The Indian railways: A journey to glory

Be it nostalgic childhood memories or glimpses of a shining future, the Indian Railways is a vital part of Indianness.
Indian railways
The Indian railways is one of the world’s largest networks. Image: Shutterstock/Tkray.

There’s something about travelling by trains in India that makes the journey as alluring as the destination. Be it reading one of the many marvels on train journeys and platform chronicles that writers like RK Narayan and Ruskin Bond gave us, or travelling through time in first-class compartments with filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s cinema, or simply reminiscing about all those train rides we enjoyed while growing up — in India, each train journey is special, both in its fictional and literal forms.

There’s a certain nostalgia attached to them. We all have childhood memories of hopping on a train to spend our summer holidays with the grandparents in our hometown. When we craned our necks while waiting on the platform to get the first glimpse of our train come chugging in. When we spent the afternoon at the window seat counting the fleeting trees outside or playing charades with complete strangers!

The Indian railways maps out the length and breadth of our diverse country and in a way, ties us all, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, in a single thread with its tracks snaking their way through even the remotest locations. Despite beginning life as a by-product of British colonial rule, the network has come to define the country over the course of the last century and a half in its own unique way.

A ride back in time

It has been 169 years since India’s first commercial passenger train pulled out of Bori Bunder station in Bombay (as Mumbai was known then) to cover a distance of 34 km and reach Thane in 1853. Two major companies were formed by the British at the time — the East India Company (EIC) that once ruled larges swathes of the country, and the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR). In less than 50 years, there were 41,000 km of railway lines across the country, administered by 33 different railway companies, only four of which were run by the state.

First locomotives in india
One of the first locomotives in India, journeying across the Thane creek. Image: Courtesy Heritage Directorate, Indian Railways.

In 1901, a separate railway board was created, which regulated the other entities, mainly those belonging to princely states and private companies, and was responsible for its own successes or failures. By 1907, the government had purchased all major lines and began leasing them back to private operators. The first electric train ran between Bombay and Kurla in 1925, bringing a revolution to the railways.

In the last days of the British Raj in India, world events played a huge role in rail activity. World War II and the economic depression together stymied rail development. And worse, violent mobs damaged railway infrastructure and attacked trains carrying refugees in the post-partition furore! In 1921, the Acworth Committee recommended that railway finances be separated from that of the government’s.

It was only after Independence that the government began to earnestly merge several private and public companies working in rail transport. In 1951-1952, the Indian railways began reorganising the network into zones, and took some major steps towards modernisation by the latter half of the 20th century. The 1980s saw the complete elimination of steam locomotives, as electrification of the network was introduced in the 1970s.

Kolkata tram
Interior of a Kolkata tram, Image: Shutterstock/Atif Amin.

India’s first metro system opened in Calcutta (as Kolkata was known then) in 1984, while the Indian railways’ online passenger reservation system was launched in 1985 and gradually introduced at Delhi, Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta. Later, it was extended with the introduction of the country-wide network of computerised enhanced reservation and ticketing (CONCERT) in 1995.

The 90s saw the opening of the 738-km Konkan Railway network connecting the western coast of India with the rest of the country. Since 2000, metro stations have continued to pop up in India’s major cities. The decade between 2000-2009 also saw the creation of the network’s East Coast, South Western, South East Central, North Central and West Central Railway zones.

Fascinating facts

The glorious past of our railway transport system, however, cannot be limited to just a timeline of historical events. Today, Indian Railways is Asia’s largest and the world’s second-largest network operating under a single government, spanning over 126,511 km across the country. Operating 7,325 stations, running 76,608 passenger coaches, owning 2,93,077 freight wagons and more than 12,000 locomotives, it plays a very critical and significant role in the economic life and operations of India. At present, it stands as the eighth largest employer in the world. And the track to success has been filled with endless milestones, and the carrier of Indian passengers is loaded with some amazing facts!

Chhatrapati shivaji terminus
The iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus in Mumbai is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Image: Shutterstock/Ketkar.

