Railway Staff College, Dehradun

By B M S Bisht, ex-GM, NFR, IRTS (retd). 26 February, 2008.

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

Few know that the existing Railway Staff College at Baroda (Vadodara) actually had a "rebirth" in 1952 as it had its previous birth at Dehradun way back in 1930! Even fewer, perhaps, are aware that the Indian Military Academy (IMA), India's premier Army Officers' training institution at Dehradun is housed in the same premises where the Railway Staff College once existed! We shall see how this happened through a simple but an interesting story.

The father of this College, in a way, was the famous Sir William Acworth, who in his epochal report on the Railways in 1921 to the then federal government in India, wrote that while there were some facilities in training men in civil and mechanical engineering, there was none in the form of an institution for teaching and training employees in railway operations. The Acworth Committee said: "Engineering is only one side. [...] Formal instructions in methods of operation in all their ramifications -- signalling, train control, station management, and so forth -- need to be provided, and from the economic and commercial side courses dealing, for instance, with the relations between the railways and the controlling authorities, and their customers on the other side are, non-existent. And two classes of men are to be catered for: the men of higher education and social position in training for superior posts, and the much larger class who usually do not advance beyond the subordinate grades. We are also of the opinion that the system of selection and training of the young men appointed as probationers in the Traffic Department on Indian Railways needs re-consideration. The whole subject [...] should be in special charge of the Railway Board; and we think substantial grant of money should be made for the purpose of developing such instruction." The Committee emphasized the great importance of Transportation and Traffic subjects for training.

After above words were authored, many important State Railways established Area Schools for their senior subordinates. In 1925 the Railway Board opened at Chandausi a Central Training School for providing Transportation courses not only for senior supervisors but probationery officers and junior officers also as there was no training college for the officers. As an aside, the Chandausi School, in due course of time, was to become a very prestigious institution and earned glowing tributes as such for their excellent instructional training to railway staff from the first high-powered Committee on Safety, the illustrious Kunzru Committee in the mid-1950's.

Fortunately, egged on by the Acworth Committee's unequivocal recommendations and realizing that, after all, the ultimate aim of the State Railways too was "business" or "transportation", the Railway Board decided to build a Staff College at Dehradun. "This place," according to the "The Report of the Railway Board on Indian Railways for 1926-27" was "eminently suited for the purpose owing to its climate, situation and proximity to other two training institutions viz. the Forest Research institute and the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College." The layout of the proposed College was conceived and it was estimated that the whole scheme would cost about Rs. 20 lakhs. The subject continued to engage active consideration of the government, and the Board went to the next logical step. So the subsequent year's "Report of the Railway Board on Indian Railways for 1927-28 " inter alia mentioned that in order to "give training in various sides of Railway work to junior officers just as Chandausi and other Area Schools do for the subordinate staff, the Board have sanctioned a scheme for a Railway Staff College at Dehradun at an estimated cost of Rs. 23,37,840. The College is intended primarily for the training of Traffic probationary and junior officers already in railways, but classes for more senior officers will be held in time. For the present it will meet the needs of State-managed Railways and deal with transportation and commercial work and with certain allied subjects connected with these aspects of railway working." The Report enthusiastically concluded that "good progress has been made on the work." Next, the Report for 1928-29 was happy with the progress of the construction of the College facilities and expected that it would be opened in early 1930. The second part of this Report itself was more hopeful and anticipated the start of training -- instruction to the officers at the College -- by the end of 1929 instead of early in 1930 as anticipated earlier. The subsequent Report for 1929-30 informed that the estimated cost of the College had been raised to Rs. 24,96,000 and that the sum had been sanctioned in July 1929. The work was informed to have been finally completed with a saving of Rs.1,00,000 and the College could be opened in January, 1930.

With the gradual introduction of Divisional System in the State Railways then, another process was going on. Running a railway was becoming more and more complicated and the inevitable outcome was an ever-increasing army of specialists. In the Engineering Departments were bridge engineers, signal engineers; in the Mechanical side were workshop engineers, production engineers, and so forth. On the Transportation side there were experts devoted to the movement or operation, preparation of time tables and power planning etc.; on the Commercial side, some officers were dealing solely with rates and business development, claims, and publicity etc. Keeping in view the necessity of keeping Transportation officers in touch with their contemporaries from other Railways refresher courses were conceived as an important distinguishing objective of the new Staff College. Another gratifying mark of the College in transportation education in India for the first time was supposed to be that a man was to be taken off his active duty and was to go through a full-time course as a job, like what was being done then only for officers' training at the Staff Colleges and in Specialized Courses in the Indian Army and Navy.

