The Raj’s Railway

A look back in time

It is going to be interesting, we will soon see driverless or autonomous cars, for Nevada and California have already approved laws permitting their introduction on public roads. A number of car makers have already made prototypes and we have today rear seeing, crash preventing, talking, self-parking and other types of active minded cars. Of course, women will feel happy about many of these developments, and some crabby men will talk about older conventional four gear cars which require, according to them higher amounts of skill and perhaps more intellect. But I am not going to talk about all this; I will instead take you backwards, to recount some interesting anecdotes related to the Railways of the Raj. In no way is the Indian railway of today that bad, but the nostalgic old was perhaps better. As Mark Twain remarked, it was a railway which provided ‘cosiness’.

The smell of the railway station has changed (I am not talking about the bad ones) the coal burning sooty grimy smell was replaced by a faint diesel one and now with electric and diesel locomotives, the stations have become cleaner. Gone are the days when you had lots of coal dust in your hair and a grimy body waiting for a bath. I think you still have to use the comb to get the fan started in normal 2nd class sleeper compartments and the 3rd class has vanished. Every train still has a name, but naming them after Hindu gods and goddesses have stopped, names like Iron Sherpa, flying queen, flying mail etc. have been replaced with benign names like executive express , red ribbon express ( promoting AIDS awareness) and so on. Gone also are the old days as the Raj created it and later when the desi managed it in the raj fashion. Gone are the many Anglo Indians who were associated with the train business, if one may call it that.

You see, it was an era as explained in the Railway gazette in 1911 – They say in the Orient, 'First comes the Bible, then the British and then the railways.' All three generally come to stay. In India the three stayed and the last is still working and keeping a measure of the pulse of the country. Railway enthusiasts in India can find a plethora of information at the IRFCA website or the Railways of the Raj website. But for the occasional reader, this article will provide a collection of facts, figures and fun related to the railways of the British raj.

Wood burner

How was it when it was first created? While the managers, the administrators and supervisors were mostly English or some European, the railway was entirely built by Indians. Every stone, every sleeper, every section and every other component of the track was built or laid on time using raw Indian labor (during the early days, rails sleepers & locomotives were imported). Much of it was done using little machinery. Is that not by itself astounding? Well, not only that, but the railway infrastructure built was even superior to the US rail system of that time. Distance travel had shrunk by a twentieth. When the railways had taken off in 1855, the track was all of 350 KM, but by 1870, it had galloped to 8000km, a feat that cannot be duplicated even today. By 1871, the cities of Bombay, Allahabad, Calcutta, Delhi, and Madras had been linked by rail. The western terminus of Beypore was also linked (see my article covering that subject). In fact some early surveys were conducted by Robert, the son of George Stephenson, the inventor of the steam engine! Curiously the concept was to build only goods train as the British never expected the stringent caste system to break down during railway travel. Eventually they adopted untouchabilty of sorts with class segregation while the Indians themselves managed famously without it!

Bullock driven
We had bullock drawn trains, later firewood fired steam locomotives, coal fired, then diesel and now electric. The air-conditioning system in those days used ice blocks, carried in sealed receptacles built beneath the car floor and these were restocked at various stations enroute. A blower blew air into these ice boxes and the cold air circulated into the compartment through vents. And there were even barbers and shoe shine boys in First class. Would you believe that the Bombay Baroda train had double decker compartments as early as1862? And that the first locomotive was named Falkland, running between Bombay & Byculla? By the advent of the 20th century, the compartments were electrified and lights and fans were provided as early as 1907. Dining cars were also added in the S railway. The first class had showers. The days when khus-khus tatties did duty for electric fans and smelling, sometimes leaky castor oil lamps shed a feeble light were soon gone.

But that was also when the hair comb found its new use, when the bored, sweaty and tired passenger on the upper berth jump started the ‘Calcutta’ brand railway fan which was perennially stuck. Three tier sleepers came, then the berths were cushioned and finally the AC coaches arrived in India. Tickets which were the classic cardboard stubs gave way to computer printed sheets with passenger’s names and so on. As time went by, passengers had hordes of well-wishers to see them off and the concept of platform tickets came. The refreshment rooms at the stations became better and better and graduated from the days when they served only the raj, to popular common man’s eating places. The platform vendor became more and more sophisticated; the porter remained the same, while the food service in trains improved to more sanitary ones. Railway institutes, where railway staff met and relaxed soon closed down.

