The Indian Railways is one of the world’s oldest railways dating back to 1849. It also has the largest network in terms of route length covering nearly 63,000 route kilometres touching every nook and cranny of India. The Indian Railways is also the world’s single largest employer with about 1.6 million people working in nine zones.
Among its many unique gems are the toy train that runs on the Darjeeling Himalayan rail route, the rack railway at Udagamandalam in south India, the busiest narrow gauge network in the world, etc. However, the pride of place goes to the ‘Fairy Queen’, a living locomotive legend. So what’s so special about it? Well, it is the world’s oldest locomotive still in operation on a main line transporting tourists from Delhi to Alwar in Rajasthan.
Looking at the ‘Fairy Queen’ you cannot guess that it is nearly 145 years old, as she was first commissioned way back in 1855!
The Fairy Queen was built by the British firm Kitson, Thomson and Hewitson of Leeds to run on a broad gauge track (5 foot 6 inches). Weighing all of 26 tonnes, the locomotive was a type 2-2-2 WT (under slung water tank) with a double plate frame and its original maker number was 481.
In 1855, she was delivered to the East Indian Railways (EIR), the company that pioneered railway network in India, and renamed EIR 22. The East Indian Railways used the locomotive to haul mail trains between Howrah and Raniganj in West Bengal state. This distance of 121 miles was covered at a leisurely pace of 25 miles per hour taking 5 hours in all.
In 1857, she was put into troop transportation during the first Indian war of Independence. In 1881, her number was changed to 92 and she was renumbered 101 in 1884. In 1895 she was finally named ‘Fairy Queen’.
The Fairy Queen ended her working life in 1909 as a construction engine on the Bihar (a state in India) lines. The same year she was withdrawn from service and placed outside Howrah station in Calcutta where she made her debut.
From 1909 to 1943 she stayed there and she was then shifted to the Zonal training School at Chandausi. In 1973, she came to Delhi during the inauguration of the Rail Transport Museum.
However, till 1997, she still could not claim the title of the oldest working locomotive as another engine, the ‘Tweed’, built by Dubs of Glasgow, Scotland in 1873 was regularly chugging and wheezing at Sarayu Sugar Mills, in Gorakhpur, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
But Fairy Queen refused to be an ‘also ran’ and be relegated to the railway archives. The Indian Railways decided to restore the engine to working condition more as a tourist attraction for steam engine enthusiasts, India is among a handful of countries that still operate coal and steam engines.
In 1996, the Fairy Queen was restored at the railway yards at Perumbur in Chennai. On October 31, 1998, she was pressed into action to ply on select days between Delhi and Alwar, a distance of 143 kilometres.
Pulling a two-bogie train the locomotive regally chugs out of Delhi Cantonment station, working to a fever pitch of a maximum speed of 40 kilometres per hour. And the grand centenarian that she is, she stops six times in between to get her breath back and of course to stock up on water and coal.
Though we said restoration, nothing needed to be restored as everything in the locomotive is still original and in pristine condition – the copper boiler furnace as well as the steam regulator and a blast from the old whistle never fails to bring people young and old alike to stand and gape and wave wildly as the locomotive chugs merrily by the Indian countryside.