Anuradha Goyal: Today we are going to go on a journey on the Indian Railways. It’s actually the journey of Indian trains which enable a lot of our journeys. We have with us Shri R. Ananth Ji, who is an Indian Railways account services officer. I know him through his Twitter handle on which he shares lovely images of Indian railways. Along with tidbits and information about its heritage and history of it. So, I requested him to come on Detours and share it with our listeners. So, Ananth Ji Welcome to the Detours.
Shree R. Ananth: Yeah, thank you very much for having me on this podcast.
Oldest Railway Lines in India
Anuradha: Ananth Ji, let’s start with the history of Indian railways. Today we have a huge network but this network came up in bits and pieces, enabled by a lot of kings and patriots. So, tell us which are the oldest railway lines in India?
Ananth: The oldest railway line was the line from the great Indian Peninsular railway, it was the first company to start building the railway line. It was first built from Bori Bunder to Thane the distance was about 32 km, its services started on April 16, 1853. The second railway line was from East India – Howrah to Hugli. So, that came on August 15, 1854, four months after the first railway line came. East India spread faster because it was a plain landscape, railway lines were built alongside the rivers so that they don’t have to cross the river. But in the West, they had to cross the ghats and that’s why the reason Indian Peninsula railway lines reached Pune in 1860.
East India railway could have started earlier but two incidents took place, one of the ships which were carrying the locomotives was misdirected to Australia. Another ship that was carrying the coaches sunk near Sandheads, a place near Calcutta Port. It then has to get redirected to India which took quite a few months and coaches had to be locally assembled. That’s why it took about a year to get the railway lines started from Howrah.
Anuradha: Otherwise, originally, we would have had the first railway line in Calcutta.
Shree R. Ananth: Maybe if the gap was not much but only a few weeks or days apart both the railways could have commenced the operation. They were in competition as they were both different railways, wanting to be the first railway line in India.
First Built Station of Indian Railways
Anuradha: So, after these two which were the other main railway lines established?
Ananth: First established in Madras, from Royapuram to Walajah road it came up in 1856 and covered a distance of about 70-80km. The unique thing about this railway line is that the station building was constructed before the railway operations commenced from Royapuram. The Royapuram station is the oldest station in the Indian subcontinent and is also one of the oldest in Asia.
The first permanent station came in Royapuram, unlike in Boribander and Howrah which were just temporary sheds. The old station building still stands and it is in fairly good shape after steps were taken to conserve it. While the CST came up in 1888 and the Howrah station came up at the end of the 19th century, there were bigger stations like the Howrah station which is bigger than CST. CST came up as an administrative office, the headquarters of the Great Indian Peninsular railway was there and the station was just an extension of the building.
Railway Expansion of India
Anuradha: After we had Calcutta, Madras, and Mumbai which were essentially the three cities where the British had a lot of focus on. How did it start for the rest of India?
Ananth: From then construction started everywhere, and the East Indian Railway expanded rapidly. The Punjab-Sindh railway which was around Lahore came in the late 1850s. The line from Calcutta was extended up to Delhi in 1866, there are the three oldest railway bridges that train crosses over rivers. First is near Arrah on the Son river, on the Yamuna at Prayagraj, and in Delhi. These are the major bridges between these two destinations as they are half a kilometer long.
Anuradha: This leads me to the question that a lot of princely states were also funding railways. So, can you tell me a bit about them?
Princely States Funding Railways
Ananth: The first princely state which took the initiative was the Gaikwads of Vadodara. They build the line because in 1861 the American civil war started and it disrupted the supply of cotton from the USA to Britain. Baroda region was rich in cotton, so they wanted to get revenue by exporting cotton to England. But they had no fast way of exporting the cotton to the ports that’s why they had to build the railway line. They decided on a narrow-gauge line as a broad gauge would have been expensive and also because the transported product was cotton which is very lightweight and it can take any shape. So, it didn’t put any pressure on tracks and they used a narrow-gauge line to transport to Surat and from there to England.
