The Railways and the Coronation Durbar

By B M S Bisht, ex-GM NFR, IRTS (retd.); 27th November 2008.

This article was previously published on the website of the Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS).

The Government of India in early February 1911 received the exciting confirmed information from England that Their Majesties the King of England George V, and his wife Queen Mary would be visiting India for a Durbar in Delhi in December 1911. The Government swung into action in various fields, more so in the realm of rail transportation as it anticipated a very heavy public traffic into Delhi from all over India. The Durbar site was to be decided upon and consequent extra rail facilities and connections needed to carry the extra traffic efficiently were also to be planned. The final date of the Coronation Durbar was fixed for 12th December, 1911.

Meeting of the five railways

With that in mind an elaborate meeting was fixed of concerned railway authorities on 8th February in Delhi to plan the meticulous details.

The Railways which participated in the discussions were: the East Indian Railway, Oudh & Rohilkhand Railway, Bombay & Baroda Central India Railway, Great Indian Peninsula Railway and North Western Railway. At this meeting preliminary arrangements were formulated for the construction of a special organization later known as the 'Delhi Durbar Railway' under exclusive management. As many as six meetings were held between March and April, 1911 to resolve all traffic problems that could be foreseen.

From 8th February, when the first meeting was held, to the end of November 1911, the following additional operational facilities were provided and decisions taken by the railways to handle the Durbar Traffic:

(a) A complete Delhi Main station with eleven platforms and arrangements to receive trains at the station from different directions was put in shape.

(b) Two additional double lines in the Delhi Durbar area up to Azadpur junction with branch line to Kingsway, Cavalry Camp and Army Camp.

(c) Delhi Main was to be relieved of handling bulk of parcel and luggage traffic to make operational space for handling rush of an unprecedentedly heavy passenger traffic coming to Delhi to participate in or watch the Coronation Durbar. Instead the parcel/luggage traffic was to be diverted to different smaller Durbar Camp stations constructed for this purpose in Delhi Area.

(d) Similarly busy single-line section between Tundla and Delhi was to be given relief by opening an alternative route from Bombay to Delhi by the Agra-Delhi Chord.

(e) Stabling of trains and stock was planned to be done at new Shakurpur stabling yard and not at stations between Agra and Delhi. This was to prevent their haulage to and from road-side stations thereby preventing unnecessary strain on line capacity and other operational resources.

Delhi Durbar traffic

Building and telegraph material, camp equipment for the Durbar, and for the 'Supply and Transport' department of the army for security, the great ceremony, and other government logistics commenced from March, 1911 and it became a deluge for Delhi in August. But this traffic was handled smoothly by the railways until September when heavy rains lasting for many days swamped the Durbar area. The supply trains had to be diverted as the track was found to be unsafe in few sections for some days.

Goods traffic

A daily fast goods train service was started from Howrah for Delhi especially for the carriage of very important camp equipment like tentage needed to hold the Durbar, house the royal party and their suite, the Indian royalty, troops, police, etc., and hundreds of others in the Durbar area, which was in the grounds in front of the Red Fort. This daily special goods train used to leave Howrah at 3:50pm and arrive next day at Kingsway station in Delhi area at 10am, that is a distance of approximately 900 miles in 42 hours! The load of these trains used to be of 40 four wheelers. To make them full train-loads two or three consignors often had to team up at Howrah. These trains were ordered to be 'vacuum-braked' as far as possible to make them safer keeping in mind their load as well as importance.

Not only the above, there were advertisements in leading newspapers in Delhi and Calcutta for attracting consignors to run other Special fast goods trains for conveyance of other essential logistical items like motor cars, horses and their carriages, etc., that would be required in large numbers in Delhi. Five such Specials, named 'Motor Specials', were run between Howrah and Delhi during November, 1911.

Troop trains

For assembling about 80,000 troops for the Durbar, special military trains were provided. These were handled mainly at different stations of the terminal North Western Railway. The East Indian Railway ran 15 troop specials for the assemblage at Delhi from their stations and 19 return special troop trains from Delhi for their dispersal after the Durbar was over.

Other passenger traffic

During the Durbar Period a Badshahi Mela was also held below Selimgarh Fort (Red Fort) from 11th December to 13th December, 1911, and thousands of people flocked to this Mela with the keen expectation of seeing the great pomp and pageantry, as well as to see the King and the Queen. This expectation was realized for thousands who were luckily present at the Mela on 13th December when King George V and Queen Mary showed themselves in State on the walls of Selimgarh Fort (Red Fort). About 26 special trains were run from several places into Delhi to bring in approximately 30,000 people for the Mela, and it took about 24 special trains to disperse the Mela throngs afterwards.

During the period of assemblage prior to the Durbar, i.e., from 28th November to 5th December, 1911, Delhi Main station dealt with about 65 trains daily in each direction. And during the period of dispersal after the Durbar, i.e., from 14th December to 21st December, 1911 about 75 trains per day were dealt with each way.

The passenger traffic handled thus was really very large by the standards of that time it and was a matter of justifiable pride for the concerned Railways.

Fancy uniforms

A curious item was the uniforms supplied to the European (British) members of staff on platform and other duties at Delhi Main station during the Durbar period. To make them look smarter, each one was given a special uniform, including great coats in stations with a peaked cap brimmed with a silver braid and scarlet crown -- the royal insignia -- on it. The Station Superintendents at Howrah and Delhi were given a sleeker, very 'British', uniform, consisting of a frock coat with black braid facings and a Staff Officer's cap.

To appreciate the exacting design of these unforms, it may be detailed here that a 'frock-coat' is a man's close-fitting coat usually double-breasted, extending approximately to the knees and a Staff Officer's cap is the uniform cap worn by a military or naval commissioned officer. Further, it may be recalled that in 1911 Calcutta was India's capital not Delhi; it was actually the King Emperor George V himself who laid down during this visit the foundation of New Delhi to shift the capital later from Calcutta to New Delhi. Hence the equal importance of Howrah station those days.

Imagine today's Station Superintendent of a metro station strutting around in this 'fancy' dress uniform!

Can we today in retrospect really understand how in our grandfathers' or great-grandfathers' time in far-off 1911, the Indian Railways could have managed this grand unprecedented royal show in such an fastidiously efficient manner, when even most of the passenger trains had small four-wheeler carriages, ill-lit with gas or oil lights and no fans even in upper class compartments? The trains then, even though, styled as 'mail' or 'express' were hauled by small steam engines which would almost look ridiculous beside the later huge and powerful WP steam locomotives. And as regards goods trains of those days -- usually partially vacuum braked -- a 40-wagon load was perhaps considered a 'heavy' load!

All of us in the Indian Railways now can be justifiably proud of our glorious transportation heritage!