Inside India #15: India’s railways – nostalgia, bloodshed, and records

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

There are few aspects of the subcontinent that evoke as much nostalgia for the days of empire as the Indian railways. Young or old, foreign or native, rich or poor, the railways have cast a collective spell over our psyches for well over a century. Indeed, no trip to the subcontinent would be as memorable without at least one such bone-rattling journey. 

But dig a little deeper, and you discover that there is more to the Indian railways than a sense of colonial grandeur. The network is a living, breathing entity, as integral to India as the wheat fields of her hinterlands, or the skyscrapers of her urban metropolises. 

Picture attribution: A crowded train in India by Dennis Jarvis. Creative Commons.

The Indian railway began life almost 170 years ago, under Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor-General of India, as part of a push from London to make traversing the vast spaces of the subcontinent an easier affair. The first train, inaugurated on 16 April 1853, ran between Bombay and Thane. During the decade that followed, British engineer, Robert Brereton, expanded the network relentlessly, ultimately making it possible to travel directly from Bombay to Calcutta.

Expansion continued apace into the new century. WW1, however, left the railways in a state of disrepair and collapse. This was partly rectified during a period of interwar growth, but the Second World War again crippled the network, with forty percent of the rolling stock hijacked to the Middle East, and railways workshops converted to Allied munitions factories. 

By 1946, the network had been taken over by the government. With steady investment, the service carried on its tradition of innovation, though some innovations have always taken longer to arrive than others. For instance, it was some five decades after the first locomotive steamed out of Bombay that trains finally boasted toilets, only installed after an irate passenger wrote a furious letter to the railway office in 1909. (One can only speculate as to how passengers accommodated their bodily functions prior to his outburst.)

Today, the Indian railway network is the largest in Asia, with 115000 km of track running between 7172 stations, carrying almost 25 million passengers daily. Staffed by 1.5 million people, it is one of the world’s largest employers. 

The network is record-breaking in other respects. 

The Nizamuddin Rajdhani is the longest running non-stop train in the world – 528 kms in 6.5 hours. The shortest named station is Ib; the longest Venkatanarasimharajuvariipeta. (How would Western train announcers fare with that, I wonder?) 

It is the history of this marvel of engineering that particularly beguiles us. 

The Fairy Queen that runs between New Delhi and Rajasthan is the oldest working steam locomotive in the world. Four railway stations have been declared world heritage sites, including Mumbai’s CST, and the Darjeeling station on the Himalayan Railway. 

The railways played a particularly poignant part in the story of Partition. 

They became the scene for violent bloodshed as millions of Muslims and Hindus migrated towards Pakistan and India respectively in 1947. Thousands met grisly death as gangs of men entered the carriages and slaughtered all inside. (In the sometimes grand latter-day vision of empire, it is also forgotten that tens of thousands died to make the network a reality, the blood of labourers literally seeping into the ballast between the tracks.)

The echoes of that cataclysm continue to haunt the subcontinent, in spite of attempts to find common ground.

The Samjauta Express (the ‘Friendship’ Express) has run between India and Pakistan for over 40 years, intermittently suspended as relations break down between the two nations. 

A certain temperament is needed to navigate the rails. Punctuality is non-existent. For instance, the Guwahati-Thiruvanananthapuram Express is one of the world’s most unreliable trains – it is, on average, 10-12 hours late. Unlike in Japan there is no apology, no expressions of remorse or offers to commit hara-kiri. It just is. 

Stories abound of the democratic nature of the train travelling experience. 

Tales of stolen footwear, arguments over luggage racks, the fraught atmosphere of mealtimes. Yet, there is a genuine sense of camaraderie as the train hurtles on into the country’s vast interior, stopping at rural outposts where fare-dodging locals clamber onto the roof like an army of silent langurs. 

One of my own favourite memories is of a magician’s act, boarding the train to beguile us with sleights of hand and a knife-swallowing demonstration. (I later discovered that this was a ruse to enable pickpocket assistants to perform their own sleights of hand.) 

One last thing: it just so happens that the mascot of the Indian railways is an elephant dressed as a train guard. How perfectly apt.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

2 thoughts on “Inside India #15: India’s railways – nostalgia, bloodshed, and records

  1. Vaseem,
    After a couple of 3 week work trips to Mumbai in the 90s, I had several years in the 00s & 10s where I had 2 week gigs auditing an “internal outsourcing” operation of 3-4,000 colleagues based in Gurgaon. Obviously I made the usual tourist visits in India’s Golden Triangle (several times in fact). But then with the help of the local office, I got more adventurous and started using the train for “middle weekend ” adventures.
    The best were tiger safaris to the Ranthambore & Jim Corbett National Parks & the rail journeys I enjoyed most were the office couldn’t book AC 1st Class tickets. My trip to Shimla, didn’t go so well because I managed to break my fibula at breakfast on Sat morning. Hotel slippers, steep marble steps & overnight rain aren’t a good mix (HeHe!) Until the office insisted I go for an X-Ray on Mon morning I thought I’d just badly sprained my ankle.
    But after a 100min delay getting to Kalka, my Himalayan Express broke down twice & took 8.5 hours rather than 5 hours, much of it missing the panorama of our steep ascent in the dark. Even after all the delays, even at 22:00, it was a huge & pure delight to be welcomed by the statue of the Indian Rail mascot at Shimla.
    I marked him down as a Ticket Inspector rather than a Train Guard in my 2012 Journal. It was a shame I never saw a statue at any of the other stations I visited or passed through.
    Cheers, N
    P.S. I met you once at an Essex Book Festival event at Halstead Library. I had 3 elephant related events in Apr 2019 just before I retired; your book tour at Halstead, Elmer the Patchwork Elephant at the Palace Theatre Southend with my twin grandkids, & Saba Douglas-Hamilton’s Save the Elephants gig at Union Chapel London.


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