From Bori Bunder to Rajdhani

By Ravindra Bhalerao, 2010.

A review of the book, 150 Glorious Years of Indian Railways, by K R Vaidyanathan, English edition, from Publishers & Distributors (India), Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai.

Since the publication of J. N. Sahni's classic "Indian Railways: One Hundred Years" which appeared in 1953 a hundred years after the Bombay Thana railway was inaugurated, there have appeared no less than a dozen works telling the story of the railways in India, and varying as much in depth as in content and subject matter covered. In many cases the thrust has been mainly on creating a record of growth and technical progress although a few texts have appeared which have sought to explore the impact of the railways in social spheres and other related matters of human interest.

Shri Vaidyanathan's work is a refreshing blend of these two approaches. It combines a history of technical progress and achievement with informative and often amusing personal accounts gathered from innumerable sources giving the book the feel of a first-hand account penned by one who was actually on the spot jotting down events and happenings as he went along.

As early as in 1843 Lord Dalhousie, in a visionary idea, had proposed the construction of a rail network in India that would bridge the enormous distances, uniting the Indian subcontinent into a whole. It was left to the ingenuity and skill of such men as George T. Clarke, Robert Stephenson and James J. Berkley to transform these ideas into reality. The railway age was ushered in when the first train ran from Bombay to Thana on 16 April 1853 to the accompaniment of a royal salute and the Governor's band occupying a place in one of the carriages. Within a few years of the first opening hundreds of miles of track were under construction. The railways had arrived, and "before the Indian train journey," as Charles Allen would recall, "all other forms of travel paled into insignificance."

Since earliest times railway carriages were categorized into classes each offering a different level of comfort. The difference was as great as that between heaven and hell. It was easy for Louis Rousselet to write: "Thanks to the sleeping carriage, I have been able to travel over the immense distance with comparatively little fatigue -- sleeping at night on a comfortable little bed, and walking up and down in my carriage during the day ; and at stations provided with buffets I found a servant who, when he had taken the orders for my meal, telegraphed it to the next station, where my breakfast or dinner awaited my arrival," while being unaware, perhaps, that somewhere down the train a few carriages away natives travelling in third class were "huddled and crowded like cattle into carriages often unprovided with seats..." In later days Mahatma Gandhi would himself lead a lone crusade drawing the attention of the Railway Board to the grisly conditions of third class travel but sadly with little immediate success.

Despite the ever present chasm between first and third class travel, the railways were the most popular form of transport for Indians as much as for the Sahibs.

For over a hundred years steam provided motive power for the railways of India. The first locomotive to arrive in the country was named Falkland, built by Vulcan Foundry in England. Over the next hundred years Vulcan would supply locomotives to India at a rate averaging more than two engines a month. Although making no attempt to describe the various classes in use, Vaidyanathan provides an interesting account of the development of the steam locomotive. Likewise, the section on Signalling has much engaging detail on the growth of the electric telegraph and its application to railway signalling. He demystifies the working of the block system and goes on to describe such useful developments as cabin interlocking, automatic signalling and Centralised Traffic Control.

Vaidyanathan plods through a wide swathe of subject matter covering every possible area ranging from early railway carriages and luxury trains to famous stations, bridges and the hill railways of India. He dwells at length on the issue of freight transportation, deconstructing the myth, so common among laymen, that the railways have, as their prime concern, the operation of passenger trains.

As early as in 1925 the Harbour Branch Line in Bombay, laid on a severe grade of 1 in 34 where it crossed the Wadi Bunder yard, had been electrified so that suburban services could be run unhindered. It took about 5 years more before the main line running from Bombay VT to Kalyan and from thence passing over the Bhor (and Thull) Ghat was electrified. In a welcome departure, the author has included amongst the several archival pictures in the book, portraits of the Acting Agent, Mr M W Brayshay, and the Chief Electrical Engineer, F T Wright, who were among those connected with the first railway electrification, besides a plate showing James Berkley, the first Chief Resident Engineer of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. At the end of the book one is left wondering how he has succeeded so well in conjuring up the "railway atmosphere" of the time. His fine selection of photographs is perhaps one reason.

Shri Vaidyanathan who served as a Senior Commercial Officer of the Indian Railway Traffic Service is no armchair rail specialist. His knowledge has been gained through years of work done in the field, first as a station master, then as a traffic instructor, even manning the post of Chief Controller. This book makes delightful reading and will make an ideal Christmas present for anyone who loves the railways of India.