Steam railway engines stoke India's heritage-train tourism hopes

India is the home of the Fairy Queen, the world's oldest working steam locomotive, and steam heritage is seen as a potential tourism sector for the country, attracting steam train aficionados.

Local commuters, with their belongings, sit on a railway platform in front of the Fairy Queen engine, the world's oldest working locomotive, in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan March 28, 2010. The locomotive was built in 1855 by the British firm Kitson, Thompson and Hewitson for the East Indian Railway (EIR). REUTERS/Vijay Mathur (INDIA - Tags: TRAVEL SOCIETY TRANSPORT)
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NEW DELHI // The pounding of pistons, the rhythmic chuff of a locomotive and storybook names such as "Fairy Queen" are all part of the allure of India's old-fashioned steam railways, which once tied together this vast nation.

Heritage train aficionados are now turning their passion towards the foreign tourist market, hoping for even more attention - and preservation - for the "Iron Ladies" they love.

"Steam heritage is a potential tourism sector for the country," said Ashwani Lohani, Indian Railways' divisional manager for Delhi. "The presence of raw fire that fires raw power in the belly of steam locomotives attracts tourists, and the unique sound, the rocking gait, the shrill whistle, the throbbing body and an open design ... are features that impart an irresistible charm to these black beauties."

Mr Lohani, once the director of India's National Rail Museum, was involved in the revival of the Fairy Queen, a locomotive built in 1855 and refurbished and restored to regular service in 1997.

He is not alone in his passion for old trains. There are fan clubs on social networking websites, and magazines and blogs.

Some pour their hearts into fashioning model trains or dreaming about doing so. A museum dedicated to train miniatures, in the western city of Pune, has more than 400 working model trains that draw more than 500 people every week.

Now, with a growing number of foreign visitors coming for holidays and even weddings in India, tour operators are hoping to cash in.

"There was a time when foreign travellers would be interested to travel only by luxury tourist trains of India such as the Palace on Wheels," said Ashok Sharma of the travel firm Real India Journeys.

"Now there are hard-line steam railway travellers and photographers who come in huge groups every week. We refer to them as narrow-gauged or single-tracked."

Despite growing interest, train enthusiasts feel efforts towards preservation have been insufficient after a decline in the number of steam trains two decades ago.

"Many countries, especially the UK, retained a sizeable number of steam locomotives, primarily for the twin causes of heritage and tourism. India also could have retained more of steam," said Mr Lohani.

Looking to the future, the Indian Steam Railway Society, which was established in 1999, has earmarked 53 routes across India as suitable for possible future steam train heritage journeys.

Many of the proposed routes cover scenic regions such as Darjeeling, Niligiri and India's hill capital of Shimla.

Enthusiasts notched a victory last year when the sprawling Rewari Steam Locomotive Shed, India's only remaining such facility, was transformed into a tourist spot nine working locomotives.

Fans are thrilled."We were surprised when an engineer in the shed came to us and said, 'Let me fire up a steam loco for you guys'," said Parthajit Dasgupta, a photographer.

"There was a feeling of awe that rocked me as I watched the Iron Lady take her mighty steps."