Saturday, April 20, 2002

Train tales from a bygone era
Ajay Banerjee

Mahatma Gandhi always chose to travel in the third class
Mahatma Gandhi always chose to travel in the third class

BRITISH love for luxury of the hills in the summer months coupled with the strategic importance of North India (including what is now Pakistan) helped develop the railway system in these parts of the country immediately after trains were introduced in India 150 years ago. Trains like the Frontier Mail, The Grand Trunk express and the Punjab Mail, running 70 to 80 years ago, were the pride of the era goneby. The Kalka Mail, now running between Howrah and Kalka, has been around since 1866, making it one of the oldest trains of the subcontinent. Two of the longest modern day train routes, originating at Jammu, an important railhead, have been in existence since their introduction by the British.

Some of the most prestigious trains of the British era ran from Peshawar or Lahore to Mumbai, a major seaport. This facilitated movement of British troops, civil servants and literates towards Punjab. Punjabis aspiring for the civil services took these trains to reach Mumbai in order to further sail to London to take the examinations.


As early as 1856, the Sind Railway, which was later called the Sind, Punjab and Delhi Railway, was formed. By the 1860s the Sind and Punjab Railway was engaged in construction of a line from Karachi to Lahore, a Lahore-Multan line, and a Lahore-Delhi line. On August 1, 1864, the first train chugged into Delhi, which is now known as the Old Delhi Railway Station. Trains ran between Delhi and Calcutta. However, coaches had to be ferried on boats across the river at Allahabad. The legendary 1 Dn/2 Up Mail began running on this route. This is the predecessor of the Howrah-Kalka Mail. In 1891 the Ambala-Kalka line opened and the train was extended. The specific goal of the train was to facilitate the annual migration of British officials, their families and retinue of servants and clerks from the imperial capital at Calcutta to the summer capital in Shimla.

By October 1870, the Amritsar-Saharanpur-Ghaziabad line was completed to provide connectivity between Multan and Delhi. Ambala, then known as Umbala (railway tickets still carry the identification code UMB which denotes Ambala), had already been connected with Delhi in 1868. In 1862, a link between Lahore and Amritsar was established. In 1871, gas lamps were introduced in trains. And in 1873 the meter gauge line between Delhi and Rewari was opened.

Plans for a narrow-gauge train between Kalka and the summer capital at Shimla had started as early as 1847, a good six years before the first train journey between Bombay and Thane in 1953. However, work started only when the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, took interest in the project around the 1880s. The Kalka-Shimla route was opened on November 7, 1903, with 102 tunnels dotting the 96-kilometre stretch.

Some of the trains started by the British are still in existence. The Frontier Mail is one such train. It was started on September 1, 1928, from Bombay’s Colaba Terminus. Such was the reputation of the Frontier Mail that The Times (London) in 1930 nominated it as "the most famous express train in the British empire". Passing through Baroda, Ratlam, Mathura, Delhi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, the train terminated at Peshawar, which was close to the frontier of British India in those days, hence the name of the train. The prestige of the train is demonstrated in archives of the Railways, which tell us that the Bombay Station used to be floodlit to announce the safe arrival of the Frontier. With no skyscrapers then these lights used to be visible within a distance of 36 square kilometres. It had air-cooled cars (using ice blocks) from about 1934 onwards. The train provided dining cars and even a restaurant car menu. Once when the train got late by a mere 15 minutes, an inquiry was ordered. After Independence, the train began to terminate its journey at Amritsar and in 1996 it was renamed the "Golden Temple Mail".

Another classic train of the same era was the Punjab Mail, which ran between Bombay’s Victoria Terminus (VT) and Ferozepore. A train of the same name ran for a while between Calcutta and Delhi. The Punjab Mail made its debut on June 1, 1912. Like the later Frontier Mail, the Punjab Mail too used to connect with the steamships departing from the Port. It was among the fastest trains in the pre-Independence period and by 1945 had air-cooled cars. An extension of the train ran between Ferozepore and Peshawar for some time.

An interesting story is available about the Grand Trunk (GT) express running between New-Delhi and Chennai. This train originally started in 1929 between Peshawar and Mangalore and took about 104 hours, one of the longest train routes then. Later the route was changed. The new service joined Lahore to Mettupalaiyam, which was the alighting point to reach Ooty. The train has been running in its present route — between Delhi and Chennai — since 1930.

Apart from these long distance trains, the Patiala State Monorail began to run in 1907, connecting Bassi with Sirhind. Subsequently it was extended to connect Sirhind with Alampura and Patiala with Bhawanigarh for a total route length of about 80km. Mules and oxen pulled the train. But in 1909 four monorail locomotives were supplied. However, the Sirhind-Morinda line, never had locomotives for its entire lifetime, depending on oxen instead. The line closed down in 1927.

After Partition traffic patterns changed drastically. All trains from and to Jammu & Kashmir that used to go through Lahore (via Rawalpindi and Jammu) had to be stopped till the Mukerian-Pathankot link was opened in 1952. In 1954, train connection between Indian and Pakistan were restored. The Samjhauta Express now stands cancelled due to strained Indo-Pak ties.

In modern-day North India Shatabadis operate among the other superfast trains. The Himsagar Express (between Kanyakumari and Jammu Tawi) has the longest run in terms of distance – covering about 3745 km in 74 hours and 55 minutes.

The second longest run in distance (about 3640 km) is by the Navyug Express (between Jammu Tawi and Mangalore). Bhatinda Junction is the only station in country having six broad gauge lines — to Delhi (via Jakhal), Sri Ganganagar, Ambala, Rewari (via Hisar), Ferozepore and Hanumangarh. It also has a bypass line.

In the North, the Railways has been a witness to many a historical events. During Partition, train loads of refugees, several of them brutally murdered, chugged into Ferozepore and Amritsar from Pakistan, thus inflaming communal passion on both sides of the border. Since Independence, the Indian Railways have been involved in action in three wars, making a significant contribution towards the movement of troops, tanks and machinery.