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Transport heritage under one roof

Kalyan Ray, DH News Service, New Delhi, Dec 31 2017, 0:00 IST
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It's nearly a year when railbus on Kolar-Bangarapet and Yesvantpur-Nelamangala lines in Karnataka ceased to operate, wiping out possibly the last sign of an old world transport in the yesteryear.

The southern state wasn't the only place to enjoy the travel in the light weight bus plying on the narrow gauge rails. They were operational in Mathura-Vrindavan section and in some sections in West Bengal. All of them faded into the sunset.

But shortly one of these railbuses will be resurrected at the Heritage Transport Museum at Taoru in Haryana, about 70 km from Delhi. It would be yet another attraction at the museum that chronicles India's transport heritage€“from palanquins and elephants and horse-driven carriages to trams and railways and automobiles€“under one roof. Not to be left behind are tiny planes and old boats in the museum's aviation and maritime section.

"It's a place for people to come, see and feel the nostalgia," Tarun Thakral, founder and managing trustee of the museum, told DH.

For instance, those who lived in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1940s and 1950s can go down the memory lane from the sight of a recently restored wood-bodied tram car€“a popular mode of transport in the West Bengal capital for decades.

The British brought trams not only to Kolkata, but also to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kanpur. They were being pulled by horses in the initial days before they were converted into electrically-powered carriages. They survived only in Kolkata. However, they continue to be popular mode of transport in many European cities.

The museum restored one of the last few surviving wooden trams, the Tram Car No 204 that served the residents of Kolkata for the last 7 decades. Measuring 57 feet in length, it has a seating capacity for 61 passengers in its two carriages. Not only its old charm retained, but the visitors would also be able to peep into a slice of the history of the eastern metropolis through old photographs displayed inside the tram. The restored tram also carries old advertisements.

"Unfortunately we can't run the tram because it requires 550 volt DC line overhead, which is not available," Thakral said. The museum also houses other exhibits like a 75-year-old steam engine that can chug along inside the 3-acre campus.

Unlike modern electric or diesel locomotives which start instantly, never make a fuss, steam locomotives take hours to get going, and must let off steam when being shut down€“literally spewing energy away in a wondrous display of power and might. The sight, the sound and the smell all conjure up images of an era gone by.

Steam locomotive

The museum restored 1953 Jung steam locomotive, built by the Arnold Jung Lokomotivfabrik (Arnold Jung Locomotive Works) a locomotive manufacturer established in 1885, in Kirchen, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany. Bearing registration number 11736, it stands 12.5 feet tall and 31 feet long, and weighs over 47 tons. The broad gauge locomotive can carry 1,320 gallons of water and over 4 tons of coal to feed its voracious appetite.

This locomotive was lying in a derelict condition at Rohtas Industries, Dehri-On-Sone, Bihar, for decades. Rohtas Industries purchased six such locomotives between 1953 and 1957. After persuading the Indian Railways (Heritage cell) it was acquired by the museum in scrap condition in October 2016.

The restoration work on the museum's other steam locomotive, 1921 Kerr Stuart is in progress.

Not merely the engines, the museum houses a luxury railway saloon too. Licensed as MG CT-20, it belonged to the Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway €“ probably one of the first to assemble a royal luxury train for maharajas and viceroys.

Built in Ajmer in 1930, the entire carriage body of the luxury coach is made of Burma teak. The saloon is now parked at a platform, created inside the museum, completed with vintage ticketing and signalling machines, an assortment of tail lamps and floodlight and a collection of posters that used to be seen on the railway platforms in those days.

"The railbus that we are acquiring used to operate between Katwa and Ahmadpur in West Bengal. It is a much older model built in the late 1960 (than the one in Karnataka). They were powered by single-ended diesel power cars. Due to conversion to broad gauge these services were shut down in late 2010," he said.

The museum is home to more than 2,500 curated objects that weave a tale of India's colourful transportation history€“from the days when rich used their trademark finials on the palanquin and horse-driven Landau and Heckney were the modes of transport for the elite to home-made three-wheeled car Badal and finally the Mercedes Benz S-320 that was considered as lucky mascot for Sunil Mittal when he launched Airtel in 1995. The Merc belonged to same W-140 series that is infamous for being the vehicle, whose crash on August 31, 1997 in a Paris tunnel led to Princess Diana's death.

The museum's most impressive collection is its automobile section where nearly 40 cars are on display and another 30 odd are in the warehouse. Most of the cars are from the personal collection of Thakral €“ a successful hotelier. The first car he collected, a 1932 Chevrolet Phaeton, bears the registration of Lahore Presidency (from the pre-partition era). There is a special section on street jewellery€“ decoration of the truck€“as well as on the evolution of Ambassadors.

"We also installed several transport-themed artworks in between the exhibits so that visitors don't get bored," said Ragini Bhat, curator of the museum.

The lone attraction in the aviation section is a Piper Cub J3C aircraft that flew between 1937 and 1947. The maritime section has row boats from Odisha. "We are in talks with the authorities to acquire a steamer that used to operate in the Hooghly river," Thakral said.

"As the first private museum of its scale in India, it is conceived as a space that not only provides a glimpse into the history of travel in India, but also of the socio-cultural life and art associated with travel. That's our USP," he noted.

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