Masterclass in Railway History

by Ravindra Bhalerao, 2014

When S N Sharma set about writing a book on the history of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, he could not but voice a lamentation on the absence of an authoritative source of reference he could draw upon. "While preparing the history of the G. I. P. Railway, I was amazed to find that there were hardly any books on this subject," wrote Shri Sharma in his preface. "The only book I could get was that of Frank J. Clark's The Great Indian Peninsula Railway, Under the Original Company's Administration, a 46-page book written in 1900. Thus, I had almost no secondary source of information ..."

As late as 1984 when Shri Sharma began work on his book, a person wishing to research the railways of India had but two works to serve as a guideline. On its first hundredth anniversary in 1953, the Railway Ministry came out with a book, the first ever history of the railways of India, titled Indian Railways — One Hundred Years: 1853—1953. This general work authored by J N Sahni is profusely illustrated with photographs and provides a fascinating overview of the growth of the railways beginning with the first proposals to set up the system, and moving on to various other themes such as locomotives and early rolling stock, signaling, electrification and goods transportation. Shri Sahni's work, although general in nature, has served as a haven of delight for well over half a century for enthusiasts who have been lucky enough to lay their hands on a copy, and contained enough detail to serve as a reference for many later works on the subject.

About two decades later in 1975, a second history made an appearance. Titled Indian Railways, and authored by M A Rao, this new work was put out by the National Book Trust, India. Shri Rao's work won immediate approval. The author has written his book in a reader friendly manner using a fresh slant of his own, and has succeeded in creating an account that holds special appeal for the person who wishes to explore history in some detail with no previous knowledge of the railway and its working. There exists yet another approach that can be used for reconstructing the history of an organization, and this is a method which manifests itself in the writing of an author who works on the premise that the basic chronological developments, already set forth in the works of others, would only serve to tire the reader if recounted a second time, and therefore sets out to delve deeper beneath the surface of events. When an approach of this kind forms the basis of research, it becomes a work eminently suited to the needs of the serious scholar.

Shri R R Bhandari
Shri R R Bhandari. This picture is courtesy of Shri Nikhil Bhandari.

The late Ratan Raj Bhandari's work titled Indian Railways—Glorious 150 Years is a work of this kind. Occupying a space of 252 pages and illustrated with both colour and monochrome photographs, Shri Bhandari has succeeded in endowing his work with a quality that sets it apart as a history that takes a profound look at the past.

That the author has chosen as the basis of his work a desire to explore what lies behind the camouflage of unfolding events is at once observable in the opening few pages of the book where the reader is treated to a little known controversy over who, in fact, was the real originator of the scheme of a railway network in India.

Indian Railways, 150 Glorious Years

The first proposal to have a system of railway lines in the country is generally attributed to Sir Rowland Macdonald Stephenson, who in 1844 proposed six rail routes strategically located so as to promote military and commercial interests of the British. However, Captain Edward Davidson, Deputy Consulting Engineer for Railways to the Government of Bengal, writing in 1868, challenged this position when he asserted that the first proposals were in fact made nearly a month in advance by Messrs. White and Borrett on behalf of the Great India Railway Company.

The truth of the matter is that proposals for laying a railway had been made from several quarters; a report by the Court of Directors of the East India Company in 1846 listed no less than fifteen such projects. It was Lord Dalhousie who suggested that it would be advantageous to entrust the construction of railways to independent companies instead of the government's own officers, using land provided by the East India Company, and by 1862, a total of seven companies had come into operation, namely, the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, the East Indian Railway, the Madras Railway, the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway, the Sind, Punjab and Delhi Railway, the Great Southern of India Railway, and the Eastern Bengal Railway, with a total track mileage that seemed to grow phenomenally with each passing year.

Having read through premiers of these seven pioneering railways, the student of rail history is bound to pause, wishing to be told about the character of the railway equipment and hardware that was being imported from Britain at this time, and equally important, what rail travel was like in the late nineteenth century on British run railways.

The subject of railway locomotives is covered in adequate detail in a later chapter where we are told that the trendsetters in railway construction were the East Indian Railway and the G. I. P. Railway companies. Vulcan Foundry, and Kitson, Thompson & Hewitson of Leeds took the lead in supplying the earliest engines to India. From here begins a remarkable tour acquainting the reader with various non-standard designs, the setting up of the British Engineering Standards Committee which went on to recommend in 1905 a total of seven classes to replace the impossibly large number of locomotive designs that had come into use till then, and various Indian Railway Standards designs as well as other war-time and post-war locomotive designs.

