Railway that groans with 13m passengers each day

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STAND IN any of the great stations, in New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and a score of other cities, and you understand at once why the railways are the very sinews of India.

The wide platforms teem with a relentless and restless human traffic, the carriages are crammed and the announcement of departures to places two or three days distant by train speak of an immense land knitted together by its amazing web of rail.

The names of the trains themselves - The Frontier Mail, The Golden Temple Express, The Deccan Queen, The Raj Doot and The Brahmaputra Mail - suggest, for all the heat and dust, the certain romance of the railways of India.

In the nature of things, rail accidents in the sub-continent are likely to produce terrible tolls of death and injury. Air travel is too expensive for most people and relatively few own a car. For long-distance travel the common man, as he is called in India, has no choice but the train or an over- crowded bus driven recklessly fast on some of the world's most dangerous highways.

When trains crash you often hear of acts of individual heroism by railway staff and doctors. But, in general, India's emergency services are poorly equipped. Outside the big cities many hospitals lack even essential equipment and skills. In remote places the death toll is bound to be higher.

On the railways of India, you see and feel some of the enormous pressure of a population growing at more than 17 million a year. There seems to be no such thing in this country as "house full". The railways transport more than 13 million people a day. The trains of Bombay, on which the wealth and power of that astonishing city depend, run at more than twice their designed capacity. Almost everyday one or two of the hundreds of daring young men clinging to the outsides of the carriages fall off. But as you hurry towards one of these hopelessly crowded trains you find willing hands stretching out to pull you aboard.

From the earliest years, Indians have ridden on the roofs of packed carriages. Free roof rides are part of the travel calculations of people visiting their families or heading out of poorer villages to find work and better money in the big cities. Wedding parties, complete with tearful brides huddled against the stinging dust, sometimes ride on roofs.

In 1981, when a train fell from a bridge into a river in Bihar, the carriages were swept away like logs, and perhaps 800 people were drowned. It was India's greatest rail disaster. But no one could be sure how many died because no one could say how many were in the crowded cheaper seats and were riding for nothing on the roofs.

For almost a century and a half, since the first line was constructed in Bombay in the 1850s, railways have been at the heart of India's development and saga. They were vital for the military power and commerce of the expanding Raj and many of the railways - in Khyber, the Himalayas, the Western Ghats - were marvels of imperial engineering.

Mahatma Gandhi spread his freedom message by rail, endlessly criss-crossing the land and always insisting on travelling third class.

The railways, too, played their terrible part in the horrors of Partition in 1947. Trains arrived at stations dripping the blood of the dead, a detail that inspired the title of the best novel by an Indian about Partition, Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan.

The railways were one factor in giving India a sense of itself. In any city the stations are tremendous centres of activity. An Indian once told me that when they built the stations the British made the platforms wide knowing that every Indian traveller would be seen off or greeted by at least 20 people.

It is just as well, though, that the platforms are wide. When you leave a train you are swept along in a torrent of struggling people, porters and baggage.

Many of the millions who travel by train are of course on business or off to see their families. But millions make their pilgrimages by train visiting the shrines, temples and auspicious holy places that devout Hindus and Muslims revere. The immense skein of pilgrimages is part of the unity of India and the trains have made pilgrimages easier.

I have journeyed by rail to many parts of India, and despite yesterday's horrific scenes at Gaisal Station, the rail journey remains perhaps the surest way of getting to know the nature of the land and its people.

Trevor Fishlock's latest book about India is Cobra Road, published by John Murray.