Romancing the Timetable

A Railfan's Obsession with Names and Numbers

Those were the days before the advent of TV; even black and white Doordarshan with its 4 hour transmission of Krishi Darshan and Chhaya Geet had not yet left its imprint on the sands of the entertainment world, forget about 24 hour channels. The only activities that children could indulge in (apart from studies and school life) were the occasional movie, sports and books, and the rarely obtained permission to hear a few songs on Vividh Bharati or Radio Ceylon.

So when my father, after one of his trips to Madras, brought back with him a strange looking book, mainly consisting of a lot of names and columns with strange looking numbers within, my curiosity was immediately aroused. "What is this strange book, Papa, and why are you reading it so much?" He then patiently explained to me what the book contained, and with that explanation, a whole new world was thrown open to me. Till then, a train was just something that we took to go to my aunt's house in Vile Parle, a distant suburb of Bombay as it was then called. (Today, Vile Parle is no longer considered distant, and Mumbai itself spreads far beyond). I used to enjoy the train ride of course, and the yellow and brown monsters that made such noise were fascinating. But beyond that I knew nothing about trains or the vast empire of the Indian Railways.

My father introduced me to the world of the Railway Timetable, of long distance trains, hauled by either electric or steam engines, and I learned for the first time that each train ran from one station to another and had a particular timing at in between stations, which never ever changed. (Boy, was I to be disappointed when faced with hard reality!). I learnt to identify station names seen in the timetable with places on the map, and to trace the journey of the train along the black lines which indicated railway lines on the map. I also learnt that each train had a particular number, and to top it all, I had to contend with the fact there was a Down train which went Up the map, and an Up train which went Down.

This was too much for the limited mental capacity of an 8 year old, and I decided to shift allegiance to the magnificent trains themselves. So I insisted that my father take me to see the trains, one Sunday to Bombay Central and the next Sunday to Bombay V.T. I learned that the two were different railway zones and had no connection whatsoever (well at least in those days, there wasn't). VT as it is affectionately called, had the attraction of engines which ran on electricity (the same electricity that lights up our house - my father's explanation), but it was Bombay Central that had me captivated with its huge black steam engines making all those huffing and puffing noises and belching out thick black smoke with its peculiar aroma, which I still remember to this day.

Time passed, and with higher classes and more studies, the weekly outings to VT and Bombay Central had to take a back seat. But with the increase in my reading and grasping powers, I was attracted to that little book again. By this time, I learnt that Indian Railways had 8 zones (the 9th came later) and each had its own timetable printed for trains running in its territory. Each zone also maintained its own engines in different sheds. I had the privilege to see this for myself when my mother and I went to Puttaparthi to bring my grandmother back to Bombay. We took the 11 Down Bombay Madras Express to a place I had never heard of before - Guntakal. There we had to change to a smaller train, to another town called Dharmavaram and then take a bus. 11 Down reached a place called Raichur at dawn the next morning, and against the background of an orange rising sun, I saw one gleaming black steam engine with CENTRAL written on its side, being replaced by another with SOUTHERN on its side. This was the first time that I was entering another zone, and along with it came another timetable, opening up altogether new vistas. Meter gauge was a totally new concept for me, and the cute little 85 Down Secunderabad - Bangalore Express was my first train ride on MG.

When the burden of studies became too much, I was with my timetables, and slowly things made more and more sense. I now knew the difference between a station with bk and one without, the difference between V, *V and VL, and N, *N and NL, and the meaning of the symbols ... and __ across the columns in the tables. I realized that there was an AC and I class, in which I hoped I would travel someday, the different fares for different classes made sense now, and I learnt about trains which carried dak, those which had Dining cars and Pantry car services, through and sectional carriage services, various intermediate station quotas and so on.

Then came the mother of all timetables - the All India Railway Timetable (for the princely sum of Rupees Five only; the smaller zonal ones were 50P each). Different colors for different zones (there were 9 by now) CR was pink, ER green, NR pink, NER purple, NFR yellow, SR pink, SCR purple, SER yellow and WR green. And then finally on white colored paper, the Light Railways : Futwah - Islampur, Dehri - Rohtas, etc. In 1970, an uncle presented me a copy of the Newman's Indian Bradshaw, a bit drab when compared with the All India Railway TT, but including Pakistan Western Railway, Pakistan Eastern Railway and Ceylon Government Railway, along with Indian Airlines and Air India timetables. Unfortunately this Bradshaw was very difficult to come across in the Bombay region, and I picked up the courage to send a subscription request to the address in Calcutta. When the payment had to be made, and the copies came one every month, my mother, who was already fed up with the piling up of books in my room, was even more angry. In a fit or rage one day, she gave all the old copies to the raddiwala, and relations between the two of us were strained for some time. But I forgave her because by then she had understood that her son was so besotted with the Railways, and in those days of the Hippies and Hare Rama Hare Krishna types, it was better than what other kids were doing.

