Sunday, February 7, 2016

Coimbatore Express chugging along the picturesque Bhor Ghats. Photo: Ashish Kuvelkar

A quirky love for the Indian Railways was transformed a few years ago into a nationwide movement. This is how thousands of railfans express their affection for the track network that unites the nation

Vijay Aravamudhan, a Mumbai-based IT professional, did not like the rust-coloured livery of the old Harbour Line direct current (DC) rakes. Instead of whining to his friends, he decided to do something about it. He approached Narendra Patil, the chief public relations officer of Central Railway, pointing out his discomfort.

Patil, instead of dismissing him, referred Vijay to the department in charge of deciding the colour scheme. His suggestion was accepted. Not just that, they painted an entire rake in Vijay’s suggested colours, and showed it to him.

There’s a reason Vijay is taken seriously in the Railways hierarchy. He is a ferroequinologist (literally, an expert of the Iron Horse, or a train). In other words, he is a railfan, a rail enthusiast, a train spotter. Cal him what you will; Vijay, like hundreds of his rare breed, loves trains.

Not just passion, a way of life

There are dedicated groups around the country, and both Mumbai and Pune have several. They not only talk trains, write trains, and photograph trains; they also contribute to the Indian Railways’ knowledge reserve by exploring areas no one knew earlier. Pune’s Ashish Kuvelkar and Apurva Bahadur, for instance, explored the Meter Gauge (MG) alignment between Pune and Satara, and found old tunnels infested with bats wading through knee-deep water.

Love, now and forever

In the quest to modernise Indian Railways, the department often builds new lines and shuts down others. But a rail fan would be there to photograph and document it for posterity.

And yes, they prefer trains to any other mode of transport.

Recently, a ticketing officer at Churchgate was stumped when a rail fan asked him to give a ticket to go to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The kind officer told the buyer to just walk it down or hail a cab. It is, after all, only 1.5 km away. “No,” the railfan said, “I know it is only 10 minutes away. But I want to go to CST via Dadar.” In the end, he took a 15 km, 40-minute detour to reach a destination he would have otherwise reached in less than 15 minutes.

Take Nitin Master, an IT professional from Mumbai and a railfan. His A3-size working timetable (WTT) of the Western Railway’s section was comprehensive, and yet it captured the WTT in a single sheet of paper. He did for his uncle (a station master at Bilimora in Gujarat), and soon, his colleagues were asking for copies.

His masterpiece contains details of trains, their origin, the number of coaches, the days of run, the speed limit, timings at each station, overtakes, crew change and the other such details in a single A3 sheet. For railfans, this is a work of art.

To the ends of the world

Rahul Sharma, another Mumbai railfan and a narrow gauge buff stood in a crowded Gujarat Express from Mumbai Central to Bilimora only to enjoy the clickety-clack of the Bilimora Waghai narrow gauge railway. He returned home at midnight, travelling 500 km non-stop from 5 am that day.

Debabrato Mukherjee, who lives in Thakurli near Mumbai, records track sounds and plays them at night only so he can be lulled into sleep. “The whole of India is connected to each other only because of Indian Railways,” he says. His wife would often wonder what her spouse is up to in the early days of their marriage. “Now she is used to my quirky love interest,” Mukherjee says.

Every year, railfans meet each other at a convention hosted by the Indian Railways Fan Club (IRFCA). Mysore and Ooty may be top tourism destinations, but railfans in 2012 outvoted them over Mughalsarai, a town in Eastern UP, where the 2013 convention was held. The 2016 convention, the eleventh in the series, was held at Bikaner, Rajasthan, in January.

Pratik Joshi, an IRFCA member from Mumbai and a convention regular, was introduced to railfanning by his grandfather. His Twitter handle reads @pratik2951, the four digits being the train number of the Mumbai Central-New Delhi Rajdhani Express, his favourite train. Raj Upadhyay plans to take his entire family to New Delhi by Rajdhani in AC First Class after he receives his first pay check. “I will not board the train until then,” he says.

Brand ambassadors

Not surprisingly, the Bibek Debroy Committee report on restructuring the Indian Railways suggested that members of IRFCA be roped in as brand ambassadors of Indian Railways.

The IRFCA ( was founded by Dheeraj Sanghi in August 1989. Sanghi is now a professor of computer science at the Indian Institute of Information Technology, New Delhi. Mani Vijay and Sankaran Kumar, who were research scholars in the US then, were the first to moot a mailing list to exchange anecdotes and information about Indian Railways.

At the time, the group had only nine members. Today, it has more than 3000, and they are such a huge mine information of the railways that their documentation is part of the resource material for Government Staff College’s Knowledge Portal.

The documentation fever

They have documented just about everything to do with the Indian Railways - locomotives, signalling, operations, rolling stock, books and research, tracks, loco sheds, zones, freight, technical documents, its history, and maps. It is also India’s only database of locomotives, with pictures and technical specifications. In fact, the picture gallery features a collection of some of the finest pictures ever of Indian Railways.

It is not easy; they have to climb hills, they have to wait for hours for a train to pass (and days, if they want two trains to pass at a scenic intersection at exactly the same time), and they have to brave the sun and the cold. But they do it, nevertheless, with the same passion of a wildlife photographer waiting for that one definitive shot.

With the old being steadily replaced by the new, railfans across India are busy documenting the lines which are either about to converted from narrow gauge and metre gauge to broad gauge or are being dismantled for good. Railfans say they know it is for the good, but they also know they are losing an old, steady friend.

Anatomy of a railfan
Gets goose bumps whenever a train passes by Prefers staying in a house close to the railway station Always wants the window seat, preferably side lower berth Has ringtones which are horns of a engine or clickety-clack of his favourite trains Cities are often referred to in railway codes – R for Raipur, G for Gondia, NGP for Nagpur, and so on Twitter handles /mail ids clearly display love for anything related to trains — @sidelower, etc Uses passwords which may be combination of railway codes of three or four railway stations

Never take a selfie at the edge of a platform, on the track, bridges or foot board of a moving train Inform the station master and other appropriate staff about your presence in an area when you are railfanning (in case of any trouble or if help is needed) Do not go alone especially in lonely and remote areas Apply for and carry appropriate permits while visiting restricted areas, yards, sheds, inside locomotives Have an up to date timetable. Do not walk on tracks. And more so at points where another track veers away. Sturdy and strong shoes or boots are best for hiking and walking along tracks. Beware of dangerous animals. Tracks may harbour a wide variety of nasty creatures such as scorpions or venomous snakes Never go under a stationary train, or locomotive; as far as possible avoid going on to bridges, tunnels or underpasses especially at night Do not ride an engine without official permission. You are risking arrest.


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