A journey by train has always been one of the great joys in my life, but the train journeys I made in India on the great railways of the Raj are the most enjoyable and memorable.
The memories of those journeys date back to August 1931, when as a young lad, arriving at Bombay from the UK, I made a journey of some one thousand two hundred miles from Victoria Terminus of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway to Dhanbad on the East Indian Railway, where my grandfather was the Yardmaster. Till then I was familiar only with the trains of the Southern Railway in England with their corridor trains and similar trains in Europe.
This was my first fully remembered train journey in India. The first thing that I became aware of when boarding the train at Victoria Terminus, was how spacious, airy and private the compartments were due to the absence of corridors. It was at Dhanbad that my love for trains and especially the railways of India was born, a love which still exists today, although I made my last journey in India twenty years later in August 1951. (It is hard to believe that six generations have grown up since I left India) During those twenty years I had the joy of travelling on some beautifully appointed trains and on several railways including the two mountain railways, the Kalka Simla line of the North Western Railway, and the world famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
In the days of the Raj, there were four different class of carriages; First Class, Second Class, Intermediate Class, and Third Class. First, Second and Intermediate classes had well upholstered accommodation. Privacy and comfort were of paramount importance to the railways for First and Second class passengers, who travelled almost like a privileged class!
First and Second Class carriages had superior fittings and en suite toilet facilities in the Western style, while First Class also had the added luxury of a shower unit. There was good electric lighting with each berth also having individual reading lights, and a minimum of two electric ceiling fans. These were either four berth or two berth compartments; the two berth variety were known as ‘Coupes.' Coupes had one lower and one upper berth, while the four berth compartments had two lower and two upper berths.
These compartments gave excellent comfort and privacy, which made the long journeys enjoyable especially with a certain cosiness and privacy with night travel, when it was possible to lock the compartment doors and have a secure and good night's sleep in your en suite compartment, which was solely for your use between the hours of nine in the night and seven the next morning.
The Intermediate Class compartments, more than often, were the five berth variety, with a central lower berth. This was possible owing to width of compartments, due to there being no corridors. This gave more seating space during the day, which also meant they were more crowded than the First or Second Class compartments, which were very rarely overcrowded. Intermediate Class also had cooling fans but toilet facilities were of the Oriental variety rather than the Western style!
Third Class, to put it as kindly as possible, was really an indictment on the British, who gave India its railways, but rather thoughtlessly, relegated the lowest class of travel on the railways, to the harshest and humiliating of conditions. These compartments had wooden seats, no cooling fans, insufficient space or facilities for sleeping, and in most case no toilet facilities. The lack of toilets forced Third Class travellers to line side ablutions when trains stopped at stations. Foreigners found this practice disgusting without understanding why, since they were not fully cognisant of the appalling conditions that were afforded to this class of traveller, who had no alternative when nature called, forcing them to lose their dignity and privacy by such appalling travelling conditions forced upon them.
In 1928, the Bombay Baroda & Central India Railway introduced an air-condition coach on its prestigious train, the Frontier Mail, which was the first train in India to have air-conditioning. This was followed in the 1930's by the East Indian Railway on its Premier train the Delhi-Kalka Mail and later on its Calcutta-Bombay Mail. These were the last word in railway luxury at that time. Though it was the preferred mode of travel for senior civil servants, top men in commerce and industry and the army top brass, it was available to anyone who could afford the fare, regardless of nationality or caste, and this was true for all ‘Upper Class' accommodation on all the trains.
The most prestigious and luxurious train to ever run in India during the Raj was The Indian Imperial Mail, (the British loved the term ‘Imperial') which was a joint East Indian Railway and Great Indian Peninsula Railway venture. It carried first class passengers only, and ran between Calcutta and Bombay in connection with berthing times at Ballard Pier in Bombay of certain P&O Liners to and from the UK This train ceased to run following the outbreak of World War II. With the introduction of air conditioning on the Bombay Mail, there was no need to run the Imperial Mail when hostilities ended.
The railways were given grand sounding names by the British as they constructed them to all corners of the Sub-Continent, beginning with the Great Indian Peninsula Railway which was the first railway closely followed by the East Indian Railway. The Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Provinces were served by India's largest Railway system, the North Western Railway (the greater part of this railway went to Pakistan following Independence.)