Inspection car now

Inspection car - Then
But then the fire carriage as the steam trains were called by Indians – Theevandi in Malayalam, were still awe inspiring. Interestingly, the railways had much to do with bring together the rich and the poor, the upper and the lower caste. They came into closer contact in the 3rd class compartment. People moved far and wide for religious and economical reasons, doing things they had never even imagined before, like going on a pilgrimage to Benares from Calicut. Administrators and sociologists like Marx believed that the railways would unify the large but disconnected country. But for most it was the railway that conveyed the huge might and power of the British over the Indian populace. The greater public did not see it always as a wonderful invention and a great convenience, all the time and in the North West even termed The railways the great Satan. But it was also a place where the conman practiced his trade, so much so that a book was written about it - The history of railway thieves in India by a policeman PR Naidu. The book The Indian Criminal By Hargrave L. Adam has a whole chapter on Indian Rail thieves and make interesting reading. On the other hand, many a traveler found it great. EM Forster was another who extolled (London magazine – Golden Hynde) the virtues of an Indian rail journey.

Soon the romantic and pioneering days were gone, replaced with the terrible days when segregation and prejudice took over. It is not that the railway supervisor was a gentle soul; in fact many of them were violent SOB’s.

Madras Central

Anthony Burton’s book On the Rails provides this insight - A railway foreman stated: “I tell these chaps three times in good plain English, and if they don't understand that, I takes the lurki (the stick) and we get on very well.” But it is also stated in the book that later enquiries indicated that the man was kindhearted and much loved by his work force.

Burton also mentions this - An hour before the time of a train starting, crowds of natives surrounded the booking office clamoring for tickets, and at first there was no keeping them to the inside of the carriage. They clambered up on the roofs of the carriages and I have been obliged to get up on the roofs and whip them.

Manu Goswami explains that the labor came from specific areas thus resulting in some migration and settlement over time. The Sindhi’s were the accountants, the carpenters came from the Kutch and huge numbers of laborers came from the NWFP. Caste determined the hierarchy. And with the railways came about the development of the Anglo Indian. Upper management was closed to the absolutely unpunctual and undependable Indian. They also lacked presence of mind and courage, the British said, so were never given the engine drivers post. But they accorded over 50% of available jobs to the large Anglo Indian population and he was clearly listed above the lower classes. Over time even more segregation occurred, in the compartments and outside in the station and offices.

Each train for passenger service is made up of four classes: First class, second class, intermediate class and third class. The first and second classes are used by Government officials and the wealthy. The intermediate is used by middle class Indians and the poorer Europeans. The third class is used almost exclusively by the Indian travelling public. In both the intermediate and third classes, separate compartments are provided for Europeans and women.

Distances were bridged and as people started to travel. Initially cotton farming issues in US meant that cotton of the Deccan could be quickly transported for export using the railways. Nevertheless, it also resulted in the development of towns and cities and the decline of the self-sustenance of the village. However that resulted in a decline for the cotton handloom industry. The situation improved by the last decade of the 19th century and Indians were moving into positions such as Guards and engine drivers. People moved, visitors came to India and saw the large and magnificent ecosystem of the country and its active railway. Booksellers like Higginbotham’s and AH Wheeler thrived and book writers like Rudyard Kipling who tied up with Wheeler, prospered. One such visitor was Mark Twain. His impressions of India were covered by me in a previous article, and he did find the Indian railway fascinating. He said “In other countries a long wait at the train station is a dull thing and tedious, but one has no right to have that feeling in India. You have the monster crowd of bejeweled natives, the stir, the bustle, the confusion, the shifting splendors of costumes-dear me, the delight of it, the charm of it are beyond speech.”

