113 years, it still chugs on hill track ?

113 years, it still chugs on hill track ?

 

A tinge of floating haze, silhouetted against the blue bright sky, is interrupted by a loud old horn from a distance shattering decibel levels in the quiet forest setting. The gentle cool breeze caressing flora and dense pine trees await the arrival of a chugging marvel on the narrow gauge.

A mighty engine, KC 520, puffing steam incessantly fades away everything-- the floating haze, the blue sky and the flora--as it chugs its way on inclined gradient.      

The 113-year-old heritage steam engine once again rolls through the picturesque hills on way to hill queen Shimla in all its majesty on the heritage Shimla-Kalka railway track. The century-old steam locomotive, still in use and vogue, is no less a showstopper. Recently, it rolled in its full splendor to the delight of foreign tourists from the United Kingdom.  

Three coaches attached to the steam locomotive took 30 foreigners on an unforgettable journey. The steam engine built by North British Locomotive Company at an estimated over Rs 30,000, caters essentially to high-end tourists on the route on advance bookings.

A short journey on the train pulled by the steam engine on the heritage track would cost over Rs 1 lakh. This heritage engine commissioned way back in 1906 pulled trains till the 70s before they were replaced by more powerful diesel engines. They were withdrawn from service in 1971 and brought back in use in 2001.

The journey on the tracks is exhilarating to say the least. Dense flakes of steam from the locomotive, settle on thick vegetation and on the tracks, as it chugs ahead. The first rail connect to Shimla, the erstwhile summer capital during the days of the British Raj, was laid way back in 1903.

Over a century later in 2009, the Shimla-Kalka railway track was declared a World Heritage site by the UNESCO.  

The over five-hour journey is breathtaking. Trains on this route meander through 103 tunnels, 800 bridges, an equal number of curves and 18 railway stations. The pilot of the steam locomotive, Shiv Nath Sharma, is a proud man. After all, it's an altogether different skill to navigate a yesteryear locomotive, that too run on steam. Sharma says it was in 1980 that he first got a chance to lay hands on the steam engine.

"I have a lot of memories. This engine is very dear to me," he said.  "It was a wonderful journey. The track was developed by the British and coming back here to experience this was really great," one of the tourists told local media after the journey.

Tourists are charmed by the pulling power that is generated through a steam. These locomotives are fueled by burning combustible substance, usually coal, which produces steam in a boiler of the engine. The steam moves reciprocating pistons which are connected to the main wheels. Steam locomotives were first developed in Great Britain.

Steam engines, also dubbed as black beauties, were phased out in 1970 from the Shimla-Kalka railway track.

The locomotive now runs a short distance on the heritage tracks between Shimla and Kathlighat--a little over 31-km on the route.

The mere running of the old machine with a fuel that is not in use to run rail engines (coal) adds uniqueness and vintage charm to the locomotive. This engine is not run on regular basis on the track, instead, it operates on a charter basis and often a special crew is hired for safety purposes.

Abundant coal is used as fuel to run the steam engine. That too has its flip side. Coal used for running the steam locomotive poses a threat to plenty of forested areas all around the rail route.

A major fire broke out in pine forests near Shoghi in Shimla a few days ago.  Sparks and coal residue flying out of the steam engine fall on dry pine leaves and grass, often triggering forest fires.

Villagers are protesting as it risks life, property and ecology.   They now intend to take up the matter firmly with the railway ministry. Himachal Pradesh forest wing too intends to issue a notice to the railways.

The occasional running of the steam engine in a way throws open a wider question to chose between profits and local concerns. Experts opine that adequate precautions can reduce  the problem of flying ash and resultant fires. The problem is being looked into with seriousness, officials say.  

Nevertheless, the heritage track and the steam engine continue to delight travellers with a wide range of stories of its creation. Like the story of the picturesque Barog station, nestled at an altitude of 4,500 feet in the Himalayan foothills, and tunnel number 33 which is the longest straight tunnel (1.14 km) on the route.

To run the train on the track, a tunnel was to be dug and Colonel Barog, a railway engineer, was assigned the task. His calculations of drilling from both sides of the hill went haywire and the tunnel could not be completed despite endless drilling. The project failed. The British government censured Col Barog with a fine of Re 1 for causing a loss to the exchequer.  

A humiliated Col Barog went into depression and one day, accompanied by his dog, shot himself with his revolver near the unfinished tunnel. Although the tunnel work was eventually completed, albeit without precision even this time, by Chief Engineer Harrington in 1903, the government and the railways honoured Col Barog and named the hill village after the British military officer.  

Officials said, such anecdotes are exchanged with foreigner travellers who are interested to know their past legacy.  The railways intend to offer more value to the route for a wholesome experience. All 18 railway stations on this world heritage track will be equipped with solar lights.  

 

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