The Indian Steam Railway Society (ISRS) organised and conducted the XIII National Steam Congress for the year 2015-16 in a warm and absorbing programme at the National Rail Museum on the 21st of November 2015. The Congress has normally been held in the month of February but starting this year, it is planned to have it at this time owing to most government officials being busy with the preparation and presentation of the National Budget in February.
It was good to see a large number of steam die-hards of yesteryear among the participants. Two key invitees who graced the occasion were Mrs. Anita Sethi, wife of the legendry Romesh Sethi, the founder and father-figure of the ISRS, and Mrs. Nidhi Singh, wife of the late J K Singh. The Chief Guest was none other than the Hon. Minister of State (with independent charge) of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Dr. Mahesh Sharma. The Guest of Honour was the Member Mechanical Engineering of the Indian Railway Board, Mr. Hemant Kumar. Mr. Kumar is also the Chief Patron of the ISRS.
The proceedings were launched with the lighting of the traditional lamp. This was followed by a series of speeches, presentations and other events, all compeered delightfully in his inimitable style by Mr. Vikas Arya. The only break in the hectic proceedings was a short intermission for tea and snacks in the lawns next to the conference auditorium.
A welcome address by Mr. L.K.Sinha, President of ISRS, was followed by a brief oration by Mr. Ashwini Lohani, working President of the organisation. Mr. Lohani not only took the Fairy Queen off its pedestal and made it achieve the Guinness Book record for being the world’s oldest working locomotive, he was also instrumental in reviving Rewari steam shed and making it the home of 10 steam locomotives today.
Dr. Mahesh Sharma, in his address, said that his Ministry would give all support necessary to steam and other tourism. Preservation of steam would not only help tourism but was also part of the culture of our country and had to be kept alive. Mr. Hemant Kumar recalled his days when he had worked with steam and stated that he would support the ISRS in its efforts to keep steam going.
The theme of the Congress this year was the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. A presentation by Mr. Shubhranshu, Divisional Rail Manager of Salem Division of the Southern Railway zone, in whose jurisdiction this World Heritage railway falls, covered the history, running and current status of the railway in a well-illustrated address. Most of the photographs in the presentation had been shot by him. Mr. K. Natarajan, founder of the Heritage Steam Chariot Trust, and a die-hard supporter of this mountain railway, also made a presentation. Mr. Natarajan has been working tirelessly for more than 30 years to ensure that all the problems and difficulties of this railway are brought to the notice of the rail administration and that all tourists and ordinary commuters get a fair deal.
The keynote address was a departure from the normal practice of the ISRS to have a speaker from the Mecca of heritage railways, the United Kingdoms. This year we had a young 22-year old steam buff from across the Atlantic, Mr. Alexander Karnes of the United States of America, for this purpose. And what an impact he made. The entire gathering gave him a standing ovation for the most passionate, intense and emotional story of his life as a hands-on live steam enthusiast. Even those of us who have worked most of our lives with steam locomotives cannot match his zeal and ardour.
At the end of the formal Congress, he and his friend, Phil Christopher, who accompanied him on this trip, visited the PSMT mono-rail locomotive, and went over it as enthusiastically as a child with a new toy. Surely, it will take such enthusiasm in India to ensure that live steam does not go the way of the dodo in the not too distant future. Mr. Phil Christopher also addressed the Congress. His love for live steam was as obvious as that of Mr. Alexander Karnes. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society of the UK has been an active supporter of the ISRS and has participated in virtually all the Congresses that have been conducted so far. This year was no exception and the Society was represented by Mr. David Mead. In his presentation, Mr. Mead gave us suggestions on aspects like training, manufacture and procurement of spare parts, etc. that are key to making sure than live steam continues. He also offered any assistance that the ISRS may need for spare parts and other areas.
Sundry events that were part of the proceedings were the release of the ISRS magazine and the 2016 calendar. The calendar this year has 12 sketches of Indian steam locomotives by Mr. Karnes and Mr. Christopher. A point to note is that neither of them had been to India before and thus all the sketches were made from photographs and drawings.
The ISRS honoured selected persons with Steam awards. Among them were Mr. R S Virdi, retired General Manager of the North East Frontier Railway, who was instrumental in reviving the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway after massive landslides had virtually crippled the services. He was presented with a life-time achievement award. Also awarded were Mr. P B Newar and Mr. C K Lepcha, both Technician-I of Tindharia Workshop of the North East Frontier Railway. Tindharia Workshop homes and maintains the locomotives that operate on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. In addition to the awardees, 4 personnel of the Rewari steam shed, who have recently retired from service, were recognised for their exemplary services to live steam. They were Mssrs. Amar Nath, Technician-I, Sumer Singh, MSM, Pyare Lal, Technicain-I and Pyarey Lal, Technician. All were recognised for their contribution to the development of the Rewari steam shed.
A feature of the Congress this year was a display of paintings by the late Mr. Vijay Bhargav, a retired mechanical engineer of the Indian Railways, who passed away recently. When poor health prevented Mr. Bhargav from moving around freely, he indulged in his hobby of drawing and painting and in the process produced a number of paintings that depict the Indian Railways. His paintings had been exhibited in the foyer of the conference auditorium. The function ended with a vote of thanks by Mr. G. Shankar, Secretary of ISRS, followed by a sumptuous lunch.