The Madras based Higginbotham’s was present at almost all big South Indian railway stations and I still recall my early book purchases, books like Perry Mason, James Hadley chase – all those pocket books that relatives came with after a lengthy train travel. Well, Abel Joshua who was apparently a stowaway on a British steamer did good, he established this book chain and later became the sheriff of madras. But I thank him for fostering my reading habit too. Wheeler, founded by a Frenchman together with a Bengali specialized in North Indian railway stations. The story of TK Banerjee and Emile Moreau is fascinating, how they hoarded some 45,000 books and facing eviction hit on a plan of selling them at a fraction of the cost at Allahabad railway station. Later they created the massive network we read about. 'Plain Tales from the Hills' and six other stories of Anglo-Indian written by Rudyard Kipling were issued as the "Indian Railway Library Series" by Wheeler. These were the first publications of Kipling's collection of stories. These books were sold on railway stations. They cost One rupee, then fifteenth part of a pound, the earliest paperbacks. Wheeler incidentally had a monopoly in the station bookshop business. In 2004, Lallu Prasada Yadav, the railway minister who otherwise did sterling service in rehabilitating the railway, made a fool of himself when he thundered "Wheeler! Wheeler! Wheeler! Angrez chala gaya lekin Wheeler rah gaya," Lalu had thundered in his Rail Budget speech. "Wheeler, Wheeler, Wheeler. Why do we have a Wheeler bookstall everywhere? He decided to stop the monopoly, thinking it was still British. It took the next Bengali minister Trivedi to reverse the situation.

Then again, the trains did not necessarily bode well for the native – Not wrongly was the name Satan given to the steaming locomotive, for the large speeding animal was a cause of death to the unwary. During the late 1880’s, natives of India were by far the largest sufferers from railway accidents, though the number of accidents was happily on the decline. As a paper report put it “In England these casualties would represent a large sum in damages, but in India the only penalty they entail is a loss in rolling stock, in injury done to the line, and in the temporary interruption of traffic”. Here you can also detect a significant amount of callousness on the part of the British in control.

But as they said, a train ride was a delight to the new entrant. As somebody wrote in the Railway gazette - The traveler will return to his village, and, as the people gossip at the noon hour under the spreading banyan tree in the middle of the village, will relate his experiences as something of surpassing wonder; and his fellows will look up to him as one who has entered a field outside the realms of human labour and invention, and straightway he gains a prestige in the community: even a reputation for wisdom, as one who has ridden in a train and seen something of the vast world beyond the shades of the village roofs.

Back to Mark Twain, he also said "The most enjoyable day I've spent on earth is of mixed ecstasy of deadly fright and unimaginable joy." This was after his ride on the Toy Train in 1895 at Darjeeling. Remember the Kasto Mazza song from Parineeta? Or the Rajesh Khanna song Mere sapnon ko in Aradhana?

William Sloane Kennedy, an American author wrote the wittiest introduction to travel on the Indian railways during the years of the raj. He gave a comparison of the two classes

Gentlemen always carry with them a counterpane padded with wool, and a small pillow or two. At night the settee is converted into a sleeping berth by the aid of the counterpane and pillows. At daybreak the train stops to allow passengers time to eat the chota-hazare, or early breakfast, and inhale the cool, dewy air before the intolerable heat begins. Etiquette permits ladies and gentlemen to appear during this meal in the light sleeping costume always worn by through travellers. After the early breakfast comes the bath, dressing, and reading of the novel or newspaper. Native gentlemen used to travel first-class, but they made themselves such a nuisance to the English lady passengers by chewing pan, smoking their hookahs, and removing their clothing above their waists, that they were quarrelled with by English gentlemen, and soon by tacit agreement they learned to take the second-class cars, where they make themselves disagreeable to English clerks and soldiers only.

