Riding the Back Beauty

Those steamy, smoky and sooty days

Sometimes I sit back and think of some of those jolly train rides in the Indian railways. I have always liked them, and even though I could opine like most others that it is desirable that those trains be cleaner, punctual and efficient, they still cast a spell on you, from all the way back to the period when the role of the elephant was usurped by this mechanical beast. Today people are richer, are on their own, zipping through in their cars and bikes and planes, but it was not so long ago that a ride in the train was any day better and safer than on the fully laden Ambassador careening through our potholed roads. Or if you were on two wheels, consider the scene where you are perilously perched at an angle on a rickety ‘hand me down’ Bajaj scooter or hunched over, helmetless, on a roaring Jawa motorbike zigzagging through a mass of humanity and a collection of beasts on their two feet. Yeah! The train ride is in comparison so serene, and a great opportunity to study a cross section of humanity.

All that will soon be long forgotten, and I saw that India had just signed up for a Japanese designed bullet train between Ahmedabad and Bombay (I still prefer to term Bombay as Bombay, not Mumbai and Madras as Madras, not Chennai). I might, at least in my thoughts, still prefer the overnight Baroda express from Bombay Central, but then, I can still recall the steam engines from my childhood, till it was taken over by the trustworthy diesel and broad gauge as I entered high school. By the time I was ready for college, electric trains were becoming the norm. Meter gauge travel and steam engines were already considered dated, and conversions to the American gauge were well underway in the remote routes.

Of recent I have been perusing many interesting books like the ones written by Thoreax and Atiken. Vaidyanathan’s book is already in my collection and Venkatraman’s just at hand. The loud whistle, the whoosh of the cylinders letting steam and the boiler belching out dense coal-smoke in bursts as the engine strained to move forward…and the journeys that evoked romance and freedom in the past, only serve to spark nostalgic memories in most of the people today – Can you beat it?

We are a country of disparities and this is a classic one where a metric system, based on a meter width, the meter gauge was converted country wide to the older foot based system called the Indian broad gauge, where the gauge width is 5’ and 6” or 1.676mts. Ever wondered why? In America, we have this in Texas and San Francisco and is popularly known as Texas gauge.

How did it come about?  At first around 1849, the railways in India were to be built on a four feet, eight and half inches gauge. Lord Dalhousie favored a 6 ft gauge while Simms, the consulting engineer favored the five feet and six inches gauge. The five and half feet gauge argument won and the first train which ran from Bombay to Thane used this so called broad gauge. The main technical reasoning was that this could provide greater stability during high winds and unpredictable weather, while also ensuring greater space between the wheels for bigger inside cylinders (older engine design). This continued for 12 years.

Lord Mayo the viceroy (following on the ideas of his predecessor Sir John Lawrence), however was a great enthusiast of the metric system and proceeded on that track. Of course we had some other widths too in India like the narrow gauge (hilly tracks) and the standard gauge (various metros). But in general India today is moving wider with the Unigauge project.

The advent of the railway in India did not take too much time actually, for it was in February 1804 that Richard Trevithick ran the world's first steam engine successfully on rails. The first goods train ran in 1825 and the one with passengers in 1830, in Britain. While there were some private fright lines in India as early as 1851, the first train ran in November 18, 1852, between Bombay and Thane. The commercial run took place on April 16, 1853, a Saturday, at 3:35 pm between Boree Bunder and Thane, traversing a distance just over 20 miles. The train, hauled by three engines -- Sindh, Sahib and Sultan -- carried as many as 400 passengers in its 14 coaches on its debut run. I had covered all this in an earlier article 

While early steam locomotives were made in Britain, after the Second World War, a number of engines were imported from America and Canada. The WP 4-6-2 locomotive drew heavily from the experience drawn from the straightforward American/Canadian design of locomotives used during the war and was later built locally, totaling to some 755 units. The WPs hauled the most important mail trains in the post war era well into the early eighties chugging up to a speed of 120 kilometers per hour. Many of us would remember these from their unique whistle and the bullet shaped nose (smokebox cover). That was the original bullet train, the black beauty!!