On the subject of rail travel, Shri Bhandari's work is understandably silent, for this is a subject that is covered in adequate detail in various other works. In fact, the reader who wishes to gain a fuller appreciation of the colonial nature of the railways of India would do well to take a break after the first two chapters and turn his attention to matters of a less involved nature telling about the rail traveller's experience in pre-partition India.

A great deal has been written on the punctuality, speed, and impeccable service offered on board the Frontier Mail and Deccan Queen, trains that went on to become legends of their time. The English gentry traversing the hot Indian plains in a luxurious first class carriage carrying along a pile of luggage and telegraphing meal orders in advance at stations enroute is an all too familiar picture. Fascinating as these accounts are, they present nonetheless a one-sided view of the picture and tend to obscure the true nature of colonial railways in India. The fact is that the great majority of rail travellers were the natives of the country for whom third class was the only available mode of travel, carrying none of the conveniences and refinements available to the travelling English elite. Conditions for natives travelling by rail were gruesome and appalling. The absence of toilets in trains meant that Indians relieving themselves over the edge of the platform during a halt at a station had come to be accepted as a part of railway culture. Added to this were overcrowding, dirt and filth, lack of proper hygiene amongst the passengers themselves, corruption and lack of courtesy among railway staff, and poor facilities in waiting rooms. Mahatma Gandhi who had made third class his chosen mode of transport has left in his autobiography a gruesome picture based on his travels across the country; he would even go so far as to campaign against inhuman conditions on the railway, but sadly with little success.

There was thus a vast divide between conditions for the European rail traveller and the native of India. While Shri Bhandari's work bypasses this issue altogether, it does provide the reader a tantalizing glimpse into the reasons for this great divide. The railway project in India was entirely a British enterprise, constructed and run by the British to serve British interests. The prime motive in bringing the railway to India was to facilitate the movements of troops, and the transport of agricultural produce such as cotton, jute, wheat, sugarcane and oilseeds from the interior of the country to the ports where they would be shipped to England. The earliest railway companies were "guaranteed" companies. Under the old guarantee system, the British Indian Government entrusted the construction and operation of railways to companies. Together with land for construction offered free of cost, the government also offered the company the guarantee of an interest, usually 5 percent of the capital raised. As the interest was guaranteed, it meant that irrespective of whether the company made a profit or not, its investors residing in Britain were assured of a 5 percent return on their investment. If the company performed poorly, the shareholder had nothing to fear; his interest would come from the Indian taxpayer's pocket.

The old guarantee system was introduced with the object of inducing British capitalists to invest in the railway project in India. Every mill owner, every cotton baron, every charlatan who could put together a few pounds now offered to become a shareholder knowing that his profits were assured. With such an inflow of capital, the companies were left with no incentive to observe economy in construction and went ahead full steam pushing the railway deeper and deeper into the heart of the country, spending outrageously large sums on their works, while sadly paying no attention to the needs of the lower class traveller. This is no mere conjecture. Mr C H G Jenkinson, Assistant Engineer of Western Rajputana State Railway remarked in 1873 that, ".... the Indian Railways have on an average cost enormous sums, out of all proportions to the wealth of the country... No one could have travelled far in this country by rail without remarking the profuse liberality with which money has been spent, without the minutest regard to the wants of the country, or indeed to the habits of the natives..."

Such then were the conditions in which the early railway companies thrived. It was an age of massive construction, the laying of hundreds of miles of track across the Indian plains, bridging mighty rivers, a time of continual planning and execution of design, a time of constant debate within committees on various matters. The author brings to life these formative years with astonishing clarity and detail. He goes on to tell us about railway administration, reorganization, and finance, supplementing his material with a large amount of colonial correspondence carefully selected from heaps of old, crumbling files in archives. From here onwards, the book makes easy reading, for we are treated to the wonder of railway bridges, various forms of motive power, signaling, hill railways, and production units.

The author was an acclaimed expert in railway heritage; indeed, no worthwhile work on history can ever be said to originate from the desk of a person who is not a heritage enthusiast in the first place. Shri Bhandari developed a taste for the heritage trail under the tutelage of Michael Satow, the father of the railway preservation movement in India. Mr Satow had been touring India, often by private plane, hunting up condemned old locomotives that would go on to grace the museum in Delhi he had in mind, engines that would remind the world of the timeless appeal of India's steam age. His decisions were respected; his orders carried out to the letter; for Mr Satow, although an Englishman by birth, had been appointed Honorary Heritage Advisor to the railways of India after a long and successful career as the Managing Director of the Imperial Chemical Industries in India.

