Just two days before the Railways announced the High Speed Rail Corporation to bring high-speed trains to the country, a black, monstrous steam engine was being readied at the Delhi Cantonment station on October 26, marking the return of a vintage classic in the era of bullet trains.
After over eight hours of a gruelling “warm-up session”, the whistle blew, a few puffs of smoke hissed out of the smokestack and the steam locomotive picked up speed. It tooted again, proudly signaling the successful re-run of one of the last surviving steam engines in the country, aptly named ‘Akbar’ after the 16th-century Mughal emperor.
The opportunity of featuring in several Bollywood movies, including the recent Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, is just one of the many roles Akbar is going to play.
The steam engine will chug along the mainline throughout the year, pulling luxury tourist trains from Delhi to Alwar, heralding steam engine heritage tourism in India.
With around 30 similar steam locomotives in the country — some built by the Lancashire-based British locomotive builder Vulcan Foundries and others by Chittaranjan Loco works — steam engines will slowly but steadily put India on the heritage tourism map.
The first bid to restore steam locomotives in India was made way back in 1998, when the world’s oldest steam locomotive built in England in 1855, having a top speed of 40 km per hour, was restored. But the Railways failed to make it a regular feature, as maintaining steam locomotives required vintage technology, which was slowly phasing out across the world.
In general, the journey of restoring the steam engines has not been smooth. Getting the steam engines, which were rusting in loco sheds, back to life was a monstrous task for Indian Railways, maybe even tougher than setting up new-age locomotives.
“To revive steam locomotives, we first had to restore the 120-year-old Rewari Steam Loco Shed, which was done with the guidance of steam railway experts from across the world. We also equipped the Amritsar locomotive workshop with the technology needed to restore these engines,” said Ashwani Lohani, chief mechanical engineer, Indian Railways (northern).
The Rewari Steam Locomotive Shed was restored as a heritage property in 2010.
The shed also bagged the national tourism award in the category of most innovative tourism product in 2012. It also boasts of an exhibition room displaying a lounge car, as well as a saloon used by King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom.
Once the workshops were in shape, Railways started manufacturing parts of the engines. “We don’t have the original drawings of the steam engines, but we succeeded in making the engines operational,” an official said.
Now, the Railways have brought out a year-long calender for operating steam tourism trains between Delhi and Alwar. There is also a tie-up with the Rajasthan tourism department for a two-day trip, which includes a stay at Sariska. The tickets for the package cost R12,000 per person.
“Steam engine heritage is a niche tourism segment across the world and is very popular in the UK, which has retained around 500 such locomotives. India also has the potential to become a steam engine heritage tourism destination,” said Lohani, who is also the founder of Indian Steam Railway Society, which is organising a conference on steam railways in February next year.
The Railways is also planning to rent out steam loco trains to tourists and expects a good response from foreign tourists. “In Europe, the model is very popular and we are trying to replicate it here,” said an official.