As the risk of boring you over all these arcane technical details is pretty high, I will not get onto the stories of wood fired engines, diesels, electric and so on…Soon everybody will be talking about the bullet train anyway. But I will now get into some fun stuff (which a few railway men might remember) and take you into the days when the railway station was an architectural delight, when railway stations had bars, and as the traveler relaxed, found time to narrate a few tales, some tall, some short…

It was a time when the common got into the train wearing not his best clothes due to the risk of them becoming black by the time they got off, sweaty and smelly, It was a time when the engine driver had to use the spring of the expansion buffers to get started on a gradient, a time when animals were the risk on the rail and a time when engine drivers were considered demi gods. Do you remember how the bogie bathrooms used to run dry and it was only at an important junction that water was filled from the great looking overhead spigots? Today those are gone and you see hoses being hauled up or water pumped in through the side valves.

How many of you know the real meaning of the words shunting and humping? Well, aside from their sexual overtones, Shunting is not well understood, and if you wanted to know it was the method of moving the train into an alternative course. And what is humping? That was more related to freight train bogie sorting, using a man-made hill or hump. A switch engine gets these bogies or cars to the top of the hump, where the cars are uncoupled one at a time and then pushed down into the right track, to create the right goods train.

OK, now an interesting question. You as a passenger can amble up to the toilet and relive yourself, in a train, though there is some discomfort at times what with the neatness. Did you know that there was no toilet in any of the engines? In the old days the hapless driver had to wait till the train reached a station, then go over to the assistant guard’s compartment right behind the engine where a toilet is available. Or well, they had to use their ingenuity and available resources!  I believe that the situation is being taken care of in new engines and also considering that we have women engine drivers these days!

But engine drivers are known to stop engines if they could get away with it. Such was the case of this driver who stopped his train so he could pick up fish (or something else) from his favorite shop on the way!

How many of you remember the VRR’s and NVRR’s (railway restaurants) in train stations? Each person will have a favorite. For me it was the VRR at Trivandrum, the food there was nothing short of excellent, during the 80’s. But before all that they had some very famous dishes which people remember and try to recreate even today. One such curry is the railway mutton curry with coconut milk, very similar to a Kerala moplah mutton curry with coconut milk. The railway omelet is what went on to become the Indian standard omelet with green chilies, tomatoes and onions and it is said that the longer lasting egg biryani was popularized after the railway packets containing them hit the stations.

Know what - while we did see them in some old steam engines plying the forest routes, the trains in the North always had cattle or cow guards (In America they are also known as pilots). Contrary to what you believe it was not invented for the Indian cow, but for the American cattle which roamed the tracks since the tracks were not fenced off. In the old days, the engine driver would run over cattle but after a few trains derailed, the cow catcher was invented and used for the first time in 1833 in the Camden and Amboy railroad (see that? we have ‘railroads’ in America but ‘railways’ everywhere else!) in their engine named John Bull. There was the Babbage plough type and the Dripps type cow catcher. The well specified cow catcher had to throw a 2,000 pound bull (wow! The measly Indian cow would weigh only a quarter of that!) a distance of 30 feet. Older catchers were made of wood but later substituted in iron. Though this heavy (half a ton) appendage weakened the engine, it was used often and continued till owners of cattle wised up or the cattle developed a better sense of avoiding the speeding iron animal.

I cannot help but quote this classic description by Victor Bayley of the usefulness of the cowcatcher- The slow-moving mind of a cow is quite unable to grasp the rapid movement of a train. Its bovine eyes stare uncomprehending at the smoke-spouting object that darts out from a neighboring cutting. In a moment all is over, the cow-catcher has flung the dead body afar. Many cases have also been reported of the cow catcher saving people who were lying on the rails with suicidal intent. But India is India, for there were reports of little boys and even men riding free on the cow catcher in those early days, out of sight of the engine driver!!

