Railways Since Independence

by Shirish B. Paranjape

This article appeared in 'Indian Railways', January 1998, and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

IN the Golden Jubilee year of our independence, when we pause to look back at the progress and happenings in the five decades of the Independent India, I take a rear view of about three decades of my personal experience with our own Indian Railways ... yes, just three decades — simply because that is the total span of my memory! The Indian Railways is such a vast and interesting canvas that I wonder where to begin..., well then, why not start with the basics....

The 'Rail-way'

I recall that, in my childhood, the 'rail-way', which the railwaymen call 'permanent way', was made up with the usual stone ballast, metal 'sleepers', and the pair of steel rails (Interestingly, for railmen, 'sleepers' are the members placed at equal intervals perpendicular to the tracks, not the sleeper berths which a common man is used to...). Over the time, the metal sleepers got replaced with wooden sleepers, and more recently with concrete sleepers which have longer life, and thus help in preserving our earth's natural resources, particularly the forests.

Earlier, the rails used to be short lengths bolted to each other using 'fish-plates'. Over the years, Railways have adopted the technique of welding instead of bolting, and so now we have long-welded rails (LWRs) and continuous-welded rails (CWRs), with as much as 10 kilometres (and even more) between two successive joints!!! The result: dramatic reduction of the 'clakety-clak' sound thus ensuring a more comfortable travel, higher train speeds, a safer journey, and drastically reduced maintenance of the rails. (Many of us would recall seeing railway gangmen, walking along the permanent way, tightening the bolts of every joint, as they walk along).

To complete the discussion on 'permanent-way', it is interesting to know that the Railways have recently adopted a unique technique of ballast-less permanent-way for some of the tunnels of the Konkan Railway!

The Coaches

Next, logically, is the turn of the 'rolling stock'

Over the years, many things have changed in this area too. I remember, as a child, getting into a third-class general compartment — through the window, literally pushed in by someone on the platform. Well, now all the windows have a grill provided for the safety of the passengers. And having done away with the third-class, the second-class is now our lowest class. The second class sitting coaches attached to most day-time intercity expresses are a relatively new breed — airy and comfortable — and equipped with cushioned seats which I could not dream of in my childhood.

As a boy, I recall whenever we had booking in a sleeper coach, the ubiquitous question was 'in 2-tier or 3-tier?' The immense popularity of 3-tier sleeper coaches have ensured the phasing-out of the once-used '2-tier sleeper-cum-sitting coach'. The 3-tier sleeper coach has got itself promoted from '3rd class 3-tier sleeper' to '2nd class 3-tier sleeper' to 'sleeper class' !!! Since its introduction, the sleeper coaches have constantly and gradually improved — now we have cushioned berths, luggage chains, and more recently, tube-lights in place of bulbs, etc. Some coaches even have a small folding tray-table, and a mirror, which have all contributed to the passengers comfort, and therefore, the popularity of this coach.

But what I miss most now is the old First Class Coach....

In those days, the first class coach had several compartments — with one door on each side of each compartment. Each compartment was really like a living room, with four berths, plenty of space, and an attached toilet for every compartment ....!! Travelling in these coaches was real luxury, I thought (and many of the readers would agree). Thereafter came the 'corridor-type' coaches, which replaced the old, grand first class coach. As we move to the 21st century, the Railways is gradually phasing-out even the corridor-type first-class coaches (which are getting replaced with Airconditioned sleeper coaches). In the same manner, the present 'pantry car', I feel, is a poor substitute of the old 'dining car' or 'restaurant car' Enjoying a lunch or breakfast in the dining car of a moving train was an experience in itself. And I vividly recall the days when the coaches were not vestibuled and interconnected; and therefore, special stops at way-side stations were earmarked to help the passengers go to the dining car, or to return to their coaches after the meal. The Railway time-tables indicated these stops as 'Passengers enter Dining Car'/ 'Passengers leave Dining Ca?' !!! In most trains though, the privilege use of the dininglrestaurant cars was available to upper class (first and airconditioned) passengers only.

