A Journey by Indian Railways - 1972

by Shirish Paranjape

This is an account of a train journey undertaken by me with my parents way back in 1972. The purpose of this write-up is to narrate things as they were back then, not so much to describe minute IR details. I do hope readers will enjoy this write-up, in spite of a few errors which may have crept in, as this is written from memory, not diary records.

Journey summary:

  • Bareilly (Uttar Pradesh) to Itarsi (Madhya Pradesh) via Mathura Junction
  • Itarsi (Madhya Pradesh) to Bareilly via Jhansi and Lucknow (all in Uttar Pradesh)

We were based at Indian Air Force station, Bareilly - which is adjacent to North Eastern Railways' sprawling Izzatnagar area. When the dates of our travel got decided, the first activity was to obtain a "Warrant" from the unit Adjutant. A Warrant allows IAF staff and family to travel free from the unit to hometown, once a year. On the other hand, a CV (Concession Voucher) entitles travel at 50% concession.

My dad and I visited Bareilly Junction station one Sunday to make our onward bookings. The reservation clerk looked for the register marked "Kumaon Exp", amongst his pile of several similar-looking registers. Each of these had a thick brown sheet as its cover, with the name of the train(s) handwritten in bold. He then opened the page corresponding to our date of travel, and marked our names, gender, age, warrant numbers etc. on the page against Bareilly quota, with his fountain pen (ball point pens were still not very common, or popular then). He then took his EFT pad (Excess Fare Ticket), wrote the details of our journey, and gave us one of the carbon copies. This paper was the proof that we were provided confirmed reservation on Kumaon Express from Bareilly to Mathura Jn. a few weeks later.

This done, he then said that he will need to send a "message" to Mathura to arrange our onward reservation from there to Itarsi by 6Up Firozpur-Bombay VT Punjab Mail.

As we were returning from Bareilly train station to our IAF family quarters on my dad's bicycle - me using the rear "carrier" seat - a telegraph clerk at Bareilly station would perhaps be using his simple Morse-code machine to transmit the details of our Mathura-Itarsi journey in the form of just two characters, namely a dash (daa) and a dot (dit). Upon receiving these dashes and dots at his end, the telegraph clerk at Mathura would reconstitute the message in plain English and hand it over to the reservation clerk.

If Mathura had enough vacancy in its own quota, the reservation clerk would hand-write our details in his "Punjab Mail" register. Else, another message would be prepared and transmitted over another set of Morse-code machines to Firozpur (starting station of the train).

The day of our journey arrived. We were all packed up and ready, with the following luggage:

  • Two suitcases, made from ply-wood, with a thick brown canvas protector (moulded luggage was a few years away)
  • One family hold-all
  • One 4-compartment/box stainless-steel "tiffin carrier" (for food)
  • One surahi-carrier with a surahi (clay water-pitcher). Also, a "water-bag" made of very thick cotton - more on this later.
  • A plastic netted bag/basket - for small items

Although Kumaon Express had a halt at Izzatnagar, the station closest to us, it was a short halt. Moreover, an IAF truck visited Bareilly Jn station every evening as per a fixed schedule - for the benefit of airmen & families arriving and departing from Bareilly. As per our normal practice, we were to board the train at Bareilly Jn.

We were promptly picked up from our quarters by an IAF truck. As usual, neighbours helped us hoist and push the luggage in the TATA 3-tonner vehicle.

Kathgodam-Agra Fort Kumaon Express arrived on time at about 20:30, hauled by a flat-faced YG class engine belonging to Izzatnagar shed. The TTE allocated the 3 of us to a 4-berth coupe, which we had to ourselves as there was no other (4th) passenger. My dad opened the hold-all with practiced efficiency and prepared our "beds". Being summer, we did not need to carry blankets, which meant that our hold-all was relatively less full.

My dad chose his preferred top berth, while my mom and I took the lower berths. The TTE had advised us to keep the windows shut, and latch them, as a safety precaution. As per his normal habit, my dad was asleep on his berth even before the train had left Bareilly. All I remember from that night's journey is:

     The gentle rock and roll of Metre Gauge, which helps get a better sleep than fast Broad Gauge trains,

     The blue night-light (globe) in our coupe, and

     A longish halt in the middle of the night, with the train reversing after that. This was a Kasganj Junction, a major junction between Bareilly and Mathura.

We had a good sleep, me still blissfully unaware whether our Mathura-Itarsi sector had been confirmed.