A classic story of the cow catcher being used for a slippery rail situation is recounted by Archibald Spens, dating all the way back to 1914 -We left Simla at one o’clock, reaching Kalka about a quarter to seven. For the greater portion of the time I sat on an improvised seat on the engine thus having an absolutely uninterrupted view of the gorgeous scenery, and enjoying all the manifold sensations of a motor run……We glided down mile after mile, through tunnel after tunnel, from our advanced position as smokeless and eerie as the tube from Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square ; hooted advice to wandering sheep and overcurious cattle; till the descent was relieved from monotony by the engine refusing to drag us uphill to the station aforementioned. She was coaxed, fed and cursed in turn, only to retaliate by vibrating your spine and puffing furiously. At last, acknowledging defeat, a coal-black gentleman descended from the tender, climbed down on to the cow-catcher, tied a bucket of sand to a coupling, wound one hand round a stanchion and with the other sprinkled the contents of the pail on to the slippery line. This merely appeared to over-infuriate the mechanical lady, who shook herself into a perfect spasm of rage, until another member of the railway community joined his colleague on the cow-catcher, when both, with fingers all but touching the rails, poured handful after handful of sand upon the wheels and metals. And this, mark you, when we were vibrating with the force of a printing press in Fleet Street. Grunting and ill-humoured, she at last condescended to proceed, while a stoker opened the furnace, heaved shovelfuls of coal into the roaring flames and slammed back the door by jerking a long steel chain connected at the upper end with a cooler portion of her anatomy. And so we started off again, covering mile after mile in giddy crescents and circles and shivering gyrations, till approaching dusk and lowered temperature advised me to return to my toy carriage, soon thereafter to arrive at Kalka, and, later, Umballa, after a perfectly charming trip into the very heart of the Himalayas.

Time to leave the cows and the cowcatchers in peace….Let’s move on and I will not talk too much about tiger proofed windows, for that can be easily understood as a need in the North Eastern terrains…

There was a time when the first class compartment looked different – those early days when the palanquin and coolie, the bullock-cart and pony-post have long been numbered. William Sloane Kennedy explains - As a matter of course the cars are well ventilated, and the conductors rejoice in white jackets and tall pith helmets. On the long trunk lines, such as that between Calcutta and Madras, the first-class cars, which are the only ones that well to-do foreigners ever travel in, are so made that they can be converted into sleeping cars. Each car contains two compartments, and each compartment has a cushioned settee down either side, with a third crosswise along one end; the other end is occupied by a washing closet with shower-bath. 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.

Now to the train whistle…So many mimicry artistes still remember that sound of the WP steam whistle, so distinguished, compared to the bleat we hear these days from the electric and diesel engines, so out of character. But did you know that there are formal codes used when the whistle is blown?

For example (see here for details)

3 short toots while running - Guard to apply brakes
4 short toots while running - Train cannot proceed on account of accident, failure or other cause
1 long toot on the run - Acknowledgement of guards signal
1 super long toot while on the run - Approaching level crossing or tunnel area
1 long, 1 short, 1 long, 1 short - Alarm chain pulled

And then again did you know there was something called MST or Madras standard time which was used by all of the Indian railways? IRFCA explains that Madras Time was a time zone established in 1802 by John Goldingham, the first official astronomer of the British East India Company in India when he determined the longitude of Madras as 5 hours, 21 minutes and 14 seconds ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. In the very early days of railways in India, local time was observed at each large city, in common with practice in most other countries at the time. Bombay and Poona, for instance, had their own local times differing by about 7 minutes. There were anomalies too, such as Ahmedabad which strangely observed Madras local time. Madras Time was, by 1905, effectively used for railway timetables over the whole subcontinent, across Lahore, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. Timetables for Bombay trains usually had the local times for trains printed alongside the Madras Time schedule, and trains arrived and departed according to the Madras Time schedule. Various stations remained synchronized through a 4PM telegraph signal until 1925 when new techniques came into vogue.

Nevertheless, just imagine, before IST came into being, a district administrator in British India had to deal with railway time, telegraph time, office time, cutcherry time, bazaar time and church time, all in the same locale!

There were incessant problems in adopting it, as the officials (RD Oldham GSI) explain - A more potent cause of resistance to the general adoption of the present standard time lies in the fact that it is Madras time. The citizen of Bombay, proud of being ‘primus in Indis ’ and of Calcutta, equally proud of his city being the Capital of India, and—for a part of the year— the Seat of the Supreme Government, alike look down on Madras, and refuse to change the time they are using, for that of what they regard as a benighted Presidency; while Madras, having for long given the standard time to the rest of India, would resist the adoption of any other Indian standard in its place.

The story of book stalls and pocket books in the railways is intimately connected to Higginbothams and AH Wheeler, and a time when they ruled the roost doling out newspapers and pocket books such as James Bond, James Hadley Chase, Nick Carter, Perry Mason and Enid Blyton!! They were just the kind of books to read, when you are all by yourself on the upper berth.

