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Indian Railways: Journey of a Lifetime

August 2003
Indian Railways: Journey of a Lifetime

The Indian Railways embarked on its journey a full 150 years ago ? the maiden trip on April 16, 1853 being a momentous event covering a 34 km run between Bori Bunder (now Mumbai) and Thane. It was the perfect start to an ongoing saga, and as the 14 carriages drawn by three steam engines puffed out of the station accompanied by the boom of a 21-gun royal salute, the cheers of the 400 colonial guests sitting in the decked-up cushioned compartments rose up as an outburst of joy.

The scene outside was however different ? villagers along the route watched with a puzzled and anxious look as the ?iron monster' cut its way through the surrounding countryside. Modern inventions were yet to find their way into the Indian heartland. And although a major portion of the country had come under British rule, in the interiors it was the still the zamindars who ran the show. Upper caste men were a privileged lot and resented even the shadow of the shudras or untouchables.

The English however, gave little thought to such feelings. What mattered to them was trade and the booty associated with it. They also needed to keep the local populace under check. Trains were the ideal answer, as they could also transport huge quantities of arms and ammunitions from one place to another in a relatively short time. The railways, in fact, played a major role in the expansion of the Raj. Tracks were laid at a fast pace and plans to connect major Indian cities by train were pushed through speedily.

The story of the Indian Railways however, begins more than just a century and a half ago. It dates back to those early days of conceptualization and planning in the 1830s when the power of the new ?iron machine' evoked awe among its supporters and ire among opponents. However, those at the top were for the ?metal snake', and it was their views that eventually mattered. Several Governor-Generals of British India strongly advocated the case for the railways. Also supporting them were numerous princes of Indian states, private players and early optimist-entrepreneurs. The imprints of these visionaries (albeit guided by their own selfish interests) are still evident in what has today grown to become India's largest business operation.

Earlier Negative Associations

The journey since then has been fast and with its own peculiarities. Like the telephone, the other great invention of human communication from the Victorian era, the railway has been considered yet another instrument of the devil. While the telephone was seen as an object of pollution that did not differentiate between ?pure' and ?impure' voices, traveling by train meant losing ?purity'. By 1874, the railways in India were well established, yet there were numerous complaints that the third-class carriages seated "sweepers and chamars (low-caste cobblers) and the like classes in the same carriage along with those of the higher order".

Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, viewed the railways as an instrument of colonialism ? one that was used to move the military quickly to suppress revolts in a far-flung land and also to drain away raw materials and wealth from the hinterland. Once he wrote, "It must be manifest to you that, but for the railways, the English could not have such a hold on India as they have. The railways, too, have spread the bubonic plague?. Railways have also increased the frequency of famines because, owing to facility of means of locomotion, people sell out their grains and it is sent to the dearest markets?".

Gandhi believed that railways have impoverished the country and that, "the income of railways is simply a portion of the production of the country, and what is eaten up and taken away by Europeans is so much taken away from the means of the people". He, nevertheless, made good use of the railways in the pursuit of his social and political goals. He chose the windows of the third class railway compartment as his window to see and understand and, later, to unite the people of India to wage an all-powerful non-violent struggle against the British.

In the midst of fast unfolding social, economic and intellectual developments, the railways chugged ahead. They matured with the crossing of the Western Ghats, the linking of central India, the east and the south and, in steady measure, other parts of the country. That in just over a decade after its first run, most of India's important cities was brought closer to each other is testimony to the importance that was given to the railways.

Then came Independence? and Partition. Those were dark days. Literally tearing people away from each other, the railways, albeit unwittingly, played a major role in what became the greatest exchange of populations ever seen as millions of Hindus moved to India and almost an equally large number of Muslims went in the reverse direction. As what was to be later described as ethnic cleansing in a real sense proceeded (and was re-incarnated in Bosnia-Herzegovina decades later), people were crammed into carriages and clambered onto train roofs. There were several who never made it to their intended new homes and were slaughtered on the way. Trains arrived at stations in both Pakistan and India stained with blood and their carriages counted more dead people than living.

Violence and hatred however, didn't deter progress and the journey of the Indian Railways continued.

The surge

Post-1947, saw India take the plunge along the road to socialism ? with the nationalization of the railways and the complete abolition of the third class. More importantly, the railways were successfully transformed from serving the interests of a colonial power to becoming the vibrant transport and communication link of an independent, developing economy despite the existing social and financial inequities.

Communications played a major role in the onward journey of the railways with an elaborate and well-established manual information system to help monitor its moving assets. Telephone and later wireless kept track of the progress of trains from one station to another. However, the size and complexity of the operations, growing traffic and changing technologies, inevitably placed a heavy burden on the manual information system. The need for the modernization of railways was thus felt.

In 1969 the government approved the railways' plan to have its own microwave structure. Since then the railway telecom network has expanded manifold and today is the second largest telecom network after that of the Department of Telecommunications.

The chapter on modernization will remain incomplete without the mention of Madhavrao Scindia. Considered the most successful and innovative railway minister the country has had, Scindia initiated computerization in a big way. It is all because of this visionary from Gwalior that today railway reservations can be done at the click of a mouse. The "computerized passenger reservation" facility has since been extended to cover over 92 per cent of all reservations done on the system. A major step forward has been the extension of this facility even to state capitals not having direct rail links, e.g., Shillong, Itanagar, Kohima, Gangtok, Port Blair etc.