On the food front, the metallic thalis used in the past have got replaced with aluminium foil casseroles, making the handling as well as waste disposal more convenient and hygienic.

As a child, I remember that for us, the Airconditioned Class was simply out of reach. My impression (may be incorrect) of this class was that nobody buys a ticket for travelling in this class. That means, all the passengers were either very senior railway or government officials, or Members of Parliament, etc., availing themselves of a 'privilege pass'. The introduction of airconditioned 2-tier sleeper coaches in the late seventies has changed the scenario. Encouraged by the stupendous success of the AC 2-tier coaches, the Railways have, in recent years, introduced the AC 3-tier coaches, which also have proved to be a run-away hit — considered by the travelling public as 'value-for-money'. We will be witnessing growing use of the AC 3-tier coaches to replace the first class and AC 2-tier coaches in the days to come.

Together with the AC 2-tier and AC 3-tier sleeper coaches came the concept of bed-rolls which has indeed made the travel lighter and burden-free for the passengers. Prior to this, the travel-bag service was available from certain important stations for some selected trains, but it was seldom availed of by the passengers, I think. I remember an incident when upon boarding the 8002 Up (then 2 Up) Howrah-Mumbai Mail at Nagpur with my family including my three-year old daughter, we were told that there was no stock of bed-rolls in the AC 2-tier coach. To our dismay, we didn't have anything with us either. However, the conductor promptly sent a message from a way-side station; and so when the train reached Bhusawal Jn., a travel-bag with bed-rolls was promptly waiting to be given to us!

I'm sure many of you have noticed recently the coaches of new design, which has, among other things a new type of vestibule which makes crossing over from one coach to another in a moving train less scary. We are also beginning to see a totally new design of coaches (the differences are noticeable from the entrance door itself) — with designs from DB, Germany and manufactured at Rail Coach Factory / Integral Coach Factory. I often think that the one 'coach' which has perhaps remained unchanged for years is the guard's coach of a goods train!!!

The Engine

The most fascinating thing about a train is perhaps, the engine (or locomotive). We have come a very long way from the time of Stephenson's first engine, aptly called 'Rocket'. Though the electric and diesel locomotives of today are more powerful, faster and efficient, rail enthusiasts are unanimous in their opinion that when it comes to beauty and grace, the place of honour is reserved for the good old steam engine. The huff and puff of the chugging steam locomotive is a delight for the railway fans, as it gives a feeling of speed and power of the engine, a feeling which is absent in the silent electric engine.

Young children used to brave the coal-dust flying past them, in an attempt to get the maximum view of the steam engine working (pulling) the train. And the sight of the fireman shovelling in large chunks of coal into the flaming, ever-hungry belly of the steam engine was a treat to watch. In the good old days, I'm told, many a mother would get the milk for their babies warmed-up in the steam engine! This help the fireman would provide most obligingly in the days when the pantry cars were not too common, and the journey times were longer. Many of our large towns are large today because they were once the stops for refilling coal and water into the steam engine, as also for the passenger coaches. And at many of these places, the Railways' water supply system was better than that run by the civic administration (at some places, it is so even today....!).

On Indian Railways, on the broad gauge system, steam locos have bidden us good-bye, and the same will happen soon on the metre gauge system too. So today's children and the generations of the 21st century will have to be content with seeing the steam locos in action in yesteryears' movies and the like. It is for this reason of nostalgia that some railways, like the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, even today, operate trains hauled by quaint little, but powerful, steam locomotives.

The most widely used broad gauge diesel locomotive, the WDM-2 has, since its introduction in 1964, put up an impressive service in hauling passenger as well as goods trains. It was the ingenuity of our railway engineers that a pair of them (called 'double-Head' in railway lingo) was (and still is) used to power many a superfast, super-long trains, with as many as 22 trailing coaches. It is a treat to the eyes to watch such a double-headed pair accelerating a long train — the total combination being half-a-kilometre long.

