Down by the station

by Bill Aitken

This article was originally published by the Indian Steam Railway Society (ISRS) in its newsletter, and is reproduced here by permission, which is gratefully acknowledged. Copyright for the material here rests with the ISRS and the author(s) of the article. The ISRS is the premier organization in India engaged in preservation and efforts to promote awareness of the country's railway heritage.

This article originally appeared in the ISRS Newsletter No. 1, Spring 2000.

Capper Quarry, Chas Road Halt, Chink Hill, Churchgate. What do these names have in common? They are all stations randomly culled from one column of an Indian railways Timetable. India has over 7,000 stations that range from tiny rural halts that lack a platform to main line terminuses that issue thousands of platform tickets every day.

Like its original rolling stock, India imported early station architecture, running drill and furniture from the United Kingdom. If your look closely enough almost every station will yield antique items of fascinating historical interest. This is because the private companies had to compete for passengers and impressive quality works were required to give off the air of success and security to the public.

The private companies effectively stamped their house style on a region just as they painted their locomotives in distinctive livery. Aping them, several Maharajas opted for their own state railway, so that India potentially is the richest nation in the world for the variety of its railway works, icons and memorabilia.

With the need to expand and modernise many of these priceless artifacts and heirlooms of the steam era are being lost to India's transport heritage. Even the railway establishment often has to be educated about what the nation stands to lose when projects vandalise the past. (Ironically it was digging for a new railway track that unearthed the Mohenjodaro wonders).

Unfamiliarity with mechanical working parts leads even sympathetic opinion to the negative attitude that our vintage steam locomotives should be kept in mothballs instead of being allowed to show their paces. Not only does their re-running give pride to railway personnel and bring honour to the country (Fairy Queen, an 1855 loco, has won the Guinness Book of Records' certificate for the world's ultimate vintage loco still steaming) but it also emphasises the genius of Indian Railways to improvise mechanically as no other nation can. Once the decision was taken Fairy Queen was back running in a matter of months and at a piddling cost.

You can see Fairy Queen stabled at Delhi Cantonment during the winter when she hauls the tourist train to Alwar. 'Cantt' of course is pure IR usage, for there are no cantonments in Britain. This indicates how the railway system, though fathered by George Stephenson, was totally indigenised for Indian needs by generations of pragmatic workmen. It is the Indian touches to the railway scene, marvelously original and often inspired, that need to be saved from oblivion.

At last the Railway authorities are considering appointing (as in other countries) Heritage Inspectors who will earmark items that deserve a place in transport history. Surely a station like Chhatrapti Shivaji Terminus qualified as a national monument. Nowhere in the world is there such an imposing cathedral to the steam age. It is much more than a place for passenger comings and goings. It is a focus of pride and a symbol that railwaymen -- like Shivaji before them -- helped forge India's national unity.

Railway stations occupy a magical place in our imagination. They are more democratic and friendly than airports and possess more flavour and character than bus stands, and the emotions they release are usually without stress. If India's greatest weakness is its inability to harness individualism, its greater strength is in the handling of collective situations with aplomb.

The railway family alone comprises a million and a half workers, not to mention the countless thousands of casual additions who help swell the platform population.

Till fairly recently railway timetables included hieroglyphics that prepared the traveller for what to expect of any forthcoming station. The letter 'V meant vegetarian restaurant while a capital 'B' signified (if your train was not running too late) breakfast. Importantly the literary traveller was the small 'bk' which declared a platform bookstall, more often than not under the Wheeler banner in the north and Higginbotham in the south. To show how the railways pampered their clients the old timetables also carried 'QS' for "quiet siding to enable passengers to detrain at daybreak.

Royals like Scindia and Baroda welcomed the railway age and allowed the iron horse to come right up to their palace doors. In Saurashtra the princely railway stations could be as stylish (and zany) as the rulers' palaces. Mysore's stately pile easily outclasses (Old) Delhi's station, the latter appearing like a crusader's castle after Walt Disney was through with the blueprint, in contrast to the dignified aura achieved by the Wodeyar station. Perhaps because the Maharaja of Patiala had blotted his copy book with the British (and was externed from Shimla), we find his station at Patiala surprisingly uncompetitive and low-key, almost rustic in the plan but solid entrance hall. However, the platforms inside reveal royal style with the beautiful barrelled canopy supported by artistically contrived wrought iron pillars. Above, in an original touch of creativity, old railway tracks have been fashioned into circles to give eye-catching supports.

While the main line stations were built to impress, the tiny way-side halts performs the humbler duty of guaranteeing passenger survival. One of the smallest I have seen is called Gunda Road Junction on the South Central. It sits in a jungle south of the Tungabadra dam and marks the bifurcation of two branch lines out of Hospet. There is no platform and the two 'up' and 'down' daily passenger trains (of three battered coaches) halt on a tight curve before a raised box of levers. So much for the railway inputs.

On a small hillock between the parting lines stood a man with a kettle and next to him his wife with a jar signifying the eating arrangements. For fifty paisa the man would pour a minuscule amount of tea into a stainless steel thimble. For twenty-five paise more, breakfast would be served. The lady opened her jar and produced one wrapped toffee bearing the legend 'Nutri Bite.' The transactions were done solemnly to clientele of (ticketless) wood collectors. Since I wanted to explore both branch lines I went back next morning and the couple's faces lighted up as I ascended their mound. They thought I had found their breakfast so irresistible I had come back for morel In one sense I had. The daily untroubled ritual of this most minor of junctions enabled me to understand why the railway station has been described as "one of the last refuges of human happiness."

Some of the most beautiful station architecture in the world lies abandoned on the now disused narrow gauge line north of Bangalore built by the Mysore Durbar. At Chikballapur (still in use) the station master Basha Sabi (who has been here since 1970) has pinned on his office wall the following motto, which sums up the satisfactory morale of the station staff:

I am a station master
Safety is my motto
Passengers are my God
Railway Station is my temple.
Hard work is my puja
Passenger happiness is my reward.