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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Why Steam?

Why talk of steam now? This question has always engaged the minds of many men who matter, at different points of time in our quest for a limited scale preservation and revival of steam locomotives.

I clearly remember those heady days of mid 1990’s when the revival of the Fairy Queen was on the cards. Also on the cards was the birth of a niche tourism segment in the country, the “Steam Heritage Tourism” segment. And I clearly remember the detractors and also the supporters who remained committed in their support resulting in the victory of the cause. The GUINNESS world record and the National Tourism Award that followed left no one in doubt about the genuineness of the stupendous effort that had been put in.

The birth of the steam engine of James Watt marked the beginning of the industrial revolution in the world and the steam locomotive of Stephenson that subsequently followed, revolutionized the way people were used to traveling till then. Rapid advances in locomotion and railway systems thereafter, resulted in huge benefits to the economy and the society.

The advent of diesel and electric locomotives on the railway scene resulted in the rapid elimination of steam locomotives from main line operations. Yet nations that were and still are much more advanced than us, did not destroy the glorious heritage of steam locomotives. Almost the entire western world retained sizable number of steam locomotives and also associated skills, primarily for the twin causes of heritage and tourism. We unfortunately, took on large scale destruction of steam locomotives in right earnest and went to the ridiculous extent of destroying each and every single of the WG class of locomotives, ostensibly to meet scrap disposal targets or was it sadism?

Our sincere efforts at destruction bore fruit in the year 1995 with the phasing out of steam locomotives from the broad gauge and from the meter gauge in 2000. Our efforts to remove steam even from the hill railways, where the locomotives added a bit of romance to the journey also bore fruit in later years.

Therefore while nostalgia for steam locomotives took the western world, especially the UK by storm in the late seventies, some of us also felt nostalgic beginning ninety nineties and that led to the historic run of the fairy queen culminating in a Guinness world record adding considerable value to the international image of the Indian Railways.

And then as is the national culture, everyone jumped on the bandwagon and the bandwagon broke.

The resurrection of Rewari started the ball rolling again. The efforts of Vikas and Saraswat and the guidance of Sethi, the evergreen president of the steam railway society bore fruit. Steam, once more appears to be getting back on track. Insha-allah.

The question yet remains unanswered. Why steam?

Well the presence of raw fire that fires raw power in the belly of steam locomotives is the draw. The unique sound, the rocking gait, the shrill whistle, the throbbing body and an open design bordering on nudity are features that impart an irresistible charm to these black beauties. The die hard steam enthusiast believes in the individual and unique personality of each steam locomotive, a personality so individual that it warranted a crew of three, a driver and two fireman, by name to man her.

The charm apart, the steam locomotive is one of the most revered items that constitute the heritage of mankind, a heritage that propelled the industrial revolution in the world. Should we let that heritage die in our country, whereas the western world that is miles and miles ahead of us in development is still carefully nurturing and preserving steam locomotives.

And lastly for the cause of promoting steam heritage tourism, a niche and fast growing tourism segment in the world. We arrived in this sector with a bang, a bang that only the Fairy Queen, the oldest working steam locomotive in the world could have provided and yet we have not moved forward, as much as we should have done.

The arguments in favor of limited and careful preservation of steam locomotives are unbeatable and Rewari has once again provided the push and shown the path. We now have no way to go but forward.