Chapter I

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969


The guidebooks are not so unanimous as to where to start, but most begin at Bombay, the nearest port to Europe, or at Delhi, the capital. Yet there are arguments for starting a rail tour at Madras, in that before setting out to look at the Indian Railways' present it is best to know something of their past. By an accident of location that past survives more convincingly in Madras than elsewhere, for though the first railway started out from Bombay (1853) and the second from Calcutta (1854) the atmosphere of their early history is smothered in the bustle of Victoria Terminus and Howrah as they are at present. On the other hand, the original terminus of the Madras Railway survives, bypassed by the building of Madras Central closer to the center of that centreless city. This original terminus, used only by local trains for the past fifty years, is called Royapuram, and lies on the sea front sufficiently close to Madras Harbour for its former spacious offices and first class waiting rooms to be useful as a godown or warehouse for foodgrains.

The middle of the Nineteenth Century was a traumatic time in India, the time when the East India Company was wound up and replaced by Queen Victoria's Viceroy. Yet while the last vestige of conquest by trader was being replaced with Government by Lord, Royapuram station was built in the unmistakeably Classical, Mancunian style that the Company had employed for the past eighty years. It was only subsequently, as the Indian railway companies became increasingly departments of a government itself increasingly pompous, that terminals were built in Gothic Revival or in that very logical, very hybrid derived style, Mughal Revival.

Royapuram station was thus built as a box with pillars all round – not exactly marble, being brick covered with plaster, and not purely ornamental, for they supported a balcony on which passengers bound up country could promenade, saving up the remembrance of the sea breeze. It had a tall portico in front of the main entrance, and a smaller one further on, for third class passengers. The grand portico now shelters rubber-tyred bullock carts and scantily attired coolies lumping sacks of grain, but the lesser entrance remains to serve a station with fourteen trains up and down on weekdays and eight on Sundays, suburban services being the exception to the general rule that Indian timetables don't vary with the day of the week.

One April afternoon as the real heat of the day was wearing off and with a breeze blowing off the sea, I got out to introduce myself to the Indian Railways, walking north along that outermost of the main streets of Madras, the one known as First Line Beach. At the place where the wall enclosing the Harbour ended, revealing the choppy blue of the Bay of Bengal, a railway line crossed the road: two tracks, one metre and one broad (5' 6"). There were level crossing gates; wood became bolted together with iron plates at the joints, and braced to the top of heavy maritime-looking king posts, while in the cobblestones of the crossing itself two grooved rails were embedded as a last reminder of the Madras Tramways. The gates were closed, though there was a way around for pedestrians. The 4-6-0 steam engine that duly appeared, running light and tender first on metre gauge, was painted brown and grey with a black, silver-banded boiler and yellow lettering, the livery of the Southern Railway. She looked well cared for, and one could guess by who, for, as witness the driver's name written on the side of her cab, the Indian Railways still follow the policy of one engine, one crew.

Before the gatekeeper on his open iron platform could pull back his levers, extract the keys and come and open the gates, I ducked round the pedestrian way, walked a hundred yards along a line of waiting buses (all London-red but with open sides and curved external horns), and turned left. Here, among the trucks and bullock carts, was Royapuram station.

Some of the plaster had fallen from the columns of the smaller portico, while the doors snibbed back from the entrance were warped, with one or two of their ventilation slats missing. Behind the portico a hall with vestigial plaster wraths on its walls and a very high beam and plaster ceiling had been divided by a grubby green wooden partition. A notice – “Scrutinise tickets and changes (sic) before leaving the window” – was set between two grilled openings looking into the booking office where the Edmondson tickets were kept face-upwards in old-fashioned racks hung on heavy duty hinges so that they could be closed, face to face. My third single to Villivakkam was yellowish, with SOUTHERNRAILWAYSSOUTHERNRA multiplied into a fawn smudge of safety background and with the origin and destination in Tamil, Hindi and English, plus a line of abbreviations about class, distance and fare.

The station had long ago lost its all-over roof, and the present narrow bracketed shelter was not much substitute, dividing the main platform into a narrow strip of deep shade and an equal belt of bright, hot sunlight. Outside the booking office a piece of old rail was crudely tied to a bracket with a piece of wire rope (this was the station bell); outside the Train Examiner’s Office a collection of black-on-yellow carriage destination boards leant against the wall; outside the parcels office an unpainted iron platform was etched with the initials MSM. There were concrete seats for waiting passengers and a littering of battered wooden boxes, the property of the guards, that could also be sat on – gingerly, for fear of bugs.