The swart Hindoos arrive at the station four or five hours before the starting of the train. They are always accompanied to the depot by friends, or dependants, numbering from two hundred to three hundred, and the peasant, if his stay abroad is to be for a week or so, often fetches along a bag of rice, one of flour, a supply of ghee (or clarified butter), and a small donkey-load of sugar-cane; for he has heard that provisions are dear where he is going, and he chuckles at his foresight in taking his supplies with him. But the poor fellow finds at the last moment that the freight charges are such as to turn the scales the other way; he cannot, however, throw away his provisions, and so pays the bill with a heavy heart, and many groans and maledictions. There are often as many as one or two thousand natives at a station awaiting the arrival of a train. They are not admitted within doors until about an hour before the train starts. So they squat on their hams outside in the sun, chewing sugar-cane, eating sweatmeats, and chatting with those who have come to see them off. The noise, confusion, and stench are something wonderful. When the ticket office is opened the clatter of voices rises into a wild uproar as the crowd rushes in, each man fighting his way forward as best he can. When a native from the back country presents himself at the ticket-window he is told that his fare to such a place is, say one rupee six annas. Now he has all his life been accustomed to have one price asked him, and to pay another, and the state of mind of the English official may be imagined when he is asked if he will not take one rupee two annas for the ticket. If the native does not come instantly to terms he gets a rap from the stick of the policeman who stands nearby in order to expedite matters. The Hindoo next rushes to the freight agent to get his baggage weighed; and there again he tries to beat down the price asked. In the meantime the train has arrived, and is now ready to start. But the locomotive whistles and the station-bell rings in vain; only one half of the crowd is yet aboard. If one of them wishes to find a friend in the crowd he raises so terrific a yell for him — calling him by name — that the sound drowns even the locomotive whistle. It is usually half an hour after the advertised time before the last man is in his place and the train moves off. There are no seats in the cars occupied by the natives; they all squat on the floor, first stripping themselves to the waist. "The third and fourth-class cars," says an anonymous writer, "are one and all distinguished by the quiet and the fragrance of a monkey-house, the roominess of a herring-barrel, and all the picturesqueness derivable from an endless welter of bare brown arms and legs, shaven crowns, and shaggy black hair, white cloaks,red wrappers, blue or scarlet caps and turbans, grinning teeth, rolling black eyes, and sharp-pointed noses adorned with silver rings so huge that you feel tempted to seize them and give them a double knock,— all exhaling a mingled perfume of cocoanut oil and overheated humanity sufficient to knock down a fireman."

Ah! Those were the early days. But who will forget the Travelling ticket examiner or the railway conductor? He was a guy who would arrange your seat if you wanted one, but had no reservation. He could override systems and allocate an available seat. In old days he could allow you to take his berth while he sat or moved to another compartment. But he was the one who introduced you to the bribing system early in life. The railways had so many oddities, which we never understood. What by the way, is a line box that you see being lugged around as a new driver comes to take over a train’s engine? website explains - A Line Box is a box or trunk that is taken on board the locomotive for every trip. It contains the working timetable, and essential equipment such as detonators and flares, perhaps the driver's log and a few personal items should he wish to keep them there. (Most drivers have a separate bag with a change of clothes and other personal items.) It may also hold drawings of the pneumatic and electrical systems and other basic essentials that the driver might need to troubleshoot the loco in case any problems arise. The box also used to contain a couple of spare lamps for the headlights, although this is no longer necessary with the twin beam sealed headlamps.

The box follows the locomotive driver rather than being assigned to a specific locomotive, so it moves with him as he switches to different locos during his normal duty links.

Have you ever seen this in the old days (post 1906)? A steaming rail engine has the driver leaning out with his hand stretched, he passes another standing at the beginning of the platform or on a stone pedestal holding a hoop, the driver hooks his hand through the hoop taking it and drops another hoop as it steams through. Well that is the single line token, and the hoop allowed you to target it as the train came into the platform or sped by. The token is a Neale’s ball token. Token balls (the authority permitting a driver to leave a station for the next) are to be delivered to the engine drivers in token. Every station on a single line section must have at least six hoops in stock to deliver tokens to trains passing through. The tokens take the form of metal balls which he fed into an S.L.T. machine. These balls were fitted into a pouch which in turn went into an odd looking loop before being given to the driver

As they say, each person took his job seriously. The token porter also had his own idea of his prestige as a Railway servant for it would not do for him to run with a token from one end of the platform to the engine at its end. It would look so undignified, you see... Anyway check this link to see how the system works, the video is self explanatory.

How about the railway porter? Did you know that the porter's license for any Indian railway station is granted on the behalf of no less a person than the President of India? In the New Delhi railway station, a porter's license can command a price of over Rs 200,000. In return for that, he gets two sets of uniforms; a complimentary travel pass in a second/sleeper class from his station of work to any station in India and back, once a year; medical facilities for himself and his family in the Railways hospital; free use of waiting halls, canteens, latrines and, in some cases, the porter's rest house (the coolie shelter). According to the Railway board policy, a licensed porter's badge may be transferred to his son, or, if he has no son, to his near relatives in the event of his death or when he becomes too old or infirm to carry on with his duties properly. The list of near relatives specified includes the porter's brother, his brother's son, and even his brother-in-law!!

