08 February 2016

“Trains without doors and a dishevelled double decker bus with a platform at the back” – British transport expert Christian Wolmar’s visit to Mumbai

A report by Rajendra B. Aklekar

"They run without doors?" was the first reaction of the alarmed Christian Wolmar, British transport expert, rail historian, author, journalist and the 2016 London mayoral candidate when he saw a crowded suburban local train pulling out of Churchgate station in Mumbai on his day-long visit.

Wolmar was in Mumbai as a part of his India tour for his new book on Indian Railways. Fascinated with trains and railways like me, Wolmar, first started as a transport journalist with The Independent and has been writing on transport issues since 1992. The award winning writer and broadcaster is also the author of a series of books on railway history. He was at Churchgate and Mumbai CST and spoke about a host of transport issues.

Earlier on his arrival, one the first photos that he had taken in Mumbai was that of the double-decker bus, calling it a “dishevelled Mumbai double decker with a platform at the back” tagging the Mayor of London, in his tweet. And he was correct as the Mumbai double deckers have been a British legacy and the last 120 buses that remain are diluted versions of the original Routemasters.

As I caught up with him at the Taj, Mumbai, he had bought for me a personally signed copy of the Iron Road, a fascinating account of hidden stories of railway history from the early steam train days to the high-speed bullet trains of today, a book authored by him that I had always wanted. It was quite an honour to get a copy from the person himself and that too a signed one. As the conversation moved to trains and railways, I suggested he should take a look at the city's two biggest rail terminii in Mumbai-- Churchgate and Mumbai CST and he readily agreed.

We hopped into cab (after refusals from a few) and reached Churchgate station. It was a Saturday evening and crowds were thin, but still good enough as there had been a few train delays. After examining the automatic ticket vending machines with the suburban maps on them, we got a platform ticket and entered the platform, walking to the other end as he wanted to take a good look at the trains entering and leaving the station. Technically, a variety of EMU trains were standing next to each other -- a Bombardier class and a Siemens one.

As we walked back after a brief photo session and as the train moved, Christian was alarmed that the train had started moving with open doors. As I explained  him later that the trains here were non-air-conditioned and there were ventilation issues if the doors got shut, he seemed convinced, but said it was a highly risky affair. “You die one way or the other, either by suffocation or via open doors,” said he and was quite stunned to know that about ten people die on the suburban lines of Mumbai every day. After examining and admiring the functional 1936 British Ransomes and Rapiers heritage buffers on Churchgate platform, we took the pedestrian subway to crossover to the Western Railway headquarters building.

“There is chaos, crowd and people everywhere, but things in India are always at their functional best. This is the best part of the country,” he said as we walked the subway, half of it occupied by hawkers, half of it under repairs.
The next stop was the Churchgate heritage building. Since the offices and the heritage gallery are shut on the weekend, we were not allowed to enter the building premise but Christian was quite impressed by the Bilimora-Waghai (Gujarat) railway’s steam engine on display in the building premise. He took a lot of its pics of it saying, “it’s built in Stafford,” and tweeted one immediately, calling it one for the “grocers”, an informal term for trainspotters or rail fans.

We decided to walk it up from Churchgate to Mumbai CST so that we could discuss more of two cities –London and Mumbai. Walking up from the by-lanes of Fort and reaching Mumbai CST discussing about traffic and problems, he said Mumbai needs to encourage public transport more and that more Metro lines will be of help. “The Monorail is quite an out-dated mode of transit and I don’t know why Mumbai is getting one, he wondered.

At Mumbai CST, after a few photographs of the DC and AC suburban trains in one premise, the Star Chamber and the jumble of train indicators, he was quite moved with the pictures of unidentified bodies that had been put up by the railway police at the station. “It’s quite disturbing thing, isn’t it?” Wolmar had a train to catch the next day early morning to the south and after the photos sessions, we soon decided to end the adventure. On his way back to the Taj, Christian Wolmar had one thing to say about Mumbai railway- just fascinating!

More about Christian here: http://www.christianwolmar.co.uk/

30 January 2016

117-year-old stone at country's first railway terminus in Thane

A discovery of an 117-year-old stone at Thane railway station in Mumbai on Central Railway recently has evoked memories of how this railway station played host to the continent's first railway train that ran in 1853 between Boree Bunder (today's Mumbai CST) and Thane. I noticed the stone a few months ago lying in the station premise.

The stone with engravings '1899' found at the station while digging for construction of a public utility has reiterated the importance and historic place of Thane in the history of Indian Railways. Thane station deserves a special place in Indian Railways’ history books. Today, the station seems to have got lost in the crowd, traffic and a maze of pedestrian and vehicular bridges, and escalators (the one at Thane was the first on Mumbai railway), but here goes the story of how it was the first terminus.

Said to have been built on the site of the old Gamdevi temple that is now in the east, the first railway tracks were laid such as they entered Thane’s koliwada, the fishing village, to split it into two –east and west. Near the station today, the area is still called koliwada, but the sea is now much far behind and fishing is hardly the main occupation here.