The South was served by the Madras & Southern Maharatta Railway and the South Indian Railway. The Gujarat, Rajputana (Rajasthan) and Central India were served by the Bombay Baroda & Central India Railway, which had an extensive broad gauge and metre gauge network (nearly all the metre gauge has now been converted to broad gauge).
The Deccan was served mostly by the Nizam's State Railway, which was also a broad and metre gauge system. The Central Provinces was served by the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. The Ganges Plain and Northern India then known as the United Provinces (UP) was the monopoly of the East Indian Railway.
The East coast between Calcutta and Madras was served by the Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) with an end-on junction with the Madras & Southern Maharatta Railway at Waltair, which is now part of Visakhapatnam. The Bengal Nagpur Railway also served the Nagpur/ Chota Nagpur area and the vast mineral districts of the area, and jointly with the East Indian Railway the industrial area of the Damodar Valley. In fact the first aim of the Bengal Nagpur Railway was to connect the rich mineral sources in the Nagpur District with the industry growing up in the Asansol area; this was the BNR's first main line. The BNR did not reach Calcutta until 1905, and to BNR people that line was always referred to as ‘The Howrah Branch'!
Bengal and Assam were served by the Bengal Assam Railway, which came into being on the 1st January 1942 by the amalgamation of the Eastern Bengal Railway, which was one the oldest railways and part of Lord Dalhousie's original plans for a network of railways in India, and the all metre gauge Assam Bengal Railway. This railway also got fragmented following Independence.
A number of Rajput, Gujarat and Kathiawar state rulers also had their private railways notably the Jodhpur Railway, Bikaner State Railway, Jaipur State Railway and the Gaekwads Baroda State Railway, to name a few. In the South, there was the Mysore State Railway.
Running north of the Ganges and across the United Provinces, there was a large metre gauge railway system comprising the Bengal & North Western Railway and The Rohilkhand & Kumaon Railway. These two railways were amalgamated in 1945, and became known as the Oudh & Tirhut Railway. These fine names have been discarded by the Indian authorities in favour of common zonal names. Perhaps the old names were too imperialistic and British for the Indian management!
These railways ran some grand sounding named trains to match the grand names of their systems, which today have been relegated to more or less fast passengers or now no longer run, giving way to trains called ‘Shatabdi' and ‘Rajdhani.' Such beautifully appointed trains like the Delhi- Kalka Mail of the East Indian Railway, at one time the premier train in all India, is a shadow of its old self. The Frontier Mail, which to India was like the Orient Express of Europe, is now called the Golden Temple Mail terminating at Amritsar, because its original terminus was over 1,600 miles from Bombay at Peshawar, which is now in Pakistan. The Punjab Mails of the East Indian and the Great Indian Peninsula Railways are no more.
The famous Toofan Express of the East Indian Railway ,which was a daily restaurant car express between Calcutta and Delhi, is now forgotten and passed into history. The Toofan Express was the most popular fast train between Calcutta and Delhi. The Darjeeling Mail, one of the finest trains in the Raj, is now a shadow of its old self and now runs an all-India route, which was originally called the Assam Rail Link, which was built following the partition of Bengal into West Bengal and East Pakistan. This train used to run between Sealdah station in Calcutta and Siliguri at the foot of the Himalayan Foothills for connection with the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway for the hill stations of Kurseong and Darjeeling, and ran through what is now Bangladesh, with one of the most restful over-night journeys in India; From what I hear the Blue Mountain Express of the South is now just something in a dream!
The North Western Railway ran a very fine train between Lahore and Karachi named the Karachi Mail, besides operating through running services with the Frontier Mail to Peshawar and the Punjab Mails and expresses as far as Lahore. On the metre gauge, the Bombay Baroda & Central India Railway ran a fine train called the Sind and Delhi Mail between Ahmadabad and Delhi, which was the longest metre gauge main line in India, just short of six hundred miles, and a train I travelled on several times; it is now the victim of the gauge conversion fever! This train also used to carry passengers bound for Jodhpur and Hyderabad (Sind), now in Pakistan for connection to Karachi, via Marwar Junction, (which is mentioned in Kipling's book The Man Who Would Be King); hence the name Delhi and Sind Mail!