The electric locos come in very many models, shapes and sizes; and with different speed and power specifications, but most of them, unfortunately, do not have a good figure. Perhaps the most well-contoured of them is the WCM-1

DC loco used on the Mumbai-Pune and Mumbai-Igatpun sections. Since Mumbai Division has 1500V DC traction, while all other sections of the Indian Railways have 25kV AC traction, the railway engineers have come out with locos capable of working on both types of traction. Outside the Mumbai suburban section just north of Virar, the loco changes from DC to AC traction (or vice versa) through a 'neutral section' with the train in full motion, while we passengers inside the train are often blissfully unaware of such a major happening outside. In recent years, railways have done massive electrification work, and more is planned, in order to cover high-density routes. We have also adopted very modern technologies like 2x25kV AC electrification, three-phase GTO controlled locomotives, and so on.

Project 'Uni-gauge'

Another major change which is happening, primarily since the last decade is the work towards 'Unigauge' i.e., complete planned switch-over to broad-gauge over the entire network of the Indian Railways! This will help drastically reduce transshipment of goods, provide direct connections between many places, as also provide alternate routes between major points. Due to this, in the coming decades, though we are going to get advantages as explained above, we are also going to miss the unique charm of metre-gauge travel, today prominent in some pockets, for example, on the Southern Railway.

We will see the end of metre-gauge electrified suburban trains, presently operating between Chennai-Egmore and Tambaram (which is the only section on Indian Railways to have such trains), as also the only electrified metre-gauge main-line section on the Indian Railways — the Chennai-Egmore- Villupuram section, where trains are today hauled by extremely cute-looking YAM-series electric locomotives.

Signalling and Telecommunication

The advent of electrification has brought in colour-Light Signalling (called Multiple Aspect Colour Light Signalling), which is gradually replacing the old 'Semaphore' signalling system. The Semaphore signals, with their manually actuated levers in signal cabins, metal wire-ropes running along the tracks to activate a signal or to move a 'point' were indeed a tribute to the signalmen of the railways. Come evening, and the railway staff had to visit and climb up each and every signal post to put an oil-lamp inside, which had to be removed the next morning. This ritual had to be done with each signal every single day — sun, snow or rain, fog or hurricane....!! Some sections had 'upper-quadrant' signalling (the arm pointing skywards for 'go'), while others had 'lower-quadrant' system. This action and charm is getting replaced with modern (but less glamorous) electronic technology where all signals and points can be activated from the comfort of a chair in the signal cabinl control room.

Another major development in the area of signalling/communication is the use of optical-fibre cable in place of conventionally-used copper conductor cables. The use of optical-fibre cable allows a very large number of communication channels with high speed data transmission, affording extremely good noise immunity — all of which makes the system highly reliable. At the same time, it does away with the use of expensive copper cables (which was often the target of pilferage by miscreants due to the market value of the metal). The optical-fibre system has been installed on many high-density routes on the Indian Railways, and more will have it in the coming years. Simultaneously, the railways have also introduced 'moving train-to-station', and 'train driver-to-guard' communication in selected sections to improve the operations, particularly in emergencies.

New train-types

In the earlier years, the passenger traffic was primarily of two types — long distance, and suburban — the latter being limited to the large cities only. However, with the ongoing industrial development of the nation, several new regional centres started developing into major nodes for their respective territories. This has given rise to yet another type of traffic pattern which could be called 'intercity' traffic, with one-way travel time of upto three hours. This traffic, owing to the linkage with the industrial activity in a particular belt, is regular in nature like the suburban traffic. To cater to the growing needs of this traffic segment, the railways have, in recent years, introduced many novel concepts like the Main-line Electric Multiple Units (fondly called MEMUs), Diesel Multiple Units (DMUs), Rail-buses, as also fast 'Intercity Expresses'.