When the first train arrived, there were durbar tents and delicacies waiting for the passengers of the first train on open grounds. Once the railway started regular runs, there was need to upgrade the station.

Additional land of about four acres had been acquired for the station. Of the total land, about 3 acres was owned by about 30 residents and the GIP Railway Company acquired it at a cost of Rs 1,000 per acre for agricultural land and Rs 500 per acre barren one. The acquisition was complete by 1891. A bigger station was soon built in those days of steam engines. The first electric local train did not come to Thane before December 1926. Nevertheless, today, Thane is a ten-platform station premise, always busy and crowded. 

Speaking on the stone, while a few local officials said that recently when the foundations of one of the new bridges were being laid, contractors and workers stumbled upon this stone (about 1.5 feet in height and less than a feet in width) with markings 1899 and that the presence of mind by station officials saved the historic stone, a few others said that the stone has been lying in the station premise for quite some time. Whatever be the story, it is a fact that this stone with its engravings is from the old building structure when the station was first rebuilt and upgraded in the late 1890s. 

Local CR officials said it is now being preserved. In fact, the existing platform two of the station had an old stone building that was recently partially renovated when the new bridges were being built. The stone could have been from the foundations of one of these old walls, which were a part of the original structure. 

While local railway officials said they were not of the exact details, city historians said it could be an important piece of history given the fact that Thane was a part of India's first railway line that was opened 46 years earlier in 1853. "It is indeed a rare find and such things always add to the glory of history of railways. The stone should be shifted to the railways' heritage gallery," Deepak Rao said.

The Central Railway in fact does plans to move this stone to the heritage gallery at Mumbai CST at a later date where all such relics have been gathered.

Thane station also has numerous smaller relics of the old Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company, India’s first railway, now called Central Railway, which have been described in much detail in my book, Halt Station India, available in print and Kindle formats.

A set of old salt department sidings once bifurcated from Thane station in the east to reach an old jetty that still exists. The place today is a small promenade. The remains of the single line sidings and the path of permanent way can still be traced under a new sky-walk and a road divider today along what was then called the Mithbandar Road and now named Rambhau Mhalgi Road.

The path ends at an old cargo shed along the former jetty. When documented in 2010, the old wooden cargo shed with worth a view with remains of an iron weighing scale and cobblestone flooring, but today, the worn out shed has collapsed and forgotten like the city’s railway history and old lines.

17 November 2015

Century-old bridge over India's oldest rail lines to live on!

Rajendra B. Aklekar

rajendraa (@) gmail.com

One of the few oldest remaining road bridges over India's first train line in Mumbai will be demolished today as a part of an upgrade process to be replaced with a new one by the next year. However, the bridge will live on as old plaques and artefacts on the bridge would be carefully removed and incorporated in the new design of the bridge to retain its historic and heritage character. The Central Railway in Mumbai has issued a note saying that the bridge will remain closed for traffic on November 18 of vehicles and pedestrians as the dismantling process begins.

The old iron and stone Hancock Bridge between Sandhurst Road and Byculla stations on Mumbai railway was proving to be too low for new technology suburban electric trains, limiting their speed in the section and affecting the punctuality of the city’s lifeline as a whole.

The line from Mumbai CST to Thane was the first train line opened in India in 1853 and then called the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Company. It was renamed as Central Railway in 1951.

“The new bridge that is being built will be taller and bigger, allowing even double-deck trains to pass under it,” a railway official said. The work is being done by the Central Railway and the local civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) in co-ordination. The BMC had deposited Rs 2.6 crore with the railways for the demolition and shifting of utilities and pipes. Elaborate traffic diversions have been put in place due for the dismantling process. Details here: Traffic

The chief engineer of Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation SO Kori said that the old plaque and other artefacts on the bridge will be removed carefully and embedded in the new bridge design. The plaque has dates of its construction and the bridge name carved in stone.

The original Hancock Bridge was built in 1879 and rebuilt in the 1920s. It was named after Colonel HF Hancock, who was a member of the Municipal Corporation and also its president between 1877 and 1878. The bridge has a simple stone carved inscription on stone blocks that says: 1879 - Hancock Bridge Rebuilt 1923.

Once work on this is over, the next on the agenda is to dismantle and replace the 147-year-old Carnac Bridge in January 2016, on the same line, closer to Mumbai CST. While the Carnac Bridge connects Crawford Market with the dockland area, Hancock Bridge connects old Mazgaon and Dongri areas. The Carnac Bridge named after former Bombay Governor James Rivett Carnac and a jetty named after him further east, has multi-lingual stone plaques that too will be saved during the upgrade.

While the three corners of Carnac Bridge, built in 1868, have the name of the bridge inscribed in three languages, English, Devnagari and Gujarati, the fourth side announces the dates of its opening and a symbol of an anchor.

Details and history of more such bridges and lines here: http://goo.gl/NtJhB4