Sadly the All India Railway Timetable stopped publication in 1977, and I had to then make Herculean efforts to buy all the zonal TTs. I made friends with the AH Wheeler Bookshop seller at VT station, and he used to "reserve" my copy of whichever zone TT they received. The compact but "far-from-complete" Trains at a Glance failed to satisfy my thirst, as it left out the smaller stations and all the Passenger trains. I consider these days the "Dark Ages" of my timetabling days, and very often there were periods when there was a gap in my records. This continued for some years, till the advent of what is informally known as "Hajipurization". The 9 railway zones became 17, each with its own published TT. Still diligently I pursued my hobby of collecting and memorizing by rote each timetable. In the very first year, I managed to still get hold of 8 out of the 17 TTs. By then I was a member of IRFCA, and my heart filled with jealousy when I learnt that some members had managed to get hold of all the zonal TTs.

After the "Dark Ages", the period of the "Renaissance" came the very next year, when the Railway Ministry came out with the brilliant idea of dividing the country into 5 Zones (Eastern, Northern, Southern, Western and surprise, surprise South Eastern), each bringing out its own timetable. So from 17, the number came down to 5 (6 if you count the Trains at a Glance), which I felt was more manageable. The Western Zone TT was easy to purchase as I stay in the Mumbai area. The Southern Zone TT was also easy, as someone or the other used to make one trip to the south and I would request them to bring one TT for me. The Northern Zone was also easy because one of my patients is from Delhi, and her family makes frequent trips to their hometown, from where they purchase one NZ TT for me (Ahh! One of the advantages of being a doctor!!).

It was the two eastern TTs which was the problem. I did not know many people in the eastern part of the country, at least not those who would frequently travel between the east and west. So I diligently sought out Bengali people in and around Dahanu, and befriended them, initially with selfish motive (the TT), but then as the friendship grew, for who they are. Through them I could finally achieve my goal of collecting all the timetables published by the Ministry.

Many people asked me what I used to achieve by reading timetables, as the information available in them can nowadays be got easily anywhere, e.g. on the internet, through mobile numbers, through SMSs and so on. I retort back by picking on that person's particular hobby, e.g. if someone is interested in cricket and keeps tabs on all cricket statistics and scores, what does he achieve? Nothing, yet everything. It's his hobby, his lifeline to a stress-free life. It's the same with me and my timetables. And I am helpful to society too, as those very same people who ridicule me, turn to me first whenever they are planning any rail trip, rather than rely on all those newer methods.

Through IRFCA, I have been introduced to people staying in almost all parts of the country, and during our interaction, I discovered many more people sharing my "strange" obsession with railway timetables. Some of them are far more into it than I am, e.g. there is one member who can rattle off train timings with distances including inflated distances, fares, and other details in one breath. He is my role model and I aspire to attain at least half the amount of his knowledge. Then there is one more member, who has kindly furnished me with photocopies of the entire 1975 All India Railway Timetable (belonging to the lot that my mother threw out) and 1944 Bradshaw encompassing Pre-Partition trains - fascinating combo of history, geography and geo-politics.

Today I am busy in my medical practice from 8am to 7pm, and sometimes I am quite exhausted at the end of the day. Then I turn on the AC to maximum cooling, put on some soothing music, turn on my Broadband connection, remove my 6 timetables from the small cupboard beneath my workdesk, and I am lost in the world of timetables and Indian Railways. This is MY time of the day, when I indulge my hobby of railfanning in my style. One of the younger members on IRFCA had asked me why I don't go out into the field, click more pictures of fast moving trains and post them on the gallery. If I had been younger and more enthusiastic, I would have done so. But pressure of work and family duties do not allow me to do so. So the timetable is my solace.

My wife (who has replaced my mother in her anger with the growing pile of books in my room) picks up fights with me over my obsession of collecting all the timetables. "It's the same thing, only a few trains are changed here and there" - is her constant refrain. I retaliate by taunting her about her obsession with collecting recipes and making a scrap book - it's the same thing, only a few grocery items are changed here and there. But this is all in good humor, and not to be taken seriously.

My son, who is 8 years old has been in love with trains since early childhood. He has only recently been introduced to the world of timetables. He has learnt to identify station names seen in the timetable with places on the map, and to trace the journey of the train along the black lines which indicate railway lines on the map. Instead of Up and Down trains, he is an expert at remembering 4 digit train numbers, and often corrects me when I am not certain whether 62XX series belongs to Bangalore division or Mysore division of SWR. I am quite sure that as he grows up, other things may occupy his interest for some time, but he will eventually come back to the love of his life - the Indian Railway timetable. Because, it was just last year that he had asked me, "What is this strange book, Papa, and why are you reading it so much?" Life has indeed come a full circle.

Material provided by Dr Jitendra Mulky, Copyright © 2010.
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