How about the holdall that one had to carry in the early 20th century? I used to possess one for over 15 years and it accompanied me till I got to Bangalore in 1987. It was waterproof, had many compartments could fit a light bed, a small pillow, sheet, blanket and a change of clothes, and was ideal for a long train journey in India. But about 20 years back they started offering all of this for a fee in sleepers, so the holdall died its natural death.

First train Bombay 1855
In the early days and even today the lowest level was the khalasi or helper, doing cleaning, menial and odd jobs. The word came from the Khalasis of Calicut, the ones who released a constructed boat into water, who at many a time assisted the railways in water related diving activity, like retrieving bodies after a lake or river accident.

But then again the railway was also one huge bureaucracy. Look at this example of a letter from a manager to his subordinate. The manager of one of the great Indian railways addresses a European subordinate given to indulge in needlessly strong language.

"Dear Sir," wrote he, “it is with extreme regret that I have to bring to your notice that I observed very unprofessional conduct on your part this morning when making a trial trip. I allude to the abusive language you used to the drivers and others. This I consider an unwarrantable assumption of my duties and functions, and I may say rights and privileges. Should you wish to abuse any of our employees, I think it will be best in future to do so in regular form, and I beg to point out what I consider this to be. You will please submit to me in writing the form of oath you wish to use; when, if it meets my approval, I shall at once sanction it; but if not, I shall refer the same to the Directors; and in the course of a few weeks, their decision will be known. Perhaps, to save time, it might be as well for you to submit a list of expletives generally in use by you, and I can then at once refer those to which I object to the Directors for their decision. But, pending that, you will please to understand that all cursing and swearing at drivers and others engaged on the traffic arrangements in which you may wish to indulge must be done in writing, and through me. By adopting this course you will perceive how much responsibility you will save yourself, and how very much the business of the Company will be expedited, and its interests promoted." Extracted from - The Living Age, Volume 151

Interesting right? how you had to get approval from higher up’s. This is also characterized by the famous Yeats retort to an actress who had a wild temperament (Mrs. Campbell). Once she indulged in one of her famous tantrums and then walked down to see the pacing author Yeats. Asking him what he thought about her outburst, Yeats replied – I was thinking of the master of a wayside Indian railway who sent a message to HQ stating ‘Tigress on the line, wire instructions’.

So that was it. If you ask me, the Kohinoor was actually not the jewel of the British crown, but the Indian railway was the jewel and it remained here.

Today the fastest train travels at 150kmph, the longest run is well over4,200 km, the station with the longest name is called Venkatanarasimharajuvariipeta and the Guwahati Trivandrum express has an average delay of 10 hours!! The most powerful locomotive in the fleet is the 6350 HP ABB Electric locomotive WAG9. The first woman diesel locomotive engine driver Tilagavathi took over controls in 2009 at Chennai, a good 150 plus years after the first train took off in Bombay in 1853.

Today it covers 115,000KM and has 7500 stations, transporting 25 million passengers daily and employing 1.4 million people (Walmart employs 2.1 Million and the US DOD employs 3.2 million. The Indian army employs 1.3 Million).

And finally a look at something some of us may have heard of, the railway mutton curry. People stated - This very popular and slightly spicy dish was served in Railway Refreshment Rooms and on long distance trains, with Bread or Dinner Rolls. The curry was not too spicy keeping in mind the delicate palates of the British. It was also popular with the Railway staff who had to be on duty for long periods at a stretch. The vinegar or Tamarind juice used in its preparation would ensure that the curry would last for quite a few days and was an ideal accompaniment with rice as well……..

Is that right? This appears to have originated with the P&O voyages as well as the railway and though standard in one sense, pleased nobody on the other hand. Why so? Because it was made with mutton or chicken, and not pork which the British upper class favored and not beef which the Muslims favored. It was made in such a way that no palate was offended on these large and moving transport systems. Available as hot, medium or mild…it survived the day, today even Sanjay Kapoor touts it in his video series.