Across the sunlit outer strip of the platform a train was waiting, three brown carriages with lettering and door stanchions painted yellow; typical Indian carriages of the last years of British control. They were straight-sided and round-roofed – the oldest had a double roof ‘for ventilation’ carried down to a slit over its windows. Since the Indian Railways have never believed in the merits of intra-train communication (it might lead to third class passengers trespassing among the firsts) there were no gangways between the carriages, which themselves were each divided into three or four sections with separate inwards-opening doors. Within these passenger-tight divisions seating was in open compartments or, in the older carriages, longitudinally. A tank engine was hissing to itself at the head of the train; it looked ready to go, and there were a few people in the carriages waiting to be taken, but the booking clerk ran out of his office to tell me that if I tried to go to Villivakkam by this train I would have to change at Basin Bridge Junction two miles out. I had 20 minutes to wait anyway; it would be better if I waited another twenty and caught the through train.

In Madras in April the sun takes the shortest route from the very top of the sky to the horizon and so drops quite rapidly, losing heat and light intensity by the minute. It was now within 25 degrees of sunset, and was beginning to redden, a color that brings richness to the otherwise drab brown livery of India’s trains. And as the glare lessened the view past the waiting tank engine and on down the tracks became a little British: a water crane and a semaphore signal beyond the end of the platform; bull-head rail disappearing under a stone arch bridge in the middle distance. Even the Madras crows, which normally wheel round cawing raucously, were cooperating in achieving the effect; they had gone away leaving the milder kinds of bird chirping and twittering to a background of gentle steam hissing and the murmur of the city outside. Such a moment couldn’t last; it was shattered neatly by one klaxon toot as the square front end of an Alco diesel-electric appeared under the arch bridge, coming forward slowly with idling engines. It diverged towards the level crossing and the Harbour, passing by outside the station building, close enough to see the faded enamel symbol of American Aid (two clasped hands) on the side of its cab. Behind, their drawgear creaking and straining with the sharpness of the curve, followed a string of bogie hoppers, each laden with 55 tonnes of iron ore for Japan. A couple of minutes elapsed before the last heavy clunk from the last hopper and the lightweight amen from a ludicrous four-wheel brake van.

This train was finishing its journey from the iron fields half way between Madras and Bombay, having come down a main line whose first section, westwards from Royapuram, was opened in 1856. The original trunk lines from Madras, one towards Bombay and the other across the peninsular to the west coast – the line towards Calcutta wasn’t added till decades later – were owned and operated by a private British company whose dividends were guaranteed by the Government of India in return for fairly close government control. From controlling in this fashion the Government had, by 1870, graduated to building and itself owning railways, and to operating them itself not much later. However the railway system was not completely government owned and worked till much later; in the meantime there was State control of railway construction (so that competitive building was unknown in India) and gradually more and more persuasion aimed at standardization and cooperation. At times, if it suited, the companies were regrouped – the Madras Railway disappeared as an independent concern at such a change made early this century, when part of it was amalgamated with the South Indian Railway and the rest with the erstwhile Southern Mahratta Railway to form the Madras and Southern Mahratta.

By the time of Independence the MSM and all the other major company lines were government owned and operated, leaving only the considerable mileage of track owned by the Native States outside the main administration. When these Native States (Nizams, Maharajas and so on) were abolished their railways were incorporated in the All-India system, and a grand regionalisation into Zonal Railways was indulged in, on the lines of the division of British Railways into Regions a few years before. The MSM, the South Indian Railway and the former native state railway of Mysore were grouped together and called the Southern Railway. But the point of all this administrative history is to show that the railway managements of India were never very independent-minded. They might have had their little architectural quirks but the main lines at least have been rather similar for a long time. These same ingredients that we are still watching and feeling at Royapuram – a background of British history and practice, a bathing of Indian sunlight and a foreground filling up with recent American intrusions – these recur over All-India.

Shortly before five o’clock a tank engine came whistling under the stone arch bridge. Bunker-first, its backlit outline was a massive square unadorned except for a headlight recessed just above the buffer beam. It drew its five car train aside from the dead-end of Royapuram terminus and, with a sqeaking and straining of brakes, stopped at a platform on the curve of the line leading towards the Harbour. This train did not terminate at Royapuram but, after ten minutes’ wait, continued another mile alongside the Harbour wall to Madras Beach station. Since this was the train that, on return, would go through to Villivakkam (a second 4-8-4T had already closed on behind to save running-round), I decided I might as well go down to Beach and back just for the ride; not for the scenery, for the whole of the journey was along track enclosed within high concrete walls topped with barbed wire.

Madras Beach has a Junction in its official title, for here there is just one broad gauge platform opposed to three metre. India has 17,880 route-miles of broad gauge, dating from an 1850 idea that a railway should be built wide and stable for speed, and 15,960 of metre gauge, the result of an 1860’s idea that reduced-gauge railways were cheaper to build. The compromise of the 1870’s was that the trunk and strategic routes were to be broad gauge and the secondary lines metre, with an 1880’s postscript that very minor lines could be 2’ 6” or even plain two-foot. The result was that some parts of the country have only broad gauge and some metre, while in others the gauges mingle with plenty of inter-gauge junctions such as Madras Beach, and plenty of effort expended at transfer of goods and passengers.