People can go to Churchgate station in Mumbai where there is a western railway heritage gallery. There is an interesting photograph of bulls pulling two wagons carrying cotton on a railway track. It meant that Gaikwad was in a hurry to get this rail service in commission because time was running out, as it was already 1863. The locomotives which were ordered from England were yet to arrive because the gauge and the specifications were different. So, there was a delay in manufacturing in England, and the Gaikwads designed their own wagons. They devised the wolves to carry the wagons and it was referred to as ‘wolf motives.’
Business Needs Transportation
Anuradha: It’s a very classic case of a ‘Jugaad’ invention when the business needs a mode of transportation or when customers are in need of the product. I remember visiting the railway museum in Dabhoi, Gujarat where there is documentation of this line.
Ananth: The Business sense of Gujaratis is very strong. After that, Nizam started their services in the 1870s and Mysore Maharaja started in the 1880s.
Anuradha: I remember the Hyderabad to Ajmer line being the longest-running train for a long time.
Ananth: Yes, Nizam of Hyderabad laid the meter gauge. The line of Nizam went up to Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh from Hyderabad and then connected to the Holcus railway line which took it through Mau near Indore. From there it went up to Mahoba and joined the meter gauge line in Ajmer, Rajasthan. So, anyone wanting to go on a pilgrimage from Hyderabad used to take this meter gauge train for Ajmer.
Anuradha: What I am also gathering is that when these lines were commissioned by different people, they chose their own gauges like narrow, meter gauge, etc. That’s why you now have to work on synchronizing this whole network on a single gauge.
Ananth: Yes, you know ultimately as we developed, our communication needs to increase, and our transport, leisure, and tourism needs to increase. The different kinds of gauges were there as an impediment to smooth transport of not just the people but even the goods and services. The freight is the bread and butter of Indian railways. 63-64% of revenue comes from freight and 30% from passengers. To transfer from broad to meter gauge, freight had to be unloaded and reloaded to meter gauge wagons. So, all these things increase the costs of transportation.
Anuradha: I remember as a student I used to travel a lot from Chandigarh to Aurangabad where my father was posted. I had to change trains at Manmad and wait for long hours because of this gauge difference.
Ananth: Yes, I remember when my father was posted in Assam near Dimapur, we had to come to the south and had to change over at Bugnegaon. There were three gauges in operations broad, narrow, and meter gauge. Just like the narrow gauge museum of Gaikwads in Dabhoi, Vadodara. There is another in Nagpur because the Nagpur-Chhattisgarh railway was also the narrow-gauge railway that came in the 1870s.
In the 1860s & 70s, there was a famine in central India which caused loss of lives and livelihoods. So, because of that first province, the central government formed a railway company to speed up the transportation of grains, and the provincial government. They had so many restrictions in terms of finances that they opted for a narrow gauge.
Cost of Railway Gauge
Anuradha: So, is this narrow gauge lower in costs?
Ananth: Yes, it is almost 1/3rd, the land you require and other factors. It costs a lot less and is faster to build. It also depends upon how many people you want to transport. Suppose if you don’t have a precise forecast of the passengers to transport then you keep the narrow-gauge line.
There was a huge narrow-gauge line from Nagpur to Jabalpur, via Chhindwara, Sheoni that used to meet at Nayanpur. Nowadays you can drive from Nagpur and reach Jabalpur in 4 hours. But from a narrow gauge, it was an overnight journey.
Beginning of Hill Railways
Anuradha: Then we have these beautiful Himalayan and hill railways in Darjeeling, Kalka-Shimla, and Nilgiri hills. They are UNESCO world heritage sites, so can you talk about them a bit?
Ananth: The first line which came up was in Darjeeling, it came in the 1880s. The famous technique which they used to get over the huge gradient from the Darjeeling hill railway was the use of a Z-curve. It is a very unique innovation to negotiate the gradient. Instead of taking the loops, they would go on to reverse-curve and then go up.
Anuradha: Even the Ghoom loop itself is an innovation.
Ghoom or Batasia Loop Innovation
Ananth: Ghoom loop or Batasia loop is an innovation because they had to sort of reverse at that place. Earlier it was a marketplace but now it has been beautified very well.