It was under the influence of Mr Satow, then, that Shri Bhandari grew to be a heritage buff. "Mike Satow was my guru," he recalls. And what a marvelous influence it was! By the end of his career with the railways when he held the office of Member of the Railway Board, Shri Bhandari had authored well over a dozen books, tracing the growth of the railways since earliest times in nearly every nook and corner of the country. His works stand as models of clarity and precision.

Railway history is inextricably linked with rail heritage ; the one tells about the past, the other is a remnant of the past. Shri Bhandari's preoccupation with rail history was fired by an all-consuming desire to preserve India's railway heritage. His vision, as set out in one of the concluding chapters is all-encompassing. In his view, rolling stock, locomotives and station buildings form only an infinitesimal part of heritage. Of equal importance are bridges and viaducts, railway towns, and locomotive sheds. Railway records and archival material preserved in files are in a class by themselves, while smaller items on the lines of train tickets and passes, builders' plates and models should on no account be thought of as insignificant. One can almost work backwards and form a picture of the author's conception of what constitutes railway heritage. And if we are to accept his definition, heritage becomes the sum total of what remains of a railway after its character has been altered under the effect of the various changes brought about by time and changing technology; heritage is the sum total of the remnants of a railway, both large and small — remnants that arouse nostalgia and serve as a pointer to the past.

The heritage enthusiast may be found forever turning to the past. He soon finds that relics from the past by themselves do not make much sense, and he soon tires of them unless they are supplemented with information about the past. Again, mere historical fact telling us about the past does not arouse our interest unless we have concrete material telling us about what the men who lived in those days were like. Shri Bhandari was always the digger, and he dug deeply. While at the Railway Staff College, Baroda, he dug deeply enough and came up with a set of short biographies of the principal builders of the railways in India. These were men with a background in engineering science holding key positions on company managed railways who were destined to employ their skills learned at home in a far away land. Several names stand out: Walter Home, E. R. Calthrop, Colonel J. P. Kennedy, Franklin Prestage... Shri Bhandari wrote a total of nine such biographies. But for him, no one would probably have even known of these grand old men, pioneers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century who chose to sail to a far off inhospitable land for the purpose of laying the railway across the country.

Shri Bhandari possessed the gift of an eagerness to share with others what he had discovered after long years of painstaking work. This book places in the hand of the reader a vast amount of historical material. The writer's thoroughness in research makes itself evident in a level of rigor he has achieved that will satisfy the deepest longings of the scholar who is straining to get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the great institution known as Indian Railways.

Book Details

Indian Railways: Glorious 150 Years by R R Bhandari. Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, New Delhi, 2005. 252pp, Rs 250.

About Shri R R Bhandari, 1946—2012

Shri Ratan Raj Bhandari (1946—2012), India's foremost railway historian, was born on 9 August 1946. Having graduated in Mechanical Engineering with a Gold Medal from MBM Engineering College in Jodhpur, Shri Bhandari first served for a period in the Bhilai Steel Plant in Madhya Pradesh. Then in 1968, he joined the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers. During his stay in the railways he held several top ranking positions: he served as Chief Mechanical Engineer of Southern Railway, and as Divisional Railway Manager, Vishakapatnam, later holding the chair of Director of Rail India Technical and Economic Services Limited. His career culminated in his appointment as General Manager of South Eastern Railway, Calcutta, after which he served a term as Member Mechanical of the Railway Board and ex-Officio Secretary, Ministry of Railways, Government of India, New Delhi. Following his retirement from railway service in 2006, Shri Bhandari settled in his hometown of Jodhpur where for a period he served as a Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal, Jodhpur. Shri Bhandari passed away in 2012.

Throughout his working life Shri Bhandari was driven by a passion for railway heritage, its documentation, and its preservation. There never will be a second Bhandari again; no one works that hard at rail heritage anymore. Despite his onerous responsibilities, he found time to pursue his fascination with ardour. Those who knew him spoke of him as a quiet, unassuming man with a keen interest in history. A true gentleman in every sense, he will be remembered by fans everywhere for the rich legacy he leaves behind in the form of a set of definitive works documenting in fine detail the growth of the railways in the Indian subcontinent.