Reading Time: A Short History of Indian Railways, and some photos

Indian Railways: Fares in air-conditioned trains have increased in recent time and the railways have introduced a feature called "dynamic pricing", which automatically raises or lowers the fare depending on passenger traffic. However, the fare hike is not without reason. The coaches are much cleaner than they were 10 years ago. It's also unrealistic to expect the railways to keep serving in old prices when everything else has become expensive.

Anyone who is fascinated by the world of trains will not be disappointed in reading A Short History of Indian Railways by Rajendra B Aklekar, who has written a biography on legendary railway engineer and "Metro Man" Dr E Sreedharan. The engineer is credited with building the Konkan Railway along the western coast on an extremely difficult terrain and introducing metro rail in India.

A Short History of Indian Railways by Rajendra B Aklekar.

Former BBC India correspondent and author Sir Mark Tully has written an excellent foreword to A Short History of Indian Railways. Here's an excerpt:

I have told tales, too, of my encounters with passengers. There was the passenger on the Khyber Mail who I found reading my book No Full Stops in India. He told me I had no reason to be pleased about this, because he was reading a pirated copy, and went on to say, 'Now write No Punctuation Marks in Pakistan'.

It's quite a coincidence that I also read No Full Stops in India during a train journey from Delhi to Guwahati - the route that I have travelled the most - in 1998. This book was always available at railway platforms in that decade.

I have been taking photos of the railways for a while now. But it was not an easy task to find a book on the railways that can be read and digested easily, until I came across A Short History of Indian Railways. Consider this my appreciation post.

Indian Railways: Watching the world go by from the window of a moving train is quite an experience.

Mr Aklekar's book is neither a dull non-fiction nor a sleep-inducing Dr Laura sermon. Nobody has time for that kind of thing these days. Here's an excerpt from the first chapter:

The old-era rails that supported the roof of the only older-looking platform at this railway station, about five kilometres from Chennai Central station, had revealed nothing to me. The markings did not make any sense. They seemed gibberish. If the rails had been constructed in 1956, it was probably too late to find any link to the origins of the station that was well over a hundred years old. The other platforms around it were either new or being rebuilt.

I was standing at India's oldest functional railway station - Royapuram - in Chennai, south India, in 2017. Opened to the public on 28 June 1856, Royapuram station was inaugurated by the then governor of Madras, Lord Harris, as part of the newly formed Madras Railway. The first train of south India, manufactured by Simpson & Co. Ltd., started its journey from Royapuram to Walajah Road with 300 people, three days after the inauguration - on 1 July 1856. The station remained the headquarters of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway until 1922, when it was shifted to Chennai Egmore.

Indian Railways: A train journey, if you are lucky enough to find yourself in a mostly empty second AC coach of a Rajdhani Express in lean season, would turn out to be quite enjoyable.

Many old-timers who have travelled across India will tell you that a train journey is the only way to see this country in its full reality. There is poverty along the tracks, yet the villages in morning light look beautiful. The vegetation changes to announce that you have entered a new area. The people who come and go speak one dominant language after another as the train passes through the states.

A trip to Asia 46 years ago, which included India, led intrepid traveller Tony Wheeler to publish a series of guidebooks that eventually achieved a cult status, until print guidebooks lost the market to digital.

Rail travel is the best way to experience India, according to Mr Wheeler, who co-founded Lonely Planet with his wife Maureen.

Indian Railways: If you took a train ride anywhere in India, you would see people walking somewhere along the tracks in the middle of nowhere.

"The railways are a real part of India. From hopping on to the toy train in Darjeeling to taking locals I have had some really amazing trips across the country on trains. At one point I even had a monthly rail travel pass," Mr Wheeler told reporters in September 2012 when he came to India to open an office of Lonely Planet.

The couple came to India for the first time in 1972, when they were in their late 20s. Low on funds, Mr Wheeler wrote and self-published Across Asia on the Cheap, the first book from Lonely Planet.

Indian Railways: Do scan the kinds of books they are selling on platforms these days. Compare them with the ones you remember from in the used to be. It's a fun exercise for readers.

"Travelling by train is a delightful experience. The heat is oppressive during the day but the coolness of the early dawn is delicious. Yes, there are now a lot of low-cost flights but nothing like railways," he told reporters.

Few people have time to travel by train these days. Those who do, especially younger millennials and even the not-so-young ones, would be seen taking a train only because they have no other choice. Someone going to their hometown after a long while with a lot of luggage, someone relocating to a new job, someone going for studies in a new place. It would not be wrong to say the number of young people taking the train for sheer leisure is quite small in our times.

If you want a comfortable travel, take the side lower berth in an air-conditioned two-tier coach - it's not crowded like the three-tier coach, and it's not as expensive as AC first class.

Indian Railways: The scenic view at many rail routes across India that rolls by the train window is like looking at an endless photo album. One moment you see a hill, the next you see a pond.

The first thing you might want to do is switch off your mobile phone. Don't open that book as well. The best time to watch the world go by from the train is the early sunset hours and the minutes just before and after sunrise when people are sleeping.

Villages after villages with lush green fields will roll by in their own silence. The sound of the train won't come to you as noise. This is true of any train ride across India. Places will be different but the countryside will have a similar feel - a hut, a field, some trees, maybe a pond, a person walking alone.

This is a sight that never changes during any train ride.

Indian Railways: At the National Rail Museum, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. "Letter written by Ohkil Ch. Sen in 1909 to the Sahibganj divisional office West Bengal after which train compartments came to have attached toilets." Do see journey basket's post on National Rail Museum.

In the cities we try a hundred different things in the pursuit of peace and calm. Maybe, we never realised there is no better relaxing spa treatment than simply gazing out of a train window in the quiet of the dawn.

Indian Railways: Rajdhani Express' 'welcome tea' is a sort of time machine.

All photos by journey basket. Follow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

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