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A Common Platform

The Indian Railways Fan Club site has become an important destination for enthusiasts worldwide

Velany Fernandes | September 12, 2003 12:27 IST

The Amritsar-Lahore Samjhauta Express is still in the yard. It is a train that hopes to bridge the gap between warring neighbours India and Pakistan.
But railway fans from both sides of the border are already journeying across cyberspace to bond over their passion for trains. Their destination: The Indian Railways Fan Club Association Web site.

IRFCA is home to over 1,500 railway fans form across the world. Says I S Anand, a rail fan from Mumbai, "Our discussion group includes people from Pakistan. It helps build harmony."

IRFCA members share information, experiences and love for the Indian Railways.

S Shankar, who works for a private company in Sharjah, UAE, created Web pages for the Pakistan and Bangladesh railways. He says, "Before long, people in Pakistan began to take notice. What took the cake was a note in my mailbox from the general manager of Pakistan's railways! (He retired last year). He even sent me a long list of facts, which I could put on to the site.

"Another Pakistani gentleman has given me honorary membership to the Pakistan Railway Fan Club. My site and the IRFCA have bound two warring neighbours - something no politician has been able to do since 1947!"

There are no boundaries, no borders. Says Sandeep Saxena from Delhi, "It is amazing to see Indian Railways fans writing from all over the world." The object of their passion runs on tracks only along the length and breadth of India. But these fans come form countries like the USA, Austria, Australia, UAE and Pakistan.

Ronald Kappel, a business informatics student from Austria, says, "I am interested in railways around the world. It is so easy to collect information, especially pictures! Borders are not important anymore and you get friendly help from everywhere!"

Shankar agrees, "We are one large family spread all over the world."

In the days before the Internet this family was much smaller. It would share its passion through letters, telephonic conversations or local meetings. Now, not only has the family grown, it is able to share its passion in a fuller way.

Anand explains, "The image of the train on the horizon and the sound generated by it are experiences which need to be felt." Discussions through letters or telephone calls could not adequately convey this experience. However, the Net, with its audiovisual capabilities, is the perfect medium for sharing such experiences.

Says Anand, "The audiovisual experience can be recreated across miles because of the Net. Through video and sound clips, I can sit at my PC in Mumbai, watch a train rumbling in at a platform in Europe." Ronald agrees, "You really have the feeling of travelling through other parts of the world!"

This fascination with the Indian railways has various roots. Apurva Bahadur, an electronics engineer from Pune, says, "When I was a little boy my mom took me to the railway station and I instantly fell in love with the trains."

For NRIs, the railways are a slice of home. Says Shankar "My passion became really virulent after I moved to Dubai in 1990, when I began to live in a land devoid of trains!"

Whatever the reasons for their ardour, these rail fans have had one common experience. People fail to understand their passion. Anand says, "If I tell someone that I am interested in trains, they think it is childish."

For most IRFCA members, finding another rail fan used to be difficult until they found the Internet. Says Sandeep, "I was shocked when I found an Indian club on the Internet. It gave me pleasure and a sense of satisfaction to know that I am a perfectly normal human being! There is now a great exchange of knowledge and experiences, which was not possible before."

The group discusses technical and aesthetic aspects of the railways. There are experts on timetables, signalling, railway routes, etc. The group has some railway officials as members too. But not all of them are active participants. Says Anand, "They are silent listeners. They just sit back and observe what is being said about the railways."

But while the Indian Railways may be the starting point of the group's discussion, it is not the end. These rail fans are now knit together by another bond -- friendship.

Says Apurva, "Through the IRFCA, we now have a worldwide circle of friends." Anand agrees, "Our discussion is no longer limited to trains and our fascination with them. We go beyond that by sharing each other's personal lives."

Shankar too raves about the friendships he has formed as a result of this online club. "Most of us have made close friends from all over the world. In fact, I have just returned from a long holiday in Australia, meeting some of my very close friends whom I met on the IRFCA!"

For the Indian Railways, crossing over into another country may be difficult. But the borderless Internet has put its fans on the right track.

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