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A railwayman recalls...

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Backed by extensive research, Bhandari's narrative brings to life the glorious innings of the Indian Railways from its origins as a creation of the Raj to an enduring mass transport system powering modern India.

The Delhi railway station in 1937.
The Delhi railway station in 1937.

Mohan Padmanabhan

Attempting to track the saga of Indian Railways over 150 years is a tough task even for seasoned historians. But when the need to tell the story combines with an insider's passion for an enduring mass transportation system, it is perhaps best done by a veteran railwayman who still has strong links with the establishment.

R.R. Bhandari, General Manager, South Eastern Railway, who has authored the book Indian Railways 150 glorious years, is a railway historian in his own right besides being a senior engineer who has held many coveted positions in Indian Railways, including a five-year stint as lecturer at the Railway Staff College, Vadodara.

Having found his moorings during the formative stages of the National Rail Museum, New Delhi, under the watchful eyes of Michael Satow, a railwayman par excellence, Bhandari recounts how the Indian Railways opened up new frontiers to benefit trade and industry even while being committed to move people from one corner of the country to another.

The 240-plus pages of the book, divided into 27 chapters, contains extensive illustrations. It's all there the early beginnings, evolution of the metre gauge system, an overview of the railway administration then and now, steam locomotives and later diesel, railway signalling, hill railways, railway finance etc.

He has already embarked on a transliteration of the work in Hindi to reach out to the masses. Bhandari says most of the book's research was part of his long project over the last 25 years and hence the actual writing, done in long hand, was somewhat easier.

He adds that even back in the late-1880s, the then British rulers were debating the State's role in the running of a railway system, and "today, even after nearly 125 years, this question remains unanswered."

Among the little gems he throws in is the one about the first rail line of the Indian subcontinent a small line near the Chintadripet Bridge in Madras Presidency in 1836. Extracts from a Madras Gazette report, dated May 4, 1836, reproduced in the book, make for interesting reading.

In chapter 9 on `Bridges', he salutes the remarkable engineering feats of Indian railwaymen, especially the construction of bridges over extremely difficult terrain, connecting remote regions. Pointing out that this sort of work was unprecedented, as the railway systems in England and other parts of Europe did not face similar problems, he says "the extraordinary skills of our bridge engineers are borne out by the fact that some of the bridges built in the 19th century are still serving the system without much of a problem."

Describing steam locomotives as the genius of railway engineering, Bhandari states that the bulk of his information on steam locos was culled from Hugh Hughes' Indian Railway Locomotives. The new millennium, he says, laid special thrust on the Golden Quadrilateral routes connecting the four metropolises. Citing the six trunk lines, including the diagonals, as the lifeline of Indian Railways, catering to a huge volume of traffic, he says tackling bottlenecks on the GQ and providing connectivity to ports would receive massive investments in subsequent years.

Two fascinating narratives include one on the India-Sri Lanka rail connection, a dream project yet to materialise, and the other, the unfulfilled dream of a great railwayman, Sir Rowland Macdonald Stephenson, for a railway line (labelled National Highway) connecting London and Kolkata with two breaks one at the English Channel and another at Dardanelles. Hailing Stephenson's vision in the 1840s and 1850s as having few parallels in the history of railways, Bhandari says the link to Europe remained a distant dream not because of engineering difficulties, but owing to political problems in the then Central Asia.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 9, 2005)
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