From the start of very first train in India on 16th of April 1853, railways were a way of life during the British Raj and the glorious history of Indian Railways is handed down from there. British-Indian Railway companies in the early days invested heavily in India with the latest locomotives and equipment and expanded lines everywhere. It is said that the facilities available on trains in India in those days were better than even those in England! During the pre-independence period, trains stood as the silent onlookers. At this time people lived with harmony and peace and humanity was eminent during the period which surpassed the religion based conflicts. However later on, these silent trains saw a totally different side. They saw the collapsing of nation during the partition of India. When the division took place, a few trains felt the desolation of separation from Peshawar which once used to be the terminal of these trains.
Over the years, despite the major changes that occurred in the geography, history or the social changes post-partition, these trains remained to be a part of the nation and continued to render their duties. So in this blog, we’ll be engaging ourselves with those few trains that still are part of the Indian Railways, chugging their way on the tracks recalling the British era.
One of the oldest long distance trains on the Indian Railways- The Punjab Mail. Earlier known as the Punjab Limited, it completed 106 years on June 1, 2018. Being one of the oldest trains of India, this train has bypassed all challenges and continues taking passengers from one part of the country to another. Over 100 years ago, this train was the only one helping people travel from Bombay to Peshawar. Interestingly the origins of this train is based upon a complaint by an enraged passenger on October 12, 1912, about its late arrival by a few minutes at Delhi. Thus as per the records, it started its maiden voyage from Ballard Pier Mole station on June 1, 1912. The British officers, civil servants, and their families directly boarded this train from their ships to Delhi and the North-West frontier of British India.
However, in 1914, the originating station was shifted to Victoria Terminus, and after the partition of India in 1947, Ferozpur was declared as the train’s terminus point. It used to run on fixed mail days from Bombay’s Ballard Pier Mole station all the way to Peshawar, covering the 2496 km in around 47 hours. The train consisted of six cars: 3 for passengers, and 3 for postal goods and mail. The three passenger carrying cars had a capacity of 96 passengers.
As the cars used to cater to the upper class gentry; they were pretty well-appointed and offered all basic amenities such as lavatories, bathrooms, a restaurant car, and a compartment for luggage and the servants of the white sahibs. During the pre-partition period, the train enjoyed the credit of being the fastest train in British India. The Punjab Limited's route ran over GIP track for the large part, and passed through Itarsi, Agra, Delhi, Amritsar and Lahore, before terminating at Peshawar Cantonment. Click here to get schedule of Punjab Mail train.
A little more prestigious “Frontier Mail” is another train which has seen the era of undivided India. It is about 16 years younger than Punjab Mail. It made its debut on September 1, 1928. Soon after the closing down of Ballard Pier, it started operating from Colaba, Mumbai to Peshawar. The Times of London, in 1930, described it as one of the most famous express trains within the British Empire.
During the autumn months (between September and December), the train used to depart from the Ballard Pier Mole station. This was for the convenience of the Britishers who arrived in India by steamer. The train’s route took it through Baroda, Ratlam, Mathura, Delhi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, and finally to Peshawar. Leaving from Mole Station the train ran for a short while on tracks of the Bombay Port Railway and the GIPR via Bandra Junction finally reaching its home tracks of the BB&CI Railway. For the rest of the year the train terminated at Colaba, but a separate train ran to Ballard Pier for the steamer connection.
Peshawar was close to the frontier of British India in those days, hence the name of the train. It used to be the fastest long-distance train in the subcontinent. Originally, it was introduced to rival the Punjab Limited(Punjab Mail) of the GIPR. Initially, the rake had 5 coaches along with a luxury dining car-cum-lounge car. This train offered plush conveniences, and the passengers enjoyed access to luxurious retiring rooms at stations through its way. The passengers enjoyed the air-cooled cars (while using ice blocks) from about 1934. However, after Independence, it went only up to Amritsar, via Delhi, from Bombay. The train has now been renamed “Golden Temple Mail”. Click here to get schedule of Golden Temple Mail train.
Grand Trunk Express
GT Express or the Grand Trunk Express is also one of the oldest trains of India. “GT” started running soon after the construction of the Kazipet-Balharshah section, which was the last link of the Delhi-Madras route. Initially it ran from Peshawar to Mangalore and took about 104 hours, one of the longest train routes. Later this service was changed to Lahore-Mettupalaiyam. In 1930 it gained its present status while running between Delhi and Madras.
