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Railfanning is not just about gathering trivia. It is almost a spiritual pursuit, say members of the Indian fan club.
On the night of February 10, UP's Mughalsarai railway station saw two very different kinds of pilgrims. One set comprised devout men returning from a dip in the Ganga at the Kumbh Mela, another group simply sat on the platform, taking in the sight of the passing 'Yatra special' trains. In this blur, the ten ardent gawkers saw efficiency, team work, diversity, punctuality and potential friendships - all powered by the Indian Railways. "If India were anything like her railways, we would be a far superior nation, " says Pune's Apurva Bahadur, a part of the group at Mughalsarai where the annual convention of rail fans was held recently.
For Bahadur and other members of the Indian Railway Fans Club (IRFCA) - an online forum of over 8, 000 Indian men (and two women) - watching trains is a spiritual pursuit. Formed in 1989 by a group of five Indian students in America, IRFCA has chapters in most cities and accepts everyone from the engineer who retires to bed with the train time-table to the photographer who hikes 3, 000 metres for a loco shot.
On their website and on social media sites, these men discuss Karjat vadas and Guntakal upma as passionately as the types of wheels and traction motors of a particular train.
"Trains are objects of affection and study for us, " says 50-year-old Bahadur, about IRFCA. Fans often humanise trains - Rajdhani is the king, August Kranti is his deputy and the Deccan Queen is a prize catch as she is the only train, apart from Palace on Wheels, to boast of a dining car. Andhra's Simhadri Express, on the other hand, is a nagging wife. "She is fondly called Himsadri (himsa means violence) as she takes two hours longer than the other trains to reach Vishakhapatnam, " says Srinivas Kunapareddy.
Members have train trivia on their fingertips. "We can even plan entire itineraries at cheaper rates than tour operators, " says Pune's Jatin Bhavsar, whose vehicles bear the numbers of the August Kranti Rajdhani (2953) and the Kanyakumar Mumbai Express (6382). The group can be divided into camps: diesel experts, electrical train wizards, human time-tables. But Bhavsar is a fan of speed. He dreams of bullet trains in India.
At times, members even meet at stations far away from the city for trainspotting or 'railfanning'. Here, rare occurrences such as a Rajdhani passing down the Mumbai-Pune route for logistical reasons or an ordinary train overtaking the Toofan Express are celebrated events.
Monsoon is a glorious time for trainwatching, says Pune's Ashish Kuvelkar, who has covered the entire 30-km-long hilly stretch of Bhorghat near Lonavla. "But we always advise caution to newcomers while railfanning, " adds Kuvelkar, referring to the dangers of a slippery pitch and wet tracks. Some have even devised guidelines on which tunnels could be unsafe for railfanning.
The eyes of IRFCA-ians gleam with the belief that a 44-hour train journey can be far more enriching than a lifetime of books and television. In 1999, Shashank Anand, for instance, spent almost 69 hours in a delayed Guwahati Express, days after the super-cyclone had hit Orissa. "But that was when I got the chance to meet and speak with survivors who recounted the horrors, " says Anand, who later raised funds for the victims.
IRFCA members are critical of how Bollywood uses trains. In Jab We Met, for instance, they saw the manual train signal (semaphore) that "no one uses anymore". In another scene, Shahid Kapoor is shown contemplating suicide as a toy train is shown approaching. The movie The Burning Train has been rechristened 'Turning Brain' as it had many technical glitches - the hero is constantly running out of a compartment to get into another when all the coaches in long-distance trains are inter-connected. The fact that Gangs of Wasseypur showed train wagons from the wrong era is still hot on the discussion forum.
The IRFCA has one favour to ask of the railway ministry. "Please come up with a brighter name for Garib Rath, " says Anand.
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