Anuradha: I went 3-4 years back and even now they put up the shops on the railway line after the train passes. It is such a beautiful experience to see people walking and just stopping and don’t move until the train pass.
Ananth: I went to the place last year. There is a war memorial with beautiful landscape around, there are no markets now, people only sell in a very organized way. There is a beautiful museum in Ghoom. It contains the artifacts of the Darjeeling hill railway like signal lamps and other equipment which were used before. It also has an outdoor element to it, a narrow gauge, and wagons that are no longer in use. Locomotives are all kept in the yard outside.
Anuradha: To me, riding on the Darjeeling Himalayan railway is like time travel, to see how the railway was and kind of visualize it. It still baffles me that almost 150 years back they could connect railways so well.
Ananth: Absolutely True! In the Ghoom railway museum, one interesting artifact is an account of Mark Twain’s “A journey of Darjeeling”, where quotes written by him can be found.
The next railway line which came up was in Shimla and Ooty, in 1903 and 1908 respectively. Shimla had to be connected by trains so that the administrative machinery can be moved to Shimla comfortably. At that time Calcutta was the capital that’s why the name Kalka Mail. It is one of the oldest trains on the East Indian railway. It connects Howrah to Kalka. Viceroy used to travel in his saloon up to Kalka in the Kalka Mail. They used to have another saloon attached to the train which used to take him to Shimla from Kalka.
Rack & Pinion Innovation
In Ooty, the designed technique ‘rack and pinion’ method is again an innovation. Rack and Pinion prevented the train from rolling back on a huge gradient while accelerating. It enabled a smooth journey from Mettupalayam to Nilgiri Hills, one of the most scenic railways we have. The fourth one which came up was Matheran near Mumbai, a small railway line of 16 to 18 km built-in 1907 from Neral to Matheran. From Neral there is another station called Aman Lodge to Matheran.
The last hill railway which came up after Independence was the Kangra valley railway line. The foundation was led by Lal Bahadur Shastri and the then railway minister who opened the railway line in the 1950s. It covers the distance from Pathankot to Jogindernagar via Palampur. It is also one of the most scenic railway lines because it passes from the Kangra Valley.
We can broadly divide railway lines into lines led by Private companies, lines led by Government, princely states who led few railway lines, and then hill railways. The railway lines by all these sectors formed the heritage component of our railways. We have a pretty composite railway heritage. Each princely state or each company has its own culture or way of laying the lines.
Indian Railways Integrating India
Anuradha: It is so fascinating that what started as these sprouts all over the country finally became one of the strongest networks connecting the country.
Ananth: Yes, they were formed primarily or ultimately for transporting clothes for military purposes and raw materials to the ports for exporting.
Anuradha: To me business looks like the biggest driver.
Ananth: Actually, it was a ‘drain of wealth’ which Dr. Shashi Tharoor has spoken about in his book as well. It was the railway line that enabled the drain of wealth from India to be taken to Britain. The thing is railway expansion has benefited the Indians as well.
Anuradha: Yes, that is the debate that will continue. But the fact is that the Indian railway is an integral part of Indian lives. It is the most romantic way to travel, especially for those who grew up in the 80s and 90s. We have some beautiful memories of traveling on long-distance trains. It is part of our Indian lives. We cannot imagine India without Indian railways today.
Thank you so much for taking us on this beautiful journey across India through the history of Indian railways and heritage. I have lots of questions for you. But I guess will have to invite you again for another session to take us to different museums and things.
Laying Railway Lines
Ananth: There are lots of stories about how railway lines were laid. We should also maybe, later on, talk about the museum network which is there on Indian railways as well. Also, another topic of interest is how railway tourism itself can be separated from the element of tourism. How we can work on encouraging tourism through railways?
Anuradha: I will take this opportunity to ask my listeners to ask questions. We will share those questions with Ananth Ji. Because he is in a position where he can potentially take it to the people who can make a difference. So, if you have any suggestions or ideas for Indian railways please leave them in the comments. We can send them to the right people.
Transcribed by: Nikita Chandola as part of IndiTales Internship Program