Preserving the rail road

by Joydeep Dutta

This article was originally published by the Indian Steam Railway Society (ISRS) in its newsletter, and is reproduced here by permission, which is gratefully acknowledged. Copyright for the material here rests with the ISRS and the author(s) of the article. The ISRS is the premier organization in India engaged in preservation and efforts to promote awareness of the country's railway heritage.

This article originally appeared in the FNRM Newsletter No. 1, Spring 1998.

The railway authorities in India have decided to axe the remaining steam locomotives by 1998, except the mountain lines of Darjeeling and Ooty. It appears that with this, regular working steam locomotives may become a closed chapter throughout the world except in China. Despite this fact. the phenomenal rise of steam tourist trains across the world proves that the fascination with steam continues.

Railways are usually considered as commercial organisations whose sole job is to provide economic and efficient transportation of passengers and merchandise. But the other side of Railways, namely the appeal to emotions of rain, steam and speed which has attracted artists and the common man. For this reason, the disappearance of steam from the railways would have meant a great emotional loss which no museum exhibit could replace. Fortunately, the railway preservation movement has maintained the steam locomotive as a working machine.

Railways are Britain's gift to the world and hence it was natural that Britain led the world in preservation. In Britain, there are enthusiasts' organisations which have devoted themselves to the restoration of lines which were abandoned by main line railways and to their operation with restored steam locomotives. The movement for preservation gained momentum after the Beeching era during which thousands of kilometers of branch lines passing through English countryside were closed down.

The first preserved route anywhere was the narrow gauge Talyllynn Railway in Wales. This line had survived decades of dwindling traffic. By 1948, it had nearly become bankrupt and the British Railway did not absorb it during its nationalisation. Its owner was determined to keep this line in operating condition after his death. So, an enthusiast society took over the line and after toiling hard, was able to open it to tourist traffic in 1950. Another famous narrow gauge preserved route in Wales is the Festiniog Railway over which the famous double boiler Fairlie locomotive works. The narrow gauge lines in Wales along with the Festiniog are now called 'Great little trains of Wales'.

In the U.S.A. also, preserved railways are very popular and the 'Silverton and Durango' is the most popular among them. Apart from preserved lines, main line steam tours are a frequent event in Britain, South Africa and many-many other countries. In Britain, they arc being led by the flagship 'Shakespeare Express' and South Africa even uses 'Garratts' on the mainline. Although preserved lines generate more interest by recreating the old world atmosphere, one must remember that railway preservation really began with the display of static exhibits.

The first major attempt at Railway preservation in India was initiated with he opening of the 'Rail Transport Museum' at Delhi in 1977 under the aegis of Mike Satow. The museum has a lot of interesting displays including the 'Fairy Queen' (h 1855) which is the oldest working locomotive in the world! Ramgotty, the prototype WP, the DC electrics, the N-class Garratt, the fireless locomotive, the monorail and WL 15005 'Sher-e-Punjab' (the last broad gauge steam locomotive on Indian rails) make the museum a fascinating place. The running of 'Fairy Queen' for tourists has been one of the major achievement of the museum.

Why should old railway artifacts he preserved at all? One major argument in support of preservation is that it enables us to realise the fact that it is the Railways that made India a Nation! On one hand, it keeps alive the romance of railroading and on the other, it unites the country. These two combined roles are hardly played together by any other railway in the world!