The emphasis of the present Managing Hierarchy of Indian railways has been to concentrate on changing the names of stations, usually to past political heroes, gauge conversion and political ‘One-upmanship' and the lowering of traveling standards of comfort with second rate catering facilities in ‘Pantry cars' with dubious hygiene standards and serving up prepacked mediocre meals of questionable quality, so that most passengers prefer to carry their own food, which is not always convenient on journeys that may be of several days duration.
This is a far cry from the days of the refreshment rooms at important stations and Restaurant Cars with their silver service on important trains, which usually served vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals -all part of a forgotten era of the Indian Railways. These were excellent facilities which the present generation of Indians never knew ever existed for the convenience of rail travellers. Part of the joy of a long train journey in the days of the Raj was walking along the platform to the restaurant car at stations designated in the time table for lunch or dinner. Here the hygiene, cuisine and service was of the highest standard, and managed by a Dining Car Manager, who actually dressed with bow tie and tuxedo for the night time meal. Like in an expensive restaurant, he made a point of enquiring of every diner if all was to their liking and saying ‘Enjoy your meal.'
The accommodation on the trains has become less private and more communal. Unfortunately, the civic sense of the Indian travelling public is very low, with deliberate and indiscriminate discarding of litter and refuse which is allowed to accumulate in the carriages. Overcrowding is the norm which understandably in turn gives rise to a complete disregard to the comfort and consideration of fellow passengers, while an educational program, by all concerned with the running of the railways, including the government, in the basics of behavioural attitudes towards the use of the railways and towards its passengers, is not considered necessary. So, little or no effort is made to improve the lot of the traveller; instead of improving, travelling conditions only get worse bordering on the unacceptable.
India was handed a splendid railway system by the British when they left India with excellent designs of travelling conveniences and facilities. Service standards have been allowed to slip to these unacceptable depths, particularly for those Indians who well remember travelling conditions on the railways of the Raj and to foreign tourists who visit India. It is a shame that the Indian Railway managing authorities, while they have raised the standard of third class travel have lowered the quality for the more expensive ticket holders to unacceptable standards of comfort and privacy. Perhaps the quality of upper class accommodation that existed before Independence was too British for their liking; or is it they were a reminder that the British introduced those standards which were typically British but not Indian?
The journeys I made and enjoyed during the days of the Raj, are recounted in a book I am completing and which I am giving the title ‘Coupling Across The Peninsula.' It gives an insight to the glories of those railways, life in the railway colonies and a glimpse of an important part of the history of India's railways.
The book also recalls the very important role of the Anglo-Indian Railwaymen, who were the middle-management and the very pulsating force in the running of those railways which made them great; these were the station masters, shed foremen, yard masters, guards and drivers and the Permanent way inspectors, all of whom must be recognised as the ‘Unsung heroes of India's Railways.' They took no political or religious sides but just did what they were paid to do and did it well, and that was to keep the trains running come what may, especially during the sectarian troubles which plagued the Sub-Continent just prior to Independence and the anarchy that reigned at the newly formed frontiers after these frontiers were announced. They now have mostly left India and settled in various parts of the English speaking world, taking with them the memories of the land of their birth, mainly because their social habits, culture and language were essentially English, and not Indian, which understandably led to an uncertainty about their future.
This is a photograph of the inside of the Restaurant Car on the Indian Imperial Mail. It is typical of the restaurant cars attached to the important trains on the East Indian Railway, where silver service meals were served in clean hygienic surroundings and where the cuisine and service was of an excellent standard. It was services like this that made an added joy to rail travel in the days of the Raj and completely lost to the present day traveller who is subjected to dubious food quality served from questionable hygiene standards prevalent in the pantry cars where it is prepared. The father of pop idol Sir Cliff Richard was once the manager of a restaurant car on the East Indian Railway similar to one shown in this photograph.
This photograph was uploaded on the IRFCA Website by John Lacey who gave me his permission to use it in my book together with several other photographs. John, like me was a great lover of the Indian railways and uploaded several illustrations of Indian railway history on the IRFCA Website and who I got to know through the ‘Net.'Sadly, John is now no longer with us, but long may he be remembered as one of India's Railway History Champions. I hope my book and this article, will be a tribute to his efforts, and others like him, past and present.
© Ken Staynor 2013
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