani’s association with the railways has been long and illustrious. As director of the national rail museum for nearly five years, he has made reviving heritage a habit. In 2002, he became the director (tourism) and chairman of the Indian Tourism Development Corporation. By then, he was long familiar with his vision for tourism. “The very first time I realised that I wanted to do such work was in 1997. That was the year I revived the Fairy Queen. It set a Guinness world record for the oldest steam engine in operation,” he says.

This further pushed him to form Indian Steam Railway Society in November 1999. The society is like a fanclub for steam engines. The members of the society meet once a month and hold discussions on steam locos. An annual international conference is also organised.

If one knew Lohani as a four-year-old in the 1960s, tugging at the whistle cord of a WP class steam locomotive at Cawnpore (now Kanpur), one would have been familiar with his fascination for steam engines.

“I could sense my childhood thrill return 30 years later when I put the Fairy Queen back on the tracks,” he says, savouring the nostalgia.

This unusual passion is common in some of the 32 people who work in the Rewari shed – 25 of whom are in maintenance. Not much else explains the patience required to generate enough steam to move the engines. Only after eight hours of shovelling coal into the furnace, heating the iron rods and filling the engine tanks with water can the engines roll.

Sher Singh is one of the longest-serving maintenance guys here. He has been working in the shed since 1974. It is not easy to escape imbibing some sense of the history of the place if one has worked there as long. Shyam Bihari, a section engineer, shares his favourite anecdote with me. An engine had been once sent to Mysore for display at an exhibition.

A few days after it was back in the shed, a 75-year old man turned up and asked if he could see it.

“He said he had come all the way just to have one look more at the engine he had seen in Mysore! He even left a remark on the visitors’ book,” he says, just as amused as he was then.

Depending on the distance the engine has travelled, maintenance priority is assigned.

The shed also houses a small museum which has many antiquated spare parts of steam engines on display. Logos of different railways from pre-Independence India are an important bit of history. Quite tellingly, they bear motifs and emblems of the princely states of India. No wonder, most railways from back then are named after these states. There is also a working model of the Walshert valve gear housed here. The gear’s principle pretty much moves every train’s engine today.

It costs the Delhi division about Rs 8 lakh a month to maintain the shed, the engines and the labourers.

But it is not as if these engines stand as quaint reminders of history. They have made quite some money in the past – as movie props.

A loud, overtly patriotic truck-driver and his family escaped from Pakistan to India, shovelling coal into 7161 WP’s furnace in the movie Gadar - Ek Prem Katha. A fictionalised portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi’s son Harilal sees him lying a destitute in the Rewari loco shed recreated as a station in the movie Gandhi My Father. 22907 AWE was in the movie Love Aaj Kal – taking a shy Sikh girl away from her lover. 7200 WP and 7161 WP recreated Kakori train in the recreation of bits of our freedom movement in Rang De Basanti. In Guru, Aishwarya Rai’s character would have boarded the train 7200 WP was chugging to elope with her boyfriend – only he never showed up at the station.

The engines are rented for movies at Rs 35,000 per day. And they are never let out for less than a week. The maths is, quite simply, telling.

But Lohani has greater plans for them. He wants them to be available to curious tourists and history-worshippers for whom these are heritage on wheels.

Two tracks, in addition to the present three, will be laid in the shed so that the engines can whistle for the visitors oftener. The shed’s decor and propping is being done with the railways’ heritage as the theme. Antique furniture like benches, tables, clock, phone, lanterns, antique mirrors, old books and literature on steam locomotives are being collected.

The shed walls will display old photographs of the last train to Pakistan, train carrying ashes of Mahatma Gandhi, first train that entered Old Delhi station, construction of Yamuna Bank in east Delhi and photos of old sheds and engines.

The shed will get a theme cafeteria and restrooms.

With the Commonwealth Games tourist influx in mind, a special train will run from Delhi Cantonment  to Rewari.

At First Class AC fares, the passengers on this train will indeed be time travelling cheap.

This piece first appeared in the August 1-15 issue of the Governance Now magazine (Vol. 01, Issue 13).




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