From 1st April 1929 the 'Grand Trunk' express commenced operating as two through carriages running between Peshawar in the North Western Railway (British India) and Mangalore in the South Indian Railway. The two coaches made their way to Madras attached to the South Indian Railway's Mangalore-Madras mail train. At Itarsi, the two through coaches from Mangalore were attached to the Great Indian Peninsular Railway's Bombay-Delhi service. In the final leg of the journey between Delhi and Peshawar, the two through carriages were attached to the Frontier mail and reached Peshawar traveling through Bathinda, Ferozepur and Lahore. Thus the train covered a distance of 2497 miles in a little over 96 hours. This was not an independent train and the name 'Grand Trunk express' only referred to the 2 through carriages operating between Mangalore and Peshawar.
As a prestigious train, it was one of the few to have the early methods of air cooling by ice blocks. It also carried a parcel van for urgent consignments. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the train used to run with a completely air-conditioned rake (First AC and AC Chair Car) on two days of the week, and with its usual rake on other days, and hence was sometimes known as the AC/GT Express.
The train had a 21-coach rake in the 1980s, later extended to 22 and finally 24 coaches.Its first-class coaches were of the corridor type with extra large windows. The trains coaches (along with those of other premier trains in the 1970s) also had noticeably better suspension as well. At that time people from Kerala had to first reach Madras and then board the GT to go North. It was said that all of South India travelled to Delhi in the GT which was the only consistent link between the capital of the nation and the deep South for exactly a century, right from when an unbroken direct railway line was built from the north to the south by the British. Click here to get schedule of Grand Trunk Express train.
Bombay Poona Mail
Bombay-Poona Mail was a luxurious train on Mumbai-Pune section by the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. It started off it’s first journey in 1869. It was the first intercity train started between Mumbai and Pune. This train and the famous Deccan Queen Express used to serve Mumbai-Pune commuters for many years. This train was believed to carry Royal Mail and was one of the finest trains in British Empire.
In the year 1907 the train operated with seven coaches with a total weight of 240 seats for 50 first, 95 second and 320 third class passengers. The restaurant car had another 32 seats. The train crew of 8 man included guard, conductor, car attendant, refreshment manager and waiters. The livery of the train was dark red-brown on the lower part and cream for the upper part.
The chairs could be turned around in order that the passengers were always looking in the travel direction. The cars had electric lighting powered by axle driven generators. 3rd class passengers did not have reserved seats. Punkah fans were provided only in 1st and 2nd class. The cars were fitted with vacuum brake and passenger alarm signal. However, the name vanished around 1971 when it became the Sahyadri Express with the same timings between Bombay and Poona.
Kalka Mail is currently the oldest running train in the history of Indian Railways. It completed its 152 years of journey this year and continues to move forward. The train began its operation in 1866 as the “East Indian Railway Mail” with 01 Up and 02 Down number plates.
The train was the principal mechanism by which British civil servants moved to their summer capital in Simla from Calcutta with the entire government machinery traveling on the train at the start of the summer months and returning by it at the end of summer. Both stations, Howrah as well as Kalka, had internal carriageways running along the platform so that the Viceroy and other high-ranking officers could drive right up to their rail coaches. The carriageway at Howrah is still used and runs between Platforms 8 and 9 but the carriageway at Kalka has been converted into platform. With the rationalization of train numbering in the 1990s, the Kalka Mail lost its 1 Up /2 Dn numbering and is now the 12311 from Howrah and the 12312 from Kalka. Moreover the narrow gauge East Indian Railway Mail has been changed to Shivalik Super Deluxe train and takes the passenger from Kalka to Shimla and vice-versa.
Kalka Mail has also been a source of inspiration for many including Satyajit Ray who penned the Feluda mystery incident on the Kalka Mail. Also, in 1941, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose took the train from Gomoh during his great escape northward. Kalka Mail has not only been the most prestigious train of Eastern Railway but played a part of the country’s history as well. Click here to get schedule of Kalka Mail train.
These historic trains are the marvels of India that carried forward the legacies from the past to the present and to the future too as the number of years keep adding to their date of origin. During the partition, a lot of refugees travelled in these trains. These trains have also felt the pain, agony and torment which had been there at the time of partition of India. But they performed their duties and has been servicing the passengers unconditionally. Do travel in the above trains and immerse yourself in the rich history of the Indian Railways!