16 April 2016

16 points about India's first train journey -- 163 years of Indian Railways


16 FACTS OF INDIA’S FIRST RAILWAY- 16 APRIL 2016- Rajendra B. Aklekar

India’s first passenger train with three Vulcan-built steam locomotives & 14 wooden rail cars ran between the 21 mile (34km) distance of Boree Bunder (today called Mumbai CST) & Thana (today called Thane) on Saturday, April 16, 1853 at 3:35pm. The journey completes 163 years today on April 16, 2016, also a Saturday. 

Here are 16 fascinating points about it from my book Halt Station India.

11 April 2016

Another relic along India's first railway line pulled down

Sigh! A relic along Indian Railways' first railway line goes down. Old stone cabin Kurla station on platform 1 demolished to make way for a public utility. Not that it was a part of the actual first line, but definitely along the original route of the G.I.P Railway, the country's first railway company and belonging to that era, a cute little stone structure. The first black/white pic in the collage is a shot of the same cabin as featured in the 1974 Hindi film '27 Down' directed by Awtaar Krishna Kaul.

A historic ride and War of Currents on Indian Railways

A historic ride and War of Currents on Indian Railways

Rajendra B. Aklekar

Inventor Nikola Telsa finally won over Thomas Alva Edison in the war or currents on Indian Railways and the midnight of April 9-10 was a historic one for rail fans and followers of Indian Railways.

The story goes that in the late 19th century, inventors Thomas Alva Edison and Nikola Tesla battled over which electricity system—direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC)–would become world standard. Their battle was termed as the ‘War of the Currents’. While Edison, who developed the world’s first practical light bulb, phonograph, the motion picture camera, championed the direct-current system, while Tesla pushed for the alternating-current system, which could be distributed over long distances much more economically than DC.

Archives state that the India’s first railway company, The Great Indian Peninsula Railway, that also ran the country’s first main-line electric train in 1925 (Trams and industrial locos had already been running by then) chose Edison’s 1500V Direct Current for its higher start-up power and easy speed control with various combinations. It was in 1956 that the shift happened to Telsa after a study and recommendation by S.N.C.F, the French government railways to adopt 25,000V AC single-phase traction as a standard for Indian Railways to meet the challenge of the growing traffic. The power mode was switched over in phases since then and the original line where it all started became the last line in the country for the switch-over.

The last Direct Current train on the mainline of Indian Railways ran between the 16-km distance of Kurla and Mumbai CST stations on the midnight of April 9-10, 2016. The train was welcomed with live bands, dance performances and celebrations at most of the stations on the route. The journey of India’s first electric train had started on the same route and it ended at the same station, Mumbai CST where it had all begun 91 years ago. The special last train, with the General Manager Brigadier Sunil Kumar Sood, senior officials, media, rail fans and invitees, departed Kurla at 1130pm on Saturday, April 9, 2016 from platform 8 at Kurla suburban station and reached Mumbai CST exactly at 12:22am on Sunday April 10, 2016 as I photographed, video-graphed and live-tweeted the entire event with pics on my account @rajtoday. It was indeed a matter of pride and honour to be a part of the historic last DC train journey on the mainlines of Indian Railways. DC traction, however, continues to remain on the Kolkata Metro, a zone of Indian Railways, which is powered by a 750V DC third line.

It was 91 years ago on Tuesday, February 3, 1925 from Victoria Terminus, now UNESCO-listed Mumbai CST, that the India’s first mainline electric train, with DC power, had been flagged off by Bombay Governor Sir Leslie Orme Wilson (Governor-Dec 1923-March 1926) from platform 2. The last DC train on Sunday, April 10, 2016, that was piloted by motorman Anupam Dongre, arrived at platform one, to be welcomed by the Divisional Railway Manager and his team, in the presence of two Members of Parliament Arvind Sawant and Rahul Shewale.  

The DC-diamond pantograph went down for one last time and the ‘dead‘ train was towed away by a shunter loco, a few minutes’ delay happened during coupling due to jammed knobs, as if the DC train did not want to leave service and Mumbai CST the last time so easily.

As the train reached Mumbai CST to a live band by Central Railway team in uniform, there more dances and performances at Mumbai CST and a was a small formal function at the Star Chamber, the glorious FW Sevens designed booking hall, with screens of the control room and the switchover. The magnificent building remained lit throughout the night.

Earlier in the day, I had started my journey from Sanpada carshed where I joined the other rail fans to decorate the last DC train that was being prepared for the journey. The ‘Art Deco’ Jessop-series 319 train had been chosen for the journey and painted over in the original standard brown-yellow colour that had been the signage of Mumbai trains over the past ninety years. 

The Central Railway had come out a plan to sell tickets for Rs 10,000 per seat for a ride in the historic train so the train really had to look good. But at the end of the day, no one turned up to buy tickets and invitees and general public joined the event, giving it a true Mumbai colour. While the whirring sound of the motor coaches and other features of the old train that I have grown up with will be solely missed, one physical feature that will go missing for sure is the DC diamond-shaped pantograph. Adieu DC trains!

22 February 2016

Different Tracks

Different Tracks: Two sets of well-preserved tram tracks, and a junction point made by Edgar Allen of Sheffield, were uncovered by workers digging up the road near Flora Fountain in preparation for concretising it. As

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.