The site plan for the college

The College came out to be an impressive institution by all counts. It had an imposing edifice, made more striking as two artistically designed gateways led from the main road to the building. Its estate had some 155 acres along the Forest Research Institute about 4 miles from Dehradun main town. The surroundings were well-wooded and most picturesque. The College building had a handsome fa�ade 360 feet long, and was surmounted by a clock tower 90 feet high rising from the centre of a gabled roof.

The plan of the college building

The main feature in the building was the Transportation Hall which was 120 ft. long by 49 ft. wide and had a height of 45 ft. from the floor to the arched roof.

Exterior view of the college building

All around the floor of the room ran a bench that carried a model railway of 2� inch gauge used for demonstration purposes for the trainees. This was worked electrically and had 13 stations with 19 cabins, fully equipped with signals and block instruments. There were sections of double and single track, and in the western half of the bench in the room, the lines converged into a terminal station worked by a 50-lever cabin. Around the hall ran a gallery with alcoves sufficiently wide to house book-cases and museum exhibits. The next important feature was a Locomotive Model Room. It contained a full-size wagon showing the working of the vacuum brakes; a full-sized train lighting set; a model footplate showing the driver's controls; trollies fitted with automatic couplers; models illustrating superheating steam distribution and lubrication and many other items of equipment.

The model railway room

View of the model railway layout

The engine work room

The rest of the building contained the Telegraph Demonstration Room; examination and lecture rooms; a library and meeting room; rooms for instructional staff, the principal's and clerks' offices; and last, a useful little workshop where repairs were undertaken not only to the College equipment, but also to the model-room equipment of State Railways' Area Schools.

Behind the College building were the hostels, arranged in four buildings. Each of these contained 16 units; each unit contained a bed-cum-sitting room fitted with modern sanitary fittings. A total of 64 officer-trainees and senior subordinates could be accommodated. Residences for the College staff were also provided. These four buildings were connected by pillared cloisters with a central building, which had six kitchens for the various communities, if need be! There were two reading-rooms and a lounge.

The plan of the hostel buildings

A view of the hostel buildings

General view of the hostel buildings

Outside recreation was catered to in rather a lavish style: a large area was levelled to form a playing field on the west side of which a pavilion was planned. The recreation or club rooms could boast of two billiard tables, a card room, and, of course, a bar where one could spend pleasant hours resting from study. There were in addition six tennis courts and a beautiful golf course was on the anvil. The College had a comfortable guest house for the visitors; it always welcomed them even just to appreciate it and its unique sylvan environment!

As for nice culinary tastes, the Mess, run by an experienced contractor under the supervision of the College staff, provided excellent meals appetizingly prepared and stylishly served. With such an enviably beautiful environment at the College, Jack could never be a dull boy! There was a vision for the College regarding its future development even in its infancy. It lay in the plan for a railway museum at Dehradun with an invitation to all Railways to contribute their artifacts and exhibits. A Research Bureau was also to be set up on the lines of the one at the London School of Economics. The idea was to keep in touch with current technical literature pertaining to various phases of railway practice, to index it, and to refer researchers, students, or enquirers to the latest literature, findings or information on any subject of their study. Further the instructors at the Staff College were expected to be experts in their subject; and all the Railways were encouraged to refer to them questions relating to interpretation of operating and commercial rules or procedures, etc., for advice and guidance.

Safety was a very important subject of study and teaching since different railways had varying Subsidiary Rules for operations. It was therefore considered expedient that only versatile and knowledgeable instructors of a central college such as at Dehradun could coordinate and, in course of time, standardize operating practices from the safety angle for all Railways. Areas like operational procedures to be followed in case of accidents, serious disruptions to traffic, failures of block instruments, and similar exigencies were priority subjects. The Railway Board interestingly expected the officers who attended the College to pass on the torch by spreading the knowledge gained by them to their staff on return to their parent railway. This concept was borrowed from the Navy and Army where every efficient officer was considered a born trainer. We should not forget that the cost involved in establishing and running the College was considered very heavy and, Acworth anticipating that, had recommended a "substantial grant of money" for establishing the College. Thus the Railway Board from its very inception, conscious of the costs involved, had rightly very high expectations from the College.

