Ian Manning on the Indian Railways 1965-1969

[Introductory Note -- Dr Ian Manning, an Australian, currently associated with the National Institute of Economic and Industrial Research in Melbourne, taught economics at Madras Christian College during 1965-69 when I was researching in chemistry there. During those years we went together on some tours on the Indian Railways and he travelled more routes without my accompanying him. Just before he returned to Australia in June 1969, he typed out 12 chapters on the Indian Railways he had been on and left a copy of the manuscript with me. When he visited me in October 2006, he consented to my having the material posted in IRFCA.

Enjoy the fragrance of a bygone age.

-- R. Sivaramakrishnan]


There are 36,500 route miles of railway in India — just a little less than in Canada, or in all of Africa combined; 40% more than in Australia and three times British Railways' tracks. They carry more ton-kilometres of goods than the railways of any country except the USA, USSR, Canada or China and more passenger kilometers than any country apart from the USSR and Japan. To reach this place in the United Nations League-tables the Indian Railways carry about six million passengers a day - that is, at any moment there are likely to be perhaps half a million people standing, sitting or lying in the trains of India. And this calculation omits those who are in the trains without paying their fares, a considerable number of people well warranting the special appeal printed on the back cover of every issue of the All India timetables: a picture of Mahatma Gandhi and requests to passengers willingly to pay their fares due and “to help us stop ticketless travel”.

Any railway which continuously tucks away something like one-sixth the population of New Zealand at all times in its carriages is no small system, and the Indian Railways are forbidding. Serving a sub-continent, they are American in their distances without being American in their speeds – or in their fares. It takes four days and four nights, by the fastest expresses, to travel the hypotenuse of this triangular country – and costs but little more than ten dollars.

A North American may be used to such distances, but for a generation his country has lacked universal branch-line passenger services; in India these are provided with no nonsense of a Mon Wed Fri only sort: the service is daily at worst and European in frequency at best. Yet these branches are not the short, well regulated byways of Europe. Their timetables disregard such incidents as the times of sunrise and sunset; the times of breakfast, lunch and dinner; the times of mainline connections. The typical Indian train travels for hours on end, and only strikes a junction or pulls up at a terminus every 40 miles or so; say, every three hours. It often takes a whole day just to travel out to the end of the branch and back. India takes it time; it is not a country to yield much to whirlwind tourists.

Yet it can give a great deal to he who changes his pace and expectations to suit: steam engines (9,700 of them in1971, besides 1,091 diesel and 552 electric locos); narrow gauge (only 2,690 miles, but by Indian definition the metre is wider than narrow); AC modernity too, but above all a distinctive atmosphere, partly of the country and partly of railway plant and operating practice - which latter two remain obstinately, conservatively British.

Railways, beginning as a British export, changed rapidly when sent to North America and Continental Europe. The Independent British colonies (S. Africa, Australia and the rest) were also not long in discovering that they could reduce costs by resort to North American practices. By the early twentieth century some of the lines run by expatriate Englishmen, especially in Africa, were doing likewise. But not in India; here the dignity and standards of the Raj had to be maintained. Only two major concessions were made: one, early on, was to switch from double tracks to single; the other, to adopt the metre and then narrow gauge, which were thought to conserve capital without lowering standards. For the lines were always properly surveyed and soundly built, with the capacity to carry traffic that didn’t materialize for decades. It would have been better for the economic development of India had the railways been cheaply built and the money saved used to promote industry – even just those industries serving the railways themselves, for up to Independence the greater part of the railway plant was imported. But no, the railways were to be the monument of the Trader’s Raj; impressive with their fine terminals and well-built track. Reclining on his sleeping berth in his reserved compartment, the Trader could feel he had conquered and impressed; great was the Raj and excellent were its railways.

Traces of the grandeur remain, even now that a third class annexe has been added to station after station, and the tracks swarm with third class carriages, even to whole trains. But there have been conscious attempts to jump the British tradition: in locomotives, the new India standardized domestic production on rather North American bar-framed designs, and produced them in such quantity that the prospect of standard, unvarying steam power which so perturbed English railway writers in the early 1950’s, has actually come to pass. And the diesels that are coming are emphatically American, while the electric engines are Continental-International. Yet under the rolling stock, with the high proportion of four-wheel vans, the vacuum brake sighs even yet, while in the cab of express and local train alike there will likely be a Neale’s token.

I hope I can appreciate the symbolism of these, even though I have the considerable limitation of being Australian, so that the things I notice are not always those marked out by a Briton, or a North American. Yet an upbringing on the Australian railways inures one to distance, slowness and perhaps discomfort, even if it also encourages one to glory in the cheap and the makeshift, rather than the solid and the British.


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