Before day-break, at about 04:30, Kumaon Express reached Mathura. My dad hired the services of a porter (coolie) to transport our luggage. These red-uniformed men always left a lasting impression on me with their skill and resilience. He sat down as the two suitcases were put on his head; then stood up and slung the hold-all in his left arm. During other journeys, I have seen these brave men put a 3rd item on their head, and a 5th item slung to the other arm as well. With all this, they can sometimes walk and climb the staircase faster than us. Hats off!

We walked the short distance to the First Class Waiting room on Platform no. 1. We took turns to take a "bath" - a "shower" as a westerner might say - although there is no shower-spout, nor a bath-tub! It was the typical Indian "bath" under flowing cold tap water.

My dad went somewhere, and upon return announced that our travel on Punjab Mail had been confirmed! While there were the occasional mix-ups (with the resultant hardships and disappointments), in general, the IR system did work. My dad had experienced it innumerable times, and so did I - in the later years of my travel. Remember that these were the days when a telephone trunk call to the next town would take hours to materialise. IR's communication system was the pride of the land!

Our breakfast was the standard poori-bhaji and tea on the platform. We also used the time to fill up our surahi, but not the water bag - yet.

A rail-man from ASM (Assistant Station Master) office rang the heavy brass bell on the platform to herald the arrival of 6 Up Punjab Mail. A WP class steam engine of Jhansi shed proudly lead this prestigious train for an on-time arrival at Mathura at about 10.00. Just prior to this, our porter - who had "vanished" after depositing our luggage in the Waiting room - miraculously reappeared just in time. He had kept our luggage exactly where our First Class carriage (of 6 Up) stopped. As a child, I was always amazed at how much these porters knew. Their knowledge and accuracy of information worked because IR's systems worked too! The porter brought our luggage to the allocated cabin, asked us to check that everything is ok (they always do, don't they?), took the money and bade salam / good bye. Once again, we had a 4-berth coupe to ourselves.

Just before the train started, my dad filled up our water bag from the nearest tap on the platform. He tied it to the window-bars, and hung it outside the window. The breeze due to the speed of the train would cool the water - was the theory. And the theory did indeed work!

The WP steam loco gave its usual hoot, and we started our south-ward journey. The First Class coach attendant took our lunch order. When the train stopped at next station (Agra Cantt), he would send a message to Gwalior, where the lunch would be served. Note: In all my travels on 5 Down /6 Up, I never ate in the Dining/ Restaurant Car. I don't know why. My best guess is that the Dining Car was not present in the era I travelled on this train.

Our family journeys had the same general routine, irrespective of which train we took. My dad would spend the maximum time on his upper berth - sleeping or resting. My mom, who does not sleep much at all, would read magazines such as "The Illustrated Weekly", "Dharmayug", "Sarita", "and Manohar Kahaniyan". I would read "Chandamama" or just look out of the window.

The 10-minute halt at Agra Cantt was utilized for purchasing one box each of Daal Moth and Petha. The vendors always did brisk trade of these delicacies. In those days, such special products were available only where they were produced. These days, the likes of Haldiram and Bikanerwala have ensured Daal Moth is available even at Christchurch, New Zealand!

My dad also explained the reason behind us changing the trains at Mathura instead of Agra. At Agra, the Metre Gauge Kumaon Express went to Agra Fort while the Broad Gauge Punjab Mail used Agra Cantt, which meant that we would have to take a cycle-rickshaw journey between the two stations. Mathura was more convenient, as both gauges (MG and BG) used the same station.

In the section north of Gwalior, I looked out in the ravines, somewhat nervously, to check for any signs of dacoits. Several Hindi films of that era had made the Chambal dacoits a "current topic". There was a sense of relief when "that" area was behind us.

Crossing Birlanagar meant that we were nearing Gwalior. As promised, our lunch was loaded here. It was served in steel thalis - with compartments/ cavities for different items. Three mid-size cavities at the top were for daal (lentils), subzi (vegetables) and dahi (curd). A large cavity at the bottom held rice and rotis. The two small cavities - one on each side - held onions and pickle respectively. A reversed thali was used as a cover.

The meal was served with an instruction/ request to return the empty thalis before Jhansi, as the bearer had to get off there with all the empties.

Apart from consuming our lunch between Gwalior and Jhansi, this run had two other events - namely crossings of north-bound 5 Down Punjab Mail, and 17 Down Madras-Delhi Janata Express, both behind WP class steam locomotives.

Jhansi came at about 2:30 pm. My dad took me to the front of the train to witness the engine change ceremony; we were told by our coach attendant that a diesel engine takes over from here. I witnessed an unusual arrangement here. The platform was of double length. Our train used the rear half. An Itarsi WDM-2 class diesel engine in classic maroon livery was already occupying part of the front half. Our outgoing steam engine used the "escape" route, and then the diesel engine simply backed up and was coupled to the train.

