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Bibek Debroy: Locomotive number 778

An attempt from Matheran Hill Railway (MHR) for World Heritage status has been pending with the Unesco (the 2009 application failed and a new one is being processed)

Bibek Debroy 

Bibek Debroy

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with Adrian Shooter. Every senior railway-person I meet seems to know of Shooter. I must confess I was ignorant. I had no idea he had a distinguished career (in various capacities) with the railways in Britain and was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the New Year Honours List of 2010 for his services to the rail industry. Let me explain how and why I met Shooter.

Three of India's mountain railways have obtained World Heritage status from the Unesco. Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) got this status in 1999, Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) in 2005 and Kalka-Shimla Railway (KSR) in 2008. An attempt from Matheran Hill Railway (MHR) for World Heritage status has been pending with the Unesco (the 2009 application failed and a new one is being processed). Two of these railways - Darjeeling and Matheran - are two feet narrow gauge. DHR was constructed in 1881 - it is the oldest of the mountain railways - and MHR in 1907. The rolling stock, including locomotives, is interchangeable between Darjeeling and Matheran. KSR, constructed in 1903, is narrow gauge with two and a half feet. NMR, constructed in 1908, is metre gauge and has a unique technology known as rack and pinion, which people come from around the world to see.

Originally, all these railways were run on steam engines. Using steam locomotives is a condition for obtaining and retaining the World Heritage status. But Indian Railways (IR) no longer uses steam locomotives for trains that are time-tabled. The last time a time-tabled passenger train used steam locomotives was in Wankaner in Gujarat, in 2000. No one makes steam locomotives in India now. Chittaranjan Locomotive Works stopped producing steam locomotives in 1973 (that was broad gauge). Steam is no longer used because it is more expensive than diesel and electricity. The requirement of using steam traction to retain the World Heritage status is ensured through steam charters. That is, steam locomotives are used if one specially pays for them, or for joy-rides. Normal passenger trains on the mountain railways have diesel engines. This is despite tourists, especially foreign tourists who are fascinated by steam engines, willing to pay a premium for riding on steam trains. Tour operators say there is such a high-end market and are even willing to run private charter trains. The problem is that such niche heritage markets are not important for IR. It doesn't market them. Although a World Heritage status from the Unesco doesn't legally require a separate management entity, such a separate management entity is desirable, de-linked from IR. It can be called the Indian Heritage Railway Corporation, with some equity from IR, and can be in charge of all mountain railways. However, there should be no subsidies from IR. The three mountain railways must become profit-making entities.

Once this is done, one can run trains on steam locomotives. Getting steam engines is a problem. They are not made in India any longer and there are few global producers. Each locomotive will also cost around Rs 2.5 crore. But there are steam locomotives that are still somewhere and these can be restored and reused. Getting a list is easier for mountain railways like DHR, whose fan club associations are more active. Out of 34 steam locomotives built for DHR, it still possesses 11, although only five are in working condition. The other six locomotives can be restored. The ones not with DHR are in different places - National Rail Museum, Tipong Colliery (North Eastern Coalfields), Tindharia Works, Dehradun railway station (plinthed), Lucknow railway station (plinthed), Rail Bhavan (plinthed), various workshops and divisional railway manager offices. Plinthed means they are on top of pedestals. They can be brought back into action. The ones in Tipong Colliery are used to haul coal. Only one DHR locomotive was taken out of the country. That went to an American museum (where it ran on Hesston Steam Railway) and now runs on a private steam railway, Beeches Light Railway, in Britain.

That's how I chanced upon the name Adrian Shooter. He bought that DHR locomotive from the US in 2002 and restored it. He also owns Beeches Light Railway. Indeed, it operates out of his residence in Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire. That's how Darjeeling Himalayan "B" class locomotive number 778 (originally numbered 19) became Shooter's property. ("B" class engines were a staple in DHR. Earlier designs didn't work that well. You will recognise a "B" class from water tanks on the boiler.) Having got the name, I asked Mark Tully if he knew Shooter. He certainly did. Tully knows everyone. He e-introduced us and the three of us had lunch together. I had visions of Shooter returning the engine, like the Koh-i-Noor, to the rightful owner. He dug out his phone and, with great affection and care written all over his face, showed me pictures of number 778 running on his estate, painted blue and puffing away. Frankly, it is better off where it is. Even if Shooter agrees to return it, IR is not ready. Our sacred texts say donations must never be made to unworthy recipients.

The writer is a member of the National Institution for Transforming India Aayog. The views are personal

First Published: Fri, January 01 2016. 22:07 IST