This has helped a great deal in segregating the intercity short-distance traffic from the long-distance traffic which has made travelling more convenient for the public, and also increased the operational efficiency of the railway system. Similarly, the Shatabdi Expresses, with their on-board catering, have ushered in a new era of ultra-fast, comfortable day-time travel between important cities. The growing popularity of Shatabdi, MEMUs and DMUs is encouraging the railways to progressively introduce these services on more and more routes. Information Systems

In the area of passenger information systems too, the Indian Railways have taken great strides forward. Programmable Electronic Displays have replaced the good old 'black-board' — improving readability and minimising the need to check in person at the 'enquiry counter'. Not very long ago (in 1982 too) on the busy Mumbai suburban section, the 'Next Train' indicator used to be fairly a crude device with the time shown by adjustable clock-hands, and the stations by triangular wooden blocks. This device was operated manually by the staff practically every 2-3 minutes. To an onlooker watching the 'boys' who operated this device, it would appear that they know the entire daily schedule of the trains by heart !!!

Well, electronics has taken over, and now we have brightly lit Electronic Alpha-numeric displays on platforms, staircases and station entrances all getting changed simultaneously, controlled by a person sitting in the operations-room of the station. Similarly, the 'Central Announcement System' — like the one installed over the Mumbai Suburban Area — makes it possible to reach information to passengers all over the section, apart from being helpful in paging for specific persons when an emergency arises.

The use of Pre-recorded Train Arrival/Departure status system — which has been installed at many stations — makes the job very easy and convenient for the passengers. At many important stations, the railways have now provided Interactive Voice Response!Enquiry systems which further increase the convenience, and helps enhance the telephone-line availability for the public. In the Delhi area, a state-of-the-art Train Describer System is operational wherein train information is automatically updated as the trains move, and is displayed at the stations through elegant 'split-flap displays'. Ticketing and Reservation

The one aspect of the railways which touches the travellers' life most is the Passenger Reservation System. Before we were blessed with computerisation, the reservations used to be done manually, using ledgers dedicated for each train, different sheets for different journey dates, and normally, only one — or a few — counters for a specific train. One had to send a telegram for requesting onward or return journeys and then start checking up for the reply after a few days. Except for the few 'Return Journey Quotas' and 'special quotas' operated by railways, the reservation for a journey originating at a particular station had to be necessarily done by physically being present at that very station. The computerised reservation system has changed it all. Tickets for any train and any class can be booked at any window now. It is now possible to reserve tickets — at Secunderabad — for a journey between, say — Itarsi and Mumbai, or between Guwahati and Kanyakumari. Passengers now have the option of paying by cash or by credit card. The flexibility and the opportunities are immense and endless.

With this, gone are the days of duplicate bookings, missing names (from the reservation charts) et cetera, which could cause untold misery and agony to the affected passenger. The mad rush at the reservation counters seen during the holiday seasons is in spite of and not due to the computerisation. It simply reflects the tremendous growth in the traffic demand. Many of us would recall the experience, in the pre- computerisation days, of reaching the window — only to be told that that particular train was full, and consequently, the frustration of having to stand again in another train's queue. The computerisation of the Reservation system has indeed been one of the most remarkable improvements on the Railways.

Computerisation has also helped equally significantly for unreserved tickets. At major stations, one can now buy an unreserved ticket for any destination at any counter. In addition to this flexibility, it has saved enormous amount of stationery that is no longer required to be printed, stored and updated. Earlier, between any two stations, printed stationery was required for various alternatives — like mail! express or ordinary, adult or child, second or first class, and so on. Now any variant gets printed on the same standard computer stationery. Just ponder a while, and the immense magnitude of the saving and flexibility would be evident.

The Coupon Validating Machines installed on the Mumbai Suburban Section have helped enormously in reducing the long queues at the ticket counters, particularly on holidays.

The above description is by no means an exhaustive account of all the technological advances on the Indian Railways — there could be other equally exciting developments not dealt within this article. Also, all what is written above doesn't, and hasn't, happened overnight. It takes the railway officers and men months of meticulous planning, and often arduous implementation — to try and make sure that the travellers' journey on the Indian Railways is comfortable, safe and enjoyable. With its zeal and enthusiasm, the Indian Railways will definitely lead and help the Nation march towards the next century, and towards the centenary of the Independence.