A Railfan's Quest for Truth

by Ajai Banerji, Jaipur

The quest for truth is an integral part of religion and philosophy. Here we see how this applied to the development of a railfan.

It is not difficult to involuntarily become a railfan at an early age. In my case it started when in early 1963 my parents took up residence at a place next to the tracks near Ernakulam Town station. There were not many trains on that line then-only two expresses (the Madras-Cochin and the Malabar from Mangalore) and a host of passenger trains including one which ran between Cochin and Alwaye with two coaches. Diesels and electrics were a distant dream. The metre gauge trains from Ernakulam Jn to Quilon were another source of interest.

Things were relatively simple then. All expresses ran on WP engines, most goods trains ran on WGs, (and sometimes CWDs), most passenger trains ran on XBs, XDs and even on PT tank engines. Soon one learned that there were two types of MG engines-YP and YG. By then one had worked out the basic difference between 2-8-2 and 4-6-2 locos and which was better for passenger trains and which was better for goods. One could soon enough figure out that W meant BG, Y meant MG, P meant passenger and G meant goods. But then what about XB, PT and CWD? No one in our family or social circle knew this. So I gave it up as a bad job and concentrated on timetables.

The only timetable I could lay my hands on was that of the Southern Railway (typically 25 p without the map and 50 p with the map). It was a complex enough system then, with many branch lines which have vanished over the years. And it stretched all the way to Waltair, Raichur and Pune (via MG). Compare this with the emaciated SR of today.

By the mid-60s, I had got the hang of the SR timetable and decided to study the entire system. There was indeed an All-India Railway Timetable (perhaps Rs 5) but my father (like most fathers of railfans) wisely did not get a copy as he feared that I would waste too much time on it.

However, from 1968 onwards I went to a boarding school in Dehradun and this meant a train journey of over 72 hours including layovers at Madras and Delhi. In the course of these travels I discovered more types of engines such as HPS, SGS,AWC and numerous obscure ones especially around Delhi. More to the point, these journeys 4 times a year made me thorough with all the big and small stations along the way along with the strange sights (such as the dozens of neat houses on a hill near Peddampet and the advertisements of Professor Arora of 28 Rehgarpura, who ruled the walls near the railway tracks all the way from Jhansi to Delhi). More importantly, often the other passengers would be carrying the All-India timetable or other zonal timetables which I devoured along the way.

In mid-1971 I bought an Indian Bradshaw for the first time. This opened further vistas with the timetables of West and East Pakistan and Ceylon. The Pakistan Eastern Railway was of particular interest as the Bangladesh liberation war was raging at that time. In the period immediately after my school leaving exams in 1973 I used the Bradshaw to draw the maps of all the 9 Indian railways as well as those of neighbouring countries. This was virtually the only amusement I had while preparing for the IIT-JEE in 1973.

In due course I found myself at IIT Kanpur. Unlike today, there were not many distractions either inside or outside the campus. I searched for library for information on the Indian Railways. There was of course the Indian Railways magazine starting from the mid-1960s. But the real jackpot was a British journal called the Railway Gazette. The library had back issues dating back to 1944. In those days (and up to the mid-1960s) it had fairly detailed reports about India. It was fascinating to read about the pre-partition trains and the disturbances to the railways around the time of independence. There were fairly detailed reports of new lines, new trains and even accidents all over India. And it had fairly good coverage of all the major railway countries.

It was then that my interest in the ancient history of Indian Railways was kindled. I read the entire history as reported in the Railway Gazette starting from 1944. What came before remained a bit of a "black hole" which I could not fill in for years. There were absolutely no books or records available to someone who was not a railway employee.

The only exception was the timetable. I still traveled between Kerala and UP 4 times a year and picked up various timetables along the way. Sadly, the All-India timetable ceased in 1975 and was replaced by the less interesting Trains at a Glance. However, I made it a point to pick up all the zonal timetables I could (NR and NE from Kanpur, CR from Jhansi, SC from Vijayawada and sometimes SE from Nagpur and WR from Bhopal besides the good old SR back home in Ernakulam). ER and NF was more of a problem as I hardly traveled in that direction. Bradshaw was a rather unsatisfactory substitute.

