New Delhi: After 71 years of slumber, are the Indian Railways finally waking up to the task of heritage conservation?
The reason that this question has cropped up is this: In the recent past, the Railway Board has taken certain rapid but unexpectedly affirmative decisions to preserve the legacy of the 173-year-old colonial era network.
On 17 May, the Railways Ministry ordered that all tasks relating to steam heritage promotion in the Northern Zone would be brought under the independent charge of the Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) of Delhi. On 25 April, similar orders had been shot off to five other DRMs across India. Some months earlier, an official circular had announced the decision to set up Dedicated Management Units to oversee and monitor the management and operation of the hill railways of India.
The Indian Railways are the owners of five hill railways " all of these having been constructed in the 29-year-period from 1881 to 1910 of British rule. Three of these " Kalka-Shimla Rail, Darjeeling Himalayan Railways and the Nilgiri Mountain Railways " are UNESCO-designated sites. But the hill railways " as also other Narrow Gauge lines that exist in bits and patches - have mostly been left to ruin.
At the height of the "steam era" of the Indian Railways in the mid-sixties, the Indian Railways had approximately 11,000 steam engines in working condition in its inventory. Of these, barely 25 have survived; with the remaining having been cut up and sold off as scrap. The hanging clocks visible at railway stations in the early decades of Independence; the caps, uniforms or telephone instruments used by station masters have mostly disappeared. The wooden signaling systems that were manually used in the pre-Independence era have not been preserved. The coaches of the old Palace on Wheels used by the Maharajas of yore have survived, but have been left to decay in one corner of New Delhi's National Rail Museum.
"Reasons for the past neglect of rail heritage are several. Conservation tasks have so far remained tied up in labyrinthine bureaucratic hurdles, while preoccupations of rail managers have been about meeting the commercial targets of earning bigger revenues. But the recent decision on empowering DRMs provides some hint that the old mindsets are changing," said JL Singh, secretary, Rail Enthusiasts Society.
Under a "single window system", model that has now been put in place, DRMs can independently fix timings, decide train composition, routes and tariffs of mountain rail, while they will also have the authority to engage private agencies for designing, packaging and marketing of tour packages. Faster decisions on implementing other revenue models " such as the setting up of souvenir shops or providing for en-route catering arrangements " can also be taken.
"Revenues can be earned by adopting various models, such as charging premium rates for 'footplate journeys' (travel in train engines) for short distances, or by permitting travel in open air wagons. Dilapidated but spacious railway quarters alongside railway tracks can be renovated by leasing these out to the tour operators. Innovative tour programs such as "Village on Wheels" can be organised to provide the experience of village food with local entertainment programs to both domestic and foreign passengers. The potential is endless," rail enthusiast K Natrajan said.
DRMs are enthused. "I am in the process of working out arrangements with tour operators to run charter trains. Plans to improve services are also being finalized. Beginning October, the results of these initiatives will start showing up", said US Rao, DRM of the Salem division.
Tania Guha, of a company called Classic Royal Journey, strikes a note of caution: "The decision empowering the DRMs is appreciable. But rail heritage conservation cannot come by way of a one-off initiative. The Indian Railways, in the past, have been most negligent to aspirations of passengers wanting to travel on heritage trains. The situation, however, can improve. Services will need to be substantially scaled up in terms of ensuring passenger safety in particular."
Amit Chopra of Travel Pals speaks in similar vein: "The messaging from the Indian Railways has remained unclear. On the one hand, it speaks about reviving the glory of the heritage hill railways while, on the other, Narrow Gauge lines are being uprooted in states such as Gujarat, Chattisgarh and Maharashtra. If at all the Railways must build the uniform Broad Gauge across the country, the wider gauge can be built along the existing Narrow Gauge lines. No need to uproot the small lines."
In the United Kingdom " and most of the Western world " rail heritage preservation activities are managed by private trusts that are represented by different stakeholders. "But in India, with a low awareness level in such matters, it is best to proceed with such issues in a phased manner. The decision empowering DRMs is a step in the direction of engaging rail enthusiasts and common citizens in conservation tasks," a senior Railway Board official said.