The day of the 6th of January, 1930, was when the first course comprising Traffic Officers was started at the College. Mr Kirkness was the principal with a faculty of instructors. But the formal inauguration came a little later on the 3rd of April, in the same year, by His Excellency The Governor of the United Provinces, Sir Malcom Hailey, in the presence of a large community of distinguished guests. He was received by Mr T G Russell, Chief Commissioner, Railway Board, Members of the Board, and Mr Kirkness. Sir Alexander Rouse, the Chief Engineer of the Government of India, New Delhi, then introduced his officers responsible for the construction of the College to the Governor and others. The party thereafter moved to the Transportation Hall where all the guests were awaiting them. After that Mr Russell, the Members of the Board, Mr Kirkness, Sir Alexander Rouse, and Sir Alexander Rodger, Inspector General, Forests, took their seats on the dais. The Principal, Mr Kirkness, began by thanking the Governor for his gracious presence and then went on to explain the origin of the College, its aims and objectives, and the scope of its training. Further, he elaborated upon the plan of the College to open a Railway Museum, and an Information Bureau similar to one maintained by the English Railways in London. He referred to the good work done by the Public Works Department in the construction of the College buildings and recalled with gratitude the great interest shown from the very inception of the scheme by Sir Clement Hindley, the first Chief Commissioner, Railways. He also recalled the services of other great railway men like Sir Philip Sheridan and Sir Austen Hadow and, of course, the first two principals of the Railway School of Training, Chandausi, Messrs. Dean and Wallace, who gave an excellent start to their institution and established fine traditions in training which would be a good guide even for the Staff College at Dehradun to follow. Reference was also made to Mr Dormer, an eminent world class railway man, for his inspiration.

After the introductory address by the Principal, the Governor, Sir Malcom Hailey, formally opened the Railway Staff College by starting an electric model train.

The Governor, in his reply thereafter, expressed his happiness for being at the College and for being able to fulfill one of his boyhood dreams to work levers to start a train! With a characteristic British sense of humour, he welcomed the proposed Railway Museum with the hope that one of the exhibits there would be a model of a passenger who had paid his full fare! In a more sober vein His Excellency pointed out the great importance of the College in helping to improve the standard of efficiency in the Railways and to benefit the people of India. He hoped the College would foster that corporate spirit and esprit de corps which made any undertaking successful. He then descended from the dais to the Transportation Hall, and pulled over the levers from a cabin and started off a model electric train with its white coaches to represent it as the Governor's Train from the main station where a miniature red carpet had been laid to the train as it used to be done in the case of real VIP specials! The train ran through various stations right around the Hall line with Line Clear being obtained at stations by the officers undergoing training at the College. The Governor and the guests evinced keen interest in this show. When the train reached the journey's end, Mr T G Russell, the Chief Commissioner, Railways, in his short speech, requested His Excellency, The Governor, Sir Malcom Hailey, to accept a memento -- a small silver model of a wagon with a piece of track with signals and a cabin. The wagon could be opened and used as an ink-pot with a pen on a writing table! The Governor then inspected other facilities at the College. Most of the Agents of the important Railways of India were also present at the ceremony including Col. Walton, North Western Railway; Mr G L Colvin, East Indian Railway; Mr Wathen, Madras & Southern Mahratta Railway; Mr Rothera, South Indian Railway; Mr Williamson Bengal & North Western Railway; Mr Bliss, Assam Bengal Railway; Mr Baumgartner, Jodhpur Railway; Mr Khan Bahadur Khan, Mysore Railways; and many other railway representatives including the Superintendents of the Chandausi and Walton Training schools. A large number of local guests and some from more distant stations also attended. The band of the 2nd K E O Goorkha (Gurkha) Rifles played in the Hall as the guests arrived, and also during tea, and it was appreciated that the opening ceremony had been excellently organized and was very enjoyable.

The College continued its mission enthusiastically; and later the Principal announced that in early October of 1930 he would publish a Calendar and Programme of Courses to be held at the College during the calendar year 1931. The Calendar was also to include a list of successful candidates in the examination at the College in the first half of 1930. The Calendar was also planned to contain an illustrated description of the College with remarks on its history and objectives, and a description of the Opening Ceremony. The first College Calendar was thus expected to be a souvenir and a collector's item! It was to cost one rupee; further notice was promised when it was available. Unfortunately we have no record to know whether the Calendar ever saw the light of the day; perhaps it did not -- as we shall see the College itself unexpectedly turned out to have a very short life!

The College had a rare honour on the 23rd of October, 1930 when His Excellency Lord Irwin, the Viceroy of India, paid it a visit.