From an extremely modest beginning on April 16, 1853, the Indian railways have today expanded enormously. With tracks covering routes of over 63,000 km, it has the largest rail network in Asia and the world's second largest under one management. Criss-crossing the country's vast geographical spread, it is a multi-gauge, multi-traction system covering over 100,000 kilometers, 300 yards, 2300 goods sheds and 700 repair shops. Its rolling stock fleet includes 8300 locomotives, 39,000 coaches and 350,000 freight wagons. Its work force is 1.65 million and it runs some 14,000 trains every day, including 7,000 passenger trains carrying up to 14 million passengers a day ? more than the population of many countries.

While the story of the Indian Railways is closely linked to the story of the nation, it is important that the present mode of celebration is tempered by the realization that all is not well with the working of the system. Several issues cry out for attention ? passenger services, competition from other forms of transport, unhealthy administration of finances and the increasing pressures of the market economy are some of the more important ones that need to be addressed soon. Also, in this "passenger amenities year", it is imperative for the railways to devise a means to make traveling comfortable and safe.

Popular means of transport

People's love for this means of transport is directly proportional to the load. The more the weight it carries, the greater the liking people have, an affection that has grown over the years. All this and more were visible during a celebration to mark the one and a half-century of the inaugural train run. In a special gesture and as a tribute to the varied contributions the railways has made to the nation, a heritage train pulled out of Victoria Terminal (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) to recreate the maiden run.

As the ?iron horse' driven by an 80-year-old retired steam engine driver and with 400 passengers waving to the teeming crowd, moved out of the station, it was greeted by a spontaneous outburst of affection and admiration. Thousands and thousands of Mumbaikars came out of their houses and took whatever vantage point they could, to applaud the passing train.

Awestruck, a railway official remarked, "I could never imagine people would react this way. But is shows how much the railways are an intrinsic part of their lives."

On the occasion, Union Minister for Railways Nitish Kumar, in a message, said, "The Indian Railways has been a witness to some of the most cherished moments of our freedom struggle and the history of modern India. Besides being the harbinger of the industrial revolution in India, it has been an active player in the social revolution that is gradually wiping away the socio-economic disparities and bringing the people of various regions closer to each other".

The Indian Railways, the life-blood of nation, is the very symbol of our unity in diversity, which reinforces the roots of our vibrant democracy. The Indian Railways has all the markings of an institution the nation can feel proud about. Fittingly, India moves on its railways.


first passenger train: The first passenger train steamed out of Howrah station destined for Hooghly, a distance of 24 miles, on August 15, 1854. Thus the first section of the East Indian Railway was opened to public traffic, inaugurating the beginning of railway transport on the eastern side of the sub-continent.

small beginnings: In the south, the first line was opened on July 1, 1856 by the Madras Railway Company. It ran between Veyasarpandy and Walajah Road (Arcot), a distance of 63 miles. In the North a length of 119 miles of line was laid from Allahabad to Kanpur on March 3, 1859. The first section from Hathras Road to Mathura Cantonment was opened to traffic on October 19, 1875. These were the small beginnings, which in due course developed into a network of railway lines all over the country. By 1880 the Indian Railway system had a route mileage of about 9000 miles.

Metro railways: Indian Railways can also take the credit for introducing an underground Metro Railway for Calcutta. The whole route from Dum Dum to Tollygunge was opened for commercial operation in 1995. Similarly, the country's first elevated Mass Rapid Transit System at Chennai has also been completed; the system connects Chennai Beach to Luz.

Bombay local trains: A stop invariably has to be made at one of the Bombay (now Mumbai) stations, during a journey on and about the Indian Railways. The hurrying sea of humanity at the platforms often makes a scary picture. Traveling in packed compartments with passengers jostling for space even at the edge of an open doorway has virtually become a way of life there. It is said that V. S. Naipaul panicked and fled from one of the railway stations in Bombay fearing that "he might sink without a trace into the Indian crowd". Despite the dusty and suffocating skit, hands still stretch out to people arriving at the last minute, when they run up to the jammed compartments. Yeh hai Bombay.

Palace on Wheels: Devised for art connoisseurs and lovers of nature, Palace on Wheels ? the pride of the Indian Railways, takes a trip down the history of India, in supreme comfort and relaxation. It's a journey worthy of kings. With its cream saloons, embellished with intricate designs, the train chugs through the famous golden triangle ? parts of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Fully air-conditioned, the train comprises 14 deluxe saloons, equipped with class amenities to enhance the pleasure of traveling. The coaches are named after former Rajput states ? Kota, Jaipur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Alwar, Sirohi, Kishangarh, Bundi, Dungarpur, Bharatpur, Jhalawar and Dholpur ? invoking romance and grandeur.

Each saloon is a combination of 4 twin-bedded chambers with channel music, intercom, attached toilets, running hot & cold water, shower and wall-to-wall carpeting. Recognized for its intimate hospitality and services, the Palace on Wheels has been rated as one of the ten best luxury train journeys in the world.

The 7 nights/8 days trip takes one to Jaipur, Sawai Madhopur, Chittaurgarh, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Bharatpur, Fatehpur Sikri and Agra. The tour commences every Wednesday evening and concludes on the next Wednesday morning at New Delhi. Since travel by this prestigious luxury train is all overnight, passengers have all days free for their sightseeing tours.

The success of the Palace on Wheels, has encouraged the government to start other trains on similar lines.

Royal Orient Express, a weekly train which starts from New Delhi, takes passengers through the beauty of Saurashtra (western Gujarat).

Royal Saloon, a six carriage luxuriously decked-up rake, started its operations on May 24. The train runs on narrow gauge from Nagpur to Jabalpur and back. The four-days of extravagant and leisurely living, takes the ?privileged' guests to the ?tiger land' of Kanha, Chhindwara, Chiraidongri, Nainpur, Bedaghat and Jabalpur. The train, based on the ?Palace on Wheels' concept, is being run for promotion of tourism in the region and the charge has been placed at an economical $150 per person.

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