Next came another two years at IIM Ahmedabad. Unlike now, the institute had little official connection with the Railways. There were a few rather boring books on the history of the railway which almost exclusively dealt with the economic aspects. There were tantalizing glimpses of the past (such brief mentions of the Bihta accident of 1937) but nowhere was the concerned train or its fate described. There was an interesting book called Inside Story of the Indian Railways by a retired GM D.V.Reddy, which was practically the first book I read which gave a real feel of the working of the Railways. There was also Bhowani Junction, but its focus was quite different.

The next few years of work did not bring much new knowledge other than a few more trips to places I had not visited earlier. Some years later, I went to Stanford for another master's degree. I reached there in September 1989, almost exactly the same time that IRFCA came into being with a mailing list of a dozen or so railfans in the US.

The World Wide Web as we understand it was still some years away. Its predecessors did allow limited communication between people in various universities in the US and a few other countries. There were various newsgroups such as soc.culture.indian which was an "anything goes" group patronized by Indian students in the US. I posted something about the Railways on this, and was soon contacted by one of the founders of IRFCA who encouraged me to join. Some of the founders are still active contributors after two decades.

There were various hidden treasures in the vast libraries of Stanford and nearby Berkeley-such as the Bradshaws of 1934 and 1942 and a few smaller timetables going back even further. There were also some books I had never heard of before, such as Satow's Railways of the Raj and Westwood's Railways of India. It was a bit of a surprise to see that foreigners had taken so much trouble to study and write about the Indian Railways, while no one in India seemed to have heard of these books. Further probing revealed microfilm records of the British Parliamentary Papers of the 19^th century, which did include the annual reports from 1859 onwards. One could thus piece together the new constructions and other significant developments practically all the way to the beginnings in 1853.

IRFCA's mailing list continued to thrive, although a major disadvantage was the lack of participation from anyone residing in India. The only source of news was the week-old Indian newspapers which some university libraries carried, and the occasional Bradshaws obtained by someone who visited home. Still, there was much to discuss even with long-forgotten facts and hazy memories. The first "convention" was held in New Jersey in 1991 and smaller get-togethers occurred over the next few years.

By now, I had noted down virtually all the major developments in IR back to the "prehistoric days" of the 1840s. So one felt that he knew everything about the past of IR, but the present was still a bit of a problem.

Back to pre-internet India in 1994. I was not able to re-establish contact with IRFCA for a few years. There had been many changes. Electrics and diesels ruled the roost in most places, although we still had WG and WP hauled slow passengers on branch lines. (If engines could think, the WPs must have been truly heartbroken at their fate). Meanwhile R.R.Bhandari had written a number of books on various parts of the railways, bringing much long-forgotten information to light.

Bradshaw and Indian Railways magazine remained my only tenuous link with present-day IR. Meanwhile IRFCA had grown rapidly and had a large number of members from India by the time I got back to it in 1999.

Finally, it was nice to see that there were a large number of equally crazy people in the country. The "ultimate truth" was some distance away, when one of the IRFCA members brought out the Great Indian Railway Atlas in 2005. This was a valiant and largely successful attempt to list every railway line and station which had ever existed in India. I am glad to have been associated with this venture.

With the coming of the internet and online bookstores, one could read everything that had ever been published about IR (provided that one had a large enough pocket). The little-known books of Hugh Hughes are proof of the immense interest which foreigners had for IR and its locomotives. Though his books are focused on steam locomotives, they contain a wealth of other useful information.

And IRFCA went from strength to strength, with an ever-increasing number of members from far and near and data and pictures about every conceivable aspect of IR. The ultimate truth about the Indian Railways was now at one's fingertips. What more could a railfan ask for?