It began at 3:35pm on April 16th, 1853. 14 coaches carrying 400 passengers steamed out of Bombay's Bori Bunder to a 21-gun salute. They were hauled by three engines picturesquely called Sindh, Sultan and Sahib. It was an hour and fifteen minutes to the destination, Thane.
Of course two freight trains were already operating somewhere a few years before this, but they weren't nice enough for the memsahibs to sit in and didn't get any dress-uniform recognition. So the glamour date (as one might see in a Merchant-Ivory movie) is the Bori Bunder-Thane passenger.
In the first 25 years of Indian Railways, more than 6500 kilometers of track were laid. They moved from narrow gauge to meter gauge, built the Darjeeling Hill Railway, upgraded the coaches at least five times, published a railway timetable, laid emergency lines for famine relief and started construction of the Victoria Terminus. Routes emerged almost simultaneously to the North, East and South. Bombay, Ahmedabad, Ajmer, Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore, Chennai, Salem and Hyderabad were just a few of the places connected rapidly, without the benefit of sixteen-wheeler trucks, cranes or telephones.
The Bangalore Metro, on the other hand, has been 25 years in the making and is still three years from completion (at the last estimate).
But in spite of that (and others like it), Indian Railways remains an awe-inspiring phenomenon, noticeably so even in a country where you're likely to find one around any random corner. 108,805 kilometres of track connect the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean, the Arabian sea to the Bay of Bengal. Across the vast spaces, signals rise and fall, points click and move, the little piece of paper with your name on it appears by magic on the reserved coach.
For me, like for many others, the life and times of the railways are caught up in my own, from a child who kept falling off the top berth to a lawless adult hanging out the doorway of a speeding express. Like everyone else I’ve resisted the temptation to pull that chain just once, just to see if it works. Cut dangerously across the rails from one platform to another, rather than climb the stairs. Still believe that even the most questionable food tastes great in the train.
In the first 25 years of my life, my local station went from a single-rail ghost stop to a seven-platform junction. The railways form India's only living, breathing, evolving historical monument. The Bangalore-Chennai Mail that I know so well has been running for 145 years.
I've stopped looking bewildered by choice when would-be tourists ask me where they can see the "real India". Now I tell them: just ride the trains. (One of them took my advice and so I discovered that there's an Indrail pass, modeled on the Eurail one.)
Perhaps one day the Shatabdi will be a bullet train and the commuter trains will run on elevated rail. Meanwhile, Indian Railways functions, through flood, famine, fire, riots, strikes, accidents, budget cuts – all the hazards of being the national carrier to a large and unwieldy democracy – almost always against the odds. If the trains stopped, so would the country.
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