Received by the Principal, Mr Kirkness, at the Entrance Hall and after signing the Visitors' Book, the Viceroy was taken to the Transportation Hall where he started a model train which was painted and designed to be a look-alike of a Viceregal Special. Most of the stations for the train in the model room were manned by officers from different provinces in India -- Burma (then part of British India), Assam, Bengal, Behar (Bihar), Orissa, the United Provinces, the Punjab, Sind, Bombay, and Southern India. It clearly showed the College's wide-spread influence and reputation amongst various Railways. The Viceroy, besides the model room in the Transportation Hall, also inspected the lecture rooms, the Locomotive Model Room, and the rest of the College premises. His Excellency was very appreciative of what he saw. Finally he sat for a group photograph with the trainers and the Principal -- the only snap of the teaching faculty now available.

Lord Irwin, Viceroy of India, with the staff of the College

During October, 1930, 62 trainees against the capacity of 64 attended the College. They had been versatile; the Debating Society, for example, was very successful where subjects were invariably the railway problems like: The Locomotive Department versus The Traffic Department; Divisional Organization versus Departmental Organization; and Roads versus Railways. Another activity organized by the students that attracted interest was a tennis tournament at the College in October 1930. Since players varied in their standard of tennis a "Tin Pot" tournament preceded the actual tournament to fix the handicap for the participants. There were 34 entries for the final tournament. The finals took place on the 25th of October when the Principal Mr Kirkness and Mrs. Kirkness were "at home" to the College Staff and the trainees. Mrs. Kirkness distributed the prizes to the winners as follows:

Mr N Mirchandani (BB & CI), Mr M. Ahmed (BB & CI) : Winners, Doubles Open, and Handicap
Mr T Ahmed (BNR), Mr D. Sethna (M&SM) : Runners Up, Doubles Open, and Handicap
Mr N Mirchandani : Winner, Singles Open
Mr D Sethna : Runner Up, Singles Open

Later all the competitors had a group photograph with Mr P N Batra of EIR, the Honorary Secretary of the Club. The snap had only two ladies viz. Miss Dale Green, and Miss Vaswani seen sitting in the first row, the latter with a racket. The ladies were apparently part of competitors' families as there were no lady officers in the Railways then.

Competitors in a tennis tournament

This photograph like the one of the Principal and instructors with HE the Viceroy of India are among the very few available nostalgic reminders of the Railway Staff College, Dehradun. The College sadly did not last long. Actually it had a most unexpected premature and perhaps unlamented demise! Just the very next year recessionary trends were being observed among the State Railways' business, and the Railway Board therefore considered it imperative to economize and cut down Railways' expenditure wherever possible.

In pursuance of that objective, the Railway Board established a Retrenchment Advisory Committee in 1931 to review the Railway expenditure and to suggest cuts to save costs. The Report of the Railway Retrenchment Sub-Committee of the Retrenchment Advisory Committee in its portion of the Report of October, 1931, pertaining to the College observed:

"We understand that at the Railway Staff College, Dehradun, classes are held for Senior and Junior officers, probationary officers and that the staff consists of a Principal assisted by a Superintendent and three technical instructors. We have been informed by the Railway Board that, at any rate, a number of officers will shortly become surplus and that it is the intention, when possible, to absorb as many of these in vacancies which may occur. If this course is followed it will necessarily retard the present rate of recruitment which will result in a decrease in the number of Probationary Officers' requirement to undergo a course of training at the Staff College."

"We, therefore, recommend that the programme of courses could be carefully reviewed and adjusted so as to admit of a reduction in the number of instructional staff. We also recommend that the Railway Board should examine the possibility of deputing officers from time to time as instructors and lecturers and keep the permanent staff to the absolute minimum and endeavor to make reduction of at least half a lakh of rupees a year."

A Supplementary Note by a member Dr Zia Uddin Ahmed put the last nail in the coffin of the College. He, with remarkable nonchalance, cynically observed:

"I did not have the opportunity to see the College but from the second-hand information I have received about the College, I conclude that it is an expensive luxury. We cannot afford to maintain the College with a deficit of ten crores in the budget. I therefore, suggest the College may be abolished and the buildings may be sold to the Military Department for locating the proposed Military College."

The Railway Board accepted the above recommendations and closed the College in 1931 in less than 2 years of its opening, ostensibly on grounds of economy. The College which had gained encomiums in railway circles all over India in an incredibly short time was dispensed with as an "expensive luxury "! The Railways' loss was the Army's gain as they purchased the College infrastructure and established their illustrious Indian Military Academy there in 1932.

The Railway Staff College in its second avatar came into existence at Baroda (later Vadodara) on the 31st of January, 1952, about 22 years later, with a batch of 19 probationary officers of the Transportation (Traffic) & Commercial Department of the Superior Revenue Establishment of Indian Railways (as the Indian Railway Traffic Service was called then). It is now history what this Service lost by way of human resources development in the inexplicably long intervening period when it had no officers' institution to train its members professionally.