The 169-year-old heritage has its very own mascot Bholu, an elephant dressed as a railway guard, which was created in 2002 by the National Institute of Design on its 150th anniversary. It owns four UNESCO recognised world heritage sites, including the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus Mumbai, Nilgiri Mountain Railway, and Kalka Shimla Railway.

All of 34 operational rail museums, heritage galleries, art galleries, and heritage parks in different cities of India remind the world why the Indian railways is fascinating and aim at promoting and preserving its heritage. You can take the longest train journey in India in Vivek Express that covers 4,189 kilometres with 56 stops between Dibrugarh in Assam and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu in 82 hours and 30 minutes.

The maharajas' express
Luxury coaches in India ensure memorable journeys. Image: Courtesy The Maharajas’ Express.

There are also a number of uber-luxurious train experiences including Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, Palace on Wheels (Rajasthan), The Golden Chariot (Karnataka and Goa), The Maharajas’ Express (multiple itineraries starting from Delhi), and The Deccan Odyssey (multiple itineraries starting from Maharashtra). Their elite coaches, royal services, and gorgeous views can even put the first-class in planes to shame.

The ‘Diamond Crossing’ named so by railways themselves, in Nagpur, is one-of-its-kind, from where trains go East, West, North, and South. And believe it or not, the oldest working locomotive launched way back in 1855, the Fairy Queen, is still in use!

A greener, better future

The Indian Railways has occupied our headspace for a while now with its makeover plans. Earlier this year, it had announced the National Rail Plan (NRP) for India, which will create a ‘future ready’ rail network system by 2030. The plan is to create capacity ahead of demand, which in turn would also cater to future growth in demand right up to 2050. Vision 2024 has also been launched for accelerated implementation of critical projects such as 100 per cent electrification using green energy, multi-tracking of congested routes, upgradation of speed on certain routes, and more.

Plastic cups have already begun to be replaced with earthen, sustainable kulhads. The Khadi and Village Industries Commission has started supplying 20,000 electric potting wheels and equipment, capable of producing two million kulhads in a day, to more than 1,00,000 potters! The Indian Railways is also busy developing the world’s highest rail bridge over the Chenab river in Jammu, which will be ready by September this year. Connecting Kashmir with the rest of the country, the 1,315 metre-long bridge is being built at a height of 1,177 feet.

Chenab bridge
The Chenab bridge, when ready, will be the world’s highest! Image: Courtesy Mageba Group.

An ambitious ‘Railopolis’ development plan is also at play that looks at redeveloping 123 railway stations. The aim is to create railway spaces along the lines of airports that embody mixed-use development. Once completed, these revamped stations would feature workspaces with Wi-Fi access, swanky waiting rooms and arrival lounges, digital signage, entertainment, separate departures, and accommodation facilities. 

Luxury trains like the Deccan Queen — the fast express from Mumbai to Pune, the first long-distance electric-hauled train, the first vestibule train, and the first to feature a dining car — will be enhanced with German-designed Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches, which have better safety features and offer an improved travelling experience due to a superior suspension system.

Vistadome
The large windows and glass ceilings of Vistadome coaches offer 360-degree views.

The fairly recently launched Vistadome coaches afford a 360-degree panoramic view of the landscape through large windows and glass roofs. As of now, IRCTC runs 45 Vistadome coaches on the Darjeeling Himalayan, Kalka-Shimla Railway, Kangra Valley Railway, Matheran Hill Railway, Visakhapatnam to Araku Valley, and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway routes. Soon, all mountain railways will be kitted out with these coaches, offering breathtaking views of rolling meadows, mammoth snow-peaked ranges, verdant forest covers, and deep ravines.

In the last 169 years of its existence, the railways in India has grown and expanded by leaps and bounds. And although travellers are getting more used to air travel and automobiles, it is imperative that the railways continue to grow. For even with all the fancy transport options available, the experience of a train journey in India will remain unparalleled and close to our hearts.

Read more.

Indian railways: The great makeover project.

Indian Railways embarks upon ambitious Railopolis development plan