Simultaneously, khalasis had climbed over the carriages for filling up water in the overhead tanks. After the tank was full - evidenced by water oozing out from the tank - the khalasi would turn off the tap and remove the pipe. However, residual water in the now loose and dangling pipe would often give a surprise "shower" to the passengers - those inside the carriages and those on the platform. The water oozing out from the overhead tank too had the same effect, as a sheet of "rain" would come down along the carriage and surprise the passengers.. It is another matter that this shower was sometimes quite welcome, due to the intense Indian summer heat! I do miss this sight after the current side-filling arrangement came into use.

We used the halt at Jhansi to refill our own water-bag too, from the tap on the platform. After about 20 minutes, we heard the melodious horn of the WDM-2 diesel engine, saw green flags being exchanged between driver, guards and platform staff (no walkie-talkies at that time), and heard the musical throb of the engine.

Babina was characterised by the sprawling Indian Army campus running close to the tracks. It was always a delight to see the well-kept/ cared for campus and a variety of army vehicles.

We had our afternoon tea at Bina, in typical white porcelain cup-saucer provided by the vendors. Real glasses made from clear glass were relatively rare; disposable plastic or thermocole (polystyrene) "glasses" had not made their appearance yet. The other "cup" of choice, particularly in north and east India was the clay kullar. The benefit was that the trackside was clean, not marred by white plastic as is the case today. The cup-saucer arrangement meant that tea had to be finished before the train left that station, unless the contents were transferred to passengers own cups/glasses. At practically every station, one could notice the (often comical) scenes of a tea vendor running alongside the departing train to collect his cutlery and money!

The signalling in this part of IR was with lower quadrant semaphore mechanical signals. At junctions, we saw metal wire-ropes and "pipes" running along/near the tracks - from signal cabin to points and semaphore gantries. At major junctions, literally dozens of these metal pipes could be seen entering the signal cabin building through a cavity at ground level.

On the permanent way, the rail sleepers were generally wooden, although one could occasionally spot iron ones too, which had one circular bases on either side. The clickety-clack of the rails was a perpetual travel companion, as the welding of rails (to create short and long welded rails) had not arrived on the scene yet.

After Bina, we crossed a steam-engine-hauled 57 Down Amritsar Express. Shortly afterwards, at Vidisha, we crossed a stationary 21 Down Dakshin Express, which carried a myriad collection of coaches including Hyderabad-Nizamuddin, Madras-Nizamuddin, Hyderabad-Lucknow, Madras-Lucknow plus a Dining Car with boards "Kazipet-Jhansi" in the middle of the formation.

After leaving Bhopal, it became dark and I could not see much outside. Somewhere before Barkhera ghat section, Grand Trunk Express bound for New Delhi crossed us, lead by a diesel engine. The other things of interest were the many curves in the ghats - which allowed me to see the "engine" and the lights of the train carriages.

Soon, we were crossing the long girder bridge over river Narmada, which was a single-line territory, controlled by a signal cabin at either end of the bridge. The coins thrown by devotee passengers often landed on the girders to add a few musical notes to the sound of the train passing over the bridge.

There was just one more stop, at Hoshangabad, which came at about 9:30 pm. Soon thereafter we were admitted to Itarsi station, at about 10:30 pm (ahead of schedule) - our access into the station being controlled by a signal cabin north of station yard (near present flyover) and another signal cabin just east of platforms (D-cabin it was, from memory).

My uncle was at the station to receive us. After a short ride on a tonga (carriage drawn by a single horse), we were home.

After enjoying the vacation, we were back at Itarsi station to begin our return journey. Instead of returning direct to Bareilly, we were travelling via Lucknow - to spend 2 days to see the princely capital of Uttar Pradesh.

We were taking the Itarsi-Jhansi Passenger, departing at 5:30 pm and arriving at Jhansi at 9 am the next morning. Our train was already berthed on Platform no. 3 and our carriage was near the over-bridge. Our First Class compartment was in an old-style wooden coach. This was a non-corridor type coach. We had a 4-berth coupe, and the coupe had one door on each side, with a private bathroom and toilet. These extremely spacious coaches were rare on Indian Railways, and it was a special experience to enjoy the ride in a classic non-corridor coach.

