Indian Railways and the Punjab Disturbances

An extract from the Railway Gazette, 3 October 1947, p. 390.
This material is under copyright held by the Railway Gazette International and is reproduced here by permission granted generously by the Editor of the Railway Gazette International.

The widespread disturbances throughout the Punjab and neighbouring territories, resulting from the partition of India on August 15. have thrown great burdens on the two new railways into which the old North Western system now has been divided - the Pakistan N.W.R. and Indian Eastern Punjab Railway.

A programme of special personnel and baggage trains had been arranged to transfer those officials of the old Government of India in Delhi, who had elected to serve in Pakistan, to Karachi, the capital of Pakistan, and for several days this programme worked smoothly. Then, however, it was interrupted rudely by the mining, derailment, and subsequent attack on one of these specials while passing through Eastern Punjab. Though trains were diverted immediately by another route and one or two got through without molestation, the whole situation on both sides of the border by this time had got out of hand, and the movement by rail of the Pakistan Government personnel had to be cancelled.

At a later date some members of this staff and their families were sent, however, from Delhi by the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway metre-gauge line to Marwar Junction, and thence by the Jodhpur Railway to Hyderabad (Sind), on the N.W.R. main line, over which they completed the journey to Karachi. This arrangement worked well, for a time, until the disturbances spread to the Delhi area, when this route also became unsafe. As no land route remained available, the remaining 5,000 officials and their families were flown in 25 aircraft, chartered from B.O.A.C., operating an intensive shuttle service between Delhi and Karachi.

Attacks on trains and fuel shortage

Meanwhile communal disturbances in Lahore seriously affected the attendance of railway staff to their duties, not only because of the danger involved in going to and coming from work, but also due to the natural desire of employees to remain at home to protect their families and property. The immediate effect was the cancellation of trains for want of crews. Communal trouble also spread to rural areas, where trains were stopped and attacked, and men, women, and children passengers were murdered. An accomplice of the attackers often travelled in an attacked train and pulled the communication cord at the spot where the ambush was laid. As a result, train crews refused to work trains across the border, and still further dislocation of traffic ensued. For a time, all supplies of coal to the Pakistan N.W.R. ceased, as the only normal routes by which they can be received are via the new Eastern Punjab Railway. A severely restricted service of passenger and goods trains was introduced forthwith and is still in force, but some coal has been received subsequently, both by rail and by sea, at Karachi; stocks, however, are still dangerously low.

Despite the formation of the military Punjab Boundary Force - since disbanded - whose duties primarily included protection of running trains and station staff on both sides of the boundary, attacks on trains persisted, until finally no train could be run in the boundary area without a military escort. The limited strength of the Boundary Force restricted the numbers of escorts available, and very few trains, therefore, could be run.

Eventually, the whole of the Punjab and the surrounding areas became embroiled, and the mass movements of refugees to and from India began. Many hundreds of railway employees left their posts and fled with their families. More and more trains were attacked, and their passengers, murdered or wounded, were thrown out on the track in many instances. Stations became thronged with refugees, and sanitary arrangements were completely inadequate. At one time pitched battles took place on platforms thus crowded, and the dead lay about for days. Small wonder, therefore, that chaos and cholera resulted.

To complicate matters further, many officers on both sides of the boundary were new to their jobs; Muslims had moved from India to Pakistan, and Hindus from Western Punjab to India. Their lack of local knowledge was in many cases a serious handicap to efficient working.

More recently, however, the position on both sides of the boundary has been brought under better control, and assaults have decreased considerably,* but the railway situation still is far from satisfactory. Replacement of staff that has fled has not materialised from over the border, and shortage of coal and the necessity for train escorts near the boundary are restricting services greatly. Stations have had to be closed for want of staff. As many refugee specials as possible continue to be run from places where, in many instances, tens of thousands of people have collected, and refugees, food, oil, and coal have priority but cannot be moved in the numbers or quantity desired. Throughout the disturbances the Karachi-Lahore mails and 'Frontier Mails' between Delhi and Rawalpindi have run almost every day, though timekeeping is impossible, partly by reason of out-of-course stops at wayside stations to distribute food and pick up refugees.

In the second week of September the disturbances spread from the Punjab to certain parts of the United Provinces, affecting communications between Delhi and the ports. The G.I.P.R and B.B. & C.I.R. terminated their services to the North-East at Muttra, and the B.B. & C.I.R. metre-gauge services in and out of Delhi were suspended.

Even when the country has settled down again, the task ahead of the railways will be very great. Their chief difficulties will be to settle in and train new staff, sort out everything, build up balances of stocks of fuel and other materials, and overtake arrears of maintenance, that have accumulated to an alarming extent.

* Since this article was received, an attack on a Moslem refugee train at Amritsar resulted in 3,000 passengers being killed; and 340 Hindus and Sikhs were killed when several thousand Moslems made a reprisal attack on a refugee train at Kamoke, 25 miles from Lahore, on September 24.

The material above is under copyright held by Railway Gazette International and is reproduced here by permission granted by the Editor of the publication.