Railways of the Raj – M Satow and R Desmond
Engines of Change – Ian J Kerr
Railways of the raj – Ian J Kerr
150 Glorious years of Indian railways – KR Vaidyanathan
Indian Engineering, Volume 42 edited by Patrick Doyle
Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space - By Manu Goswami

IRFCA website
Railways of the Raj site

Pictures - From the web,indiamike, pouryourheart - acknowledged with thanks

Recommended reads for the railway enthusiast- The Great Railway Bazaar - By Paul Theroux

Khus Khus tattie – see my article on Punkhas – the KKT was An indigenous cooling device adopted by the sahibs was the installation of tatties made of khus-khus grass over all openings — windows and doors — of a house. Tatties were kept continually wet by a bhishtee, or a water carrier, engaged to throw water against these from outside. This was very effective in cooling when winds, hot or cool, blew. The rapid evaporation of sprinkled water and the refreshing odour of khus-khus made the inner spaces both cool and comfortable. The khus-khus tatties were highly valued in the upper provinces, which had far more hot winds than in Calcutta. The use of tatties, however, was also prevalent during the Mughal times and the invention of this device is attributed to the Mughal emperor Akbar.

Other railway articles by me

The king’s railway
Those were the days – train rides part 1
The Madras Railway’s Western Terminus


harimohan said…
Thanks Maddy for this exhaustive and intresting post on a topic I love
Happy Kitten said…
You made me want to jump on a train and go chug chug!

And they even had an AC coach in the old time? That is news to me! but we are yet to have good compartments in some of the trains that ply in Kerala. The railways can do much more with the money that they earn. And if one travels the length and breadth of Kerala, it is easy to recognize the stations by the change in dialects. I have always loved my train journey. it is never boring but it is a long time since I made one and your tale makes me long for one.
Mohan Panikkar said…
Thanks Mandy for the interesting post. I travelled, through memory lane reading the post,....It was way back in 1967 I travelled for the first time by Indian Railways (long distance). when my father took me and my bother for a Ernakulam - Madras- Delhi - Calcutta and back trip. It was a memorable experience- travelling without reservation, in coal-fired trains during the peak of Indian summer. Madras-Delhi Janatha Express- was in no hurry to reach the destination.

It used to take a couple of days to get back to normal existence- "Illusion of self-motion" the rocking movement of the train used to haunt for a day or two and the coal particles collected in the hair took more time to clean out. With no "Eye Shades" or "Cooling Glasses" available, eyes used to be bombarded with tiny coal particles. Collecting drinking water at stations used to be a free for all exercise, which required a lot of muscle power.
Maddy said…
hello hari..
happy new year..
glad you enjoyed it..
I will stay off railways for some time.
This took quite some effort
Maddy said…
Thanks HK.
I was surprised myself, in fact they had water cooling before that, I did not add it.As you can imagine the Gora had a tough time cooped in these stifling hot metal compartments.

Remember how they impoirted ice from America?
I agree that the trains should be modernised, it is high time!!
Maddy said…
Thanks Mohan..

Curiously my first long distance travel was also to Calcutta, but in 1969!!
I recall running around for the puri masala with te emasala served in a mango leaf cone!!Forgot the station though!
AnilKumar said…
This is awesome Maddy. Being a history fanatic, i love reading such posts and you made me day today.
Great Work!!!
Maddy said…
thanks anil,
glad you enjoyed it. I love researching on the railways, so many good memories.
Happy Kitten said…

Thought of your article while reading this ac trains were kept cool
Happy Kitten said…
Maddy said…
Thanks HK..
glad to see that some others are also getting on the nostalgia train - daily bhaskar looks interesting!
Amitabh Thakur said…
Wow beautiful article, Maddy I am using one pic for my FB profile to celebrate 160 yrs of Indian Railways. I hope you wont mind it :)
Maddy said…
Thanks amitabh
thats fine, most of them are wikipedia public domain pics
Jai Narain said…
Thanks Mr Maddy. Contents speak so much about social structure like caste and culture of this country which Indian Rly. assumed to reclaim.It can be said, Rly. did it.
Maddy said…
thanks jai
appreciate the comment
A lots of sacrifice was there in the making of Indian railways through loss of forest trees and sufferings of human work force. Around 1800 sleepers are required to complete one mile of rail line whose duration is not more than 20 years. Also wood was used as fuel to run locomotives. Vast areas of forests were leased to European planters at cheap rates. The tamed elephants were increasingly used for moving timbers. Many famines were deliberately created through hoarding grains away from villagers. People migrated in search of work due to scarcity of food. The workers were paid in grains

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