As we had some time, my dad took me to the Assistant Station Master (ASM) office to have a look. It had 4 block-instruments behind the desk and many phones on the table. Some of them had a blank face with no dial-ring. I was told that there was one phone for each of the lines radiating from Itarsi. The staff would simply pick a phone and say "Khandwa", or "Bhopal" or "Amla" or "Jabalpur" and exchange information about train movements. The block instruments were used for controlling the four routes from Itarsi - towards Khandwa, Bhopal, Jabalpur and Amla. The ASM and his staff were all the time giving instructions to various signal cabins in the Itarsi station area. A lady announcer was providing public announcements manually (the automated announcements came much later).

The evening at Itarsi station was characterised by Passenger trains from/to all four directions:

  • Bhusawal-Allahabad Passenger was on Platform no. 1
  • Itarsi-Bhusawal Passenger was on Platform 2
  • Itarsi-Jhansi Passenger (our train) was on Platform no. 3
  • Allahabad-Itarsi Passenger arrived on Platform no. 4

This combination of trains allowed travellers from one route to change trains and go to another route. For example, passengers from Bhusawal/Khandwa side could take the Itarsi-Jhansi passenger to go north towards Bhopal/Jhansi. Passengers from Jabalpur side could continue towards Bhusawal or Bhopal by changing trains.

Our signal was "down" on time, and we started our journey to Jhansi pulled by a steam engine of WP class, of Jhansi shed. Our small train (9-10 coaches) also had an "end-on generator car". The purpose of this car was to produce electricity (from diesel), which was used for lights and fans in the coaches. [Without such generator vans, the lights would get dimmed, and the fans would run slowly when the train slowed down].

The 2nd class unreserved coaches of our train did not have any bars on the windows. I liked the idea of being able to put the neck out and watch the engine from the window. (It was another matter that the face quickly became black, and fine coal/dust particles got lodged in hair!)

Our train continued its slow but steady progress towards its destination. The few items of interest were:

At Barkhera, our steam engine was getting refilled with water. The banker (another engine used for pushing our train up the ghats), which was attached at Budni, was detached here. This was a WG class flat-faced steam engine belonging to Itarsi shed.

While we were waiting, 138 Up Chattisgarh Express came from Bhopal side behind a steam engine (WP class) and continued its southward journey without stopping.

We had a long wait at Obaidullaganj (before Bhopal). As our train waited on the platform, the Main semaphore signal (the tallest one) dropped to show "green". Sometime later, Madras-New Delhi Grand Trunk Express came at a good speed from Itarsi side under the command of a diesel engine, and overtook us - horns blaring.

At Habibganj, Firozpur-Bombay VT Punjab Mail crossed us without stopping, pulled by a diesel engine.

We finished our dinner before Bhopal, and slept on the wide comfortable berths of our old First Class coach, only to wake up before Babina. Once again, we could see the jawans and officers of the Indian Army working in the army campus there.

Our train arrived at Jhansi a few minutes before its scheduled time of 09:00.

Our connecting train - 43 Jhansi-Lucknow Mail was waiting on an adjacent platform. The TTE allotted us our berths in the First Class compartment, which was a corridor-type one. The engine was a WP class steam engine belonging to Jhansi shed, once again!

There was not much to note in the single-line Jhansi-Lucknow section. The traffic was much lesser than on New Delhi - Madras trunk route. We had lunch at Orai, which was quite ordinary. At Chirgaon, 536 Kanpur-Jhansi Passenger was waiting at the adjacent platform. While at Lalpur, we waited for our pairing train (44 Lucknow-Jhansi Mail), before the signal could be cleared for us.

I was impressed with the size of Kanpur Central Station. We reached there about half-an-hour late. As we came closer to Lucknow, I saw something I had not seen before. Upon checking with our coach attendant, I came to know that these were Metre Gauge Railcars (diesel-powered). From memory, each set had just two coaches. We arrived at Lucknow station at about 5 pm, some 30 minutes late, after a journey of almost 24 hours. We headed straight to First Class waiting room, and found enough place there.

This waiting room was to be our home for 2 nights. The next morning, we had our morning bath there, did sightseeing during the day and returned to the waiting room for sleeping - either using beddings from our hold-all or by using the "planters' chairs" provided in the waiting room. The lady minding the waiting room looked after our luggage during the day, for a small monetary consideration.

Our final journey was by Howrah-Amritsar "Punjab Mail". The only thing I recall from this journey is miles after miles of absolutely straight tracks - there was hardly any opportunity to see the engine when the train was moving. The departure was at about 4:30. The only way-side halt I remember was at Shahjahanpur. This train was hauled by a diesel engine, and it deposited us at about 8:30 pm at Bareilly.

As we travelled "home" in an Air Force truck, I looked back and remembered the wonderful experience and memories which these train journeys had given me this summer. I was already looking forward to the next vacation and more train journeys on Indian Railways.