Opening up new frontiers

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From its early beginnings, Eastern Railway has steadily grown in stature and continues to explore new avenues of growth.

IT'S BUSY TIMES at the loading point of the Shalimar goodshed of South Eastern Railway in Kolkata. -- A. Roy Chowdhury
IT'S BUSY TIMES at the loading point of the Shalimar goodshed of South Eastern Railway in Kolkata. -- A. Roy Chowdhury

Mohan Padmanabhan

On August 15, 1854, EIR's first train driven by Joshua Greenbow made its inaugural run from Howrah to Hooghly, a distance of 24 miles.

A high-profile senior bureaucrat of the Government of India, speaking at a recent national meet on infrastructure development, summed up the current scenario with our railway stations and airports thus: "The honourable minister wants to convert our railway stations into airports, and thankfully, our airports are turning into railway stations now."

Be that as it may, the challenges before the Indian Railways are enormous, though not insurmountable, the organisation having traversed a difficult path in the last 150 years. The hinterland of Kolkata has received more from the Railways than what it has paid back.

Napoleon Bonaparte may have remarked, "what is history, but a fable agreed upon", and it was left for Gibbon to say, "history is little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind".

But railway history in eastern India, with Kolkata as the epicentre, is both fabled, and also made to sound like a parable at times.

The "chance directed' city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), a witness to the 150 years plus glorious history of the Indian Railways, has witnessed eastern India's remarkable tryst with railways' destiny some 152 years ago; On August 15, 1854, EIR's first train driven by Joshua Greenbow made its inaugural commercial run from Howrah to Hooghly, a distance of 24 miles.

Regular rail services were introduced from that very day, with stops at Bally, Serampore and Chandannagore (which was French territory at that time).

J. Hodgson, locomotive superintendent of EIR, as per old records, got the carriages of the first train, which could accommodate 300 passengers, built locally by two Calcutta coach building firms - Steward & Co and Seton & Co.

East Indian Railway

Thus, East Indian Railway provided economic sustenance and also catered to the transportation needs of the inhabitants of this region since that time.

(Interestingly, the first railway line of the Indian sub-continent, came up near the "Chintadripet Bridge" in the Madras Presidency in 1836, a small line "on which a stone loaded cart used to be moved up a slightly inclined plane, and allowed to return by its own weight". But the first railway line in South from Vyasarpady to Walajah Road opened for traffic on July 1, 1855 by the Madras Railway. Incidentally, the Indian Railway Act was passed in 1890, and the first Railway Board assumed office in 1905.)

In 1844, Rowland Macdonald Stephenson, promoter of East Indian Railway (EIR), now Eastern Railway, put forth his first proposal to construct railway lines in the sub-continent, outlining six major routes. EIR and Great Indian Peninsular (GIP) Railway company were granted financial guarantee in 1849 for the construction and operation of rail lines in India.

Construction of an experimental railway line from Howrah to Ranigunj (the coal belt) was sanctioned in 1849, along with a similar line on the GIP Railway from Bombay, said to be the first in Asia. Lord Dalhousie, the then Governor-General, turned the first sod when work began on EIR in 1851. And by the end of 1853, some 61 km of the first line was ready up to Pandooah, and trial runs began by June 1854.

In the epoch-making period between 1861 and 1871, GIP Railway successfully established links between the industrial town of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta, the then imperial capital of India, and also Madras and Nagpur.

Braving great odds

Indian Railways braved great odds in laying of the early railway lines over difficult terrain, and succeeded in opening up new frontiers in India's trade and commerce, linking the commercial east with the rest of the country. Construction contracts were given to the early railroad companies in India like EIR, GIP, Madras Railway Company, Bombay Baroda and Central India (BB&CI), Eastern Bengal Railway and Great Southern of India Railway.

Railway age, however, had already dawned on Eastern India on August 15, 1854, though not without a touch of adventure in the arrival of the locomotive from England and the coaches. The locomotive, shipped from England got misdirected to Australia and was brought back to Calcutta only via Australia. HMS Goodwin, carrying the coaches, sank at the Sandheads near Diamond Harbour. What was Howrah Station then? According to the book "Symphony of Progress - the saga of Eastern Railway (1854-2003)", the 100-year-old station at that time consisted of a temporary tin shed with a small booking office and a single line flanked by narrow platforms.

The renovated new magnificent red brick structure, designed with romanesque features by Halsey Ricardo, grandson of economist David Ricardo, today has two gigantic complexes, with some 21 platforms between them.


Cut back to the post-Independence era, and the Indian Railways' Network, as in 1953, got broadly divided into Central Railway, Western Railway, Northern Railway, North Eastern Railway, Eastern Railway and South Eastern Railway. The six, through bifurcations and trifurcations (in operating areas) by 2003, have today multiplied into 16 zones, 67 divisions, 7,131 stations, 7 production units, 5 other units and as many as 11 PSUs.

Covering 63,465 route kms, and occupying a total land area of 4.23 lakh ha, with steady growth in both freight and passenger traffic, the Indian Railways today runs more than 9,500 passenger and 6,465 freight trains daily. The Railways organisation boasts an employee strength of 14.22 lakh.

The future

What awaits Eastern Railway in the coming years, if it has to better manage its suburban passenger traffic, under the present saturated conditions (in terms of capacity) at the Howrah Station terminal complex? Says Mr A.K. Maitra, DRM, Howrah: "Kolkata has been a major decision-making centre for the entire railway system in eastern India, and accordingly, every conceivable ancillary sector is represented through a rail-linked establishment in Bengal.

Industries have sprung up on sheer strength provided by the railways, and this has put enormous strain on the ground infrastructure.

He says both ER and SER, the two principal zonal railways in the Bengal region, account for 55-60 per cent of freight movement in the total Indian Railways' system, and the existing infrastructure is already bursting in its seams. While a third terminal, after Howrah and Sealdah, at Chitpore has been created, it still does not solve the problem at the 100-year-old Howrah complex, which needs to be de-clogged for better maintenance of rakes and smooth train arrivals.

Asked how important it was now for South Eastern Railway (formed in 1955) to develop its own terminal, Mr Partha Sengupta, Chief Operations Manager, SER, feels development of Santragachi coaching terminal in a big way may solve the terminal problem for SER.

Plans have come and gone, but no concrete decision has been taken yet, apart from upgradation of the set-up at Santragachi, including on-going work for a third line up to Kharagpur.

The urgent need for a third rail terminal is felt mainly because the Howrah Bridge infrastructure, it is feared, was not designed to take any further beating in terms of vehicular movement, which is now going from bad to worse during peak hours.

Looking at competition

The SER terminal at Shalimar, from where some trains are also being run, has now fallen back on disuse because dispersal of arriving passengers becomes difficult owing to inadequate city approach roads infrastructure.

ER's colossal suburban services, concentrated at both Howrah and Sealdah points, facilitate daily arrival of fresh flowers and many other perishables such as fish, vegetables and chana from places like Kolaghat and North Bengal. Lakhs of people hawk their wares and earn their livelihood on local trains.

A "Jhi Special" local train arrives at 5.00 a.m. at Sealdah, disgorging thousands of maid servants and daily wage earners.

South Eastern Railway (SER), more popularly known as Steel Enterprise Railway, because of its predominant role in movement of raw materials and finished products to and from steel plants in the catchment area, besides cement, coal and POL, has remained the freight work horse of the railway system, having moved 86 million tones last year.

According to Mr Sengupta, the existing infrastructure cannot be flogged any longer to bring down the unit cost, and serious look must be given to crucial rail-wheel interaction if railways has to compete effectively with other modes of transport.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 27, 2006)
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