And there are railway stories, going all the way back to Ruskin Bond and Kipling. More recently, Bill Aitken relates the charming story where the colonial Saab snaps out an order in Hindi for ‘toast and marmalade’ to the turbaned railway waiter who vigorously nods, turns on his heels and arrives back through the gauze grilled doors a little later, with his perpetually large eyes and beaming face, carrying a cold greasy plate and with the announcement ‘toast and armlate’, which he gleefully plonks in front of the horrified saahib!!Oh, there are so many railway stories to tell, there has been an instance when a major railway scam ran its course, with 70 lakhs collected ‘to paint a section of rails’!

Many an English usage came from the railways such as ‘Full steam ahead’, ‘on the track’ and ‘drop the lot’. Remember the cockup story from Britain? Quoting Glen Hopkins - Class 150 multiple units in use in the UK have isolating cocks for doors and suspensions, located under the passenger seats in the saloon. On one occasion a driver, having suffered a burst air suspension bellows, asked a lady passenger, sitting on the seat in question, to open her legs, whilst he got to his cock! Then there was the railway stores guy who sent out a 100 soup plates because he had no ‘fish plates’ in stock, and there was the railway man who said to the hunter – when you were hunting and shooting, I was shunting and hooting!!

But some things happen only in India like the time when porters used monkeys, perhaps following the lead from a Ramayana retelling. Recently, the railway police in Calcutta arrested 25 porters and 28 monkeys after breaking up a train seat reservation scam. The officials explained that porters at Calcutta’s Howrah station had trained monkeys to jump through the windows of long-distance trains and plonk themselves down in any available seat. Passengers then had to pay the porters to have the monkeys removed. Initially porters occupied the seats and then sold the space themselves. Noww this was not legal, and when the porters were harried by the police for the wrongdoings, they resorted to this novel method!!

Time to wind up. It is sad that the children of today with their heads stuck into their Ipads will never hear the WP’s whistle, or recall sights of the engine driver with his kerchiefed head sticking out, the grimy fireman shoveling coal into the boiler or the glum looking guard riding alone in the last compartment, or the little coal breaker hunched over the pile of coals. And they will never experience the railway quarters and those lovely Anglo Indian families, especially the pretty damsels and their beaus on java mobikes….…Ah! Those were some days!!!

I cannot resist quoting this classic observation by Aitken – The journey back from Kerala was one of the most delightful train passages I can remember, with charming company, intelligent conversation and exchanges of genuine regard. But the moment we hit the Devanagari script, of N India, the cultural buoyancy of the south dipped and became progressively more submerged. As we neared Delhi, the compartment became crowded with interlopers, loud and nasally aggressive to prove that Hindi at least on the score of noise can claim to be one of the leading languages in the world. From being a spotlessly clean compartment, the litter and mess of Aryan culture soon asserted itself. The conductor had made himself scarce and the level of verbal abuse rose. Better dressed, better educated but pigmented to no advantage, the Kerala Company went into its shell.

Bravo, Bill…well said!!!

The ride is done with, the whistle still blows in your head, the steam whooshes through your ears as the wind rustles your hair, the bones ache after sleeping on the wooden sleepers, the fan took so many prods and spins with your comb to keep running, you keep one mudka (disposable tea cup made of mud) as keepsake in your luggage and you look like Oliver Twist after a chimney sweep, grime stuck all over, smelling of soot and looking bewildered… you are at the end of your journey, but that it was , a jolly good ride…

Exploring Indian railways - Bill Aitken
A trainload of Indian Jokes – KR Vaidyanathan
Indian Railway Stories -Ruskin Bond
The complete story of Indian Railways - Rajendra Aklekar (dnaindia-2013)
The WP's steam run for those who have no idea what I am talking about...

For those interested in trains and train paintings, look no further and visit Kishore Partim Biswas's site. They are just wonderful....He also conducts exhibitions in various cities....

pics - from Google images, wikipedia - thanks to all uploaders

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a happy new year......


matka3 said…
Thanx, for a good read,Maddy!
In the sixties,The moving train against the setting sun was evocative of romance, nostalgia and a host of complex emotions in the Malayalam movies.
There were interesting theories and arguments about the advent of steam engines when the British introduced them for the first time in India.The echo of such arguments were heard recently, when Kerala briefly contemplated a super highway connecting the North and South.
Maddy said…
thanks matka3
yes, right you are
it the railways, was in many ways the engine for change in rural India...
Bahu virupaksha said…
An interesting and highly informative blog. I can relate to this very well as my father ran two of Indias largest Railways and grew up listening to the music of the train. Thank you.
Maddy said…
Thanks BV...
Nice hearing from you and glad you liked this...