By and large the planners’ expectations have held good – most metre gauge lines are secondary – but a few have developed unexpectedly heavy traffic, and occasionally a minor broad gauge line encounters a major metre gauge one. Take, for example, Madras Beach, where the broad gauge has four dilatory passenger trains a day while the metre is the terminus of an electrified suburban service at the very least quarter-hourly from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. Beach is thus a busy station, and has been so since 1931, when the South Indian Railway commenced its electric service on 1500V DC, using English Electric equipment. Again Madras was following after Bombay, and its line remains the only electrified metre gauge in a country which now has 1,700 route miles of electrified broad gauge tracks. However, the Southern Railway Electric is not behind the times: during the mid 1960’s it was extended into the country (it now runs to 102 route miles) and at the same time converted to the new national standard of 25 KV single phase 50 cycle AC. But the original three-car units still run, now de-motored and coupled to a new motor carriage at the north end of the train; only the small silver box-cab locomotives failed to survive.

Though it waited for a quarter of an hour at Beach the Villivakkam passenger failed to attract much custom. The steady stream of people entering the station made for the blue and cream multiple units, or perhaps for the rake of old wooden carriages with curved sides at platform three. Headed by a Japanese Bo Bo Locomotive with a roof-full of glistening white insulators to contrast with its somber black and brown livery, this train was one of the two evening services to Kanchipuram, 60 miles from Madras. A little eddy of the crowd paused by the Vegetarian Refreshment stall; lit its cigarettes from the smouldering rope’s end left dangling from an iron awning-post, spat into the sandbox nearby; bought its brass coffee tokens and chinked them on the glass counter, and then paused, drinking its coffee and looking at the trains; the integral, wrap-round of the new units, the straight sides and glassless windows of the old, the suburban silver of the Kanchipuram train and, on the outside road, a hissing steam engine.

Five thirty, and train BV1 up chime-whistled and made its way noisily up the concrete walled defile to Royapuram – most of the noise being due to open cylinder cocks. It paused outside the old station, then headed west, under the stone arch bridge and between the back walls of patchily cream-washed suburbs. Children were flying kites in the evening sea-breeze – the telegraph wires along the track were cobwebby with the remains of kites blown off course. After Washermanpet, where the line to Basin Bridge Junction diverged, the big tank engine worked a little to surmount the bridge over the main line from Madras Central towards Calcutta. Providentially (the chances are against it) one of that line’s suburban trains passed under as we passed over: again that feeling that one used to have in Britain, ‘Trains are everywhere’. Then a descent to join the four track main line from Central towards Bombay; take the slow track and drift along, stopping at open suburban platforms and beckoned onwards by automatic colour-light signals.

After six miles, Villivakkam, the end of the quadruple track. A train from Madras Central to parts west was already approaching by the fast line, headed by another 4-8-4T, while a third was drawing slowly in, ahead of time with its down local. It would seem that these were common engines, yet, though they were part of the post-Independence locomotive building programme, they are found in just a few places, particularly Madras now that electrification has rendered them unemployed round Calcutta. It is rather the standard main-line engines, the WP pacific and the WG Mikado on broad gauge, and the YP and YG respectively on metre, that were built by the thousand and are ubiquitous, the final rather non-British bar-framed products of a long tradition.

At first Indian railway locomotives came in small classes differing in details but alike in outline, for all the engines came from Britain and were to British designs fattened up a little towards the larger loading gauge. In about 1905, years after a similar step had been taken by railway administrations in the independent colonies, the Indian railways started to think in terms of standard designs: two sorts of 4-6-0 with different wheel sizes for passengers and goods on metre gauge, and 4-6-0’s and 2-8-0’s for these respective duties on broad gauge – but the various administrations tinkered about with the designs till they were subdivided into many different varieties. In the 1920’s a more concerted effort was made to produce standard engines, resulting in Pacifics and Mikados for both gauges, some of them in ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ variants. After a wartime infusion of American 2-8-2’s for both gauges, the Indian Railways imported their last British-designed locos, not always from Britain, and at the same time set about mass producing the engines that now dominate the system. Engines such as these 4-8-4T’s; engines such the bullet-nosed Pacific that came whistling through Villivakkam at a little after 6.30 p.m., hauling train No. 1 of the Southern Railway, the Mangalore Mail.

Having introduced the Indian Railways by means of backwater, it is now time to travel by Express over a main line, and that means turning up at Madras Central.