Notebook: Sun sets on the Empire's railway

Last week's disaster exposed the overcrowding and negligence behind the `romance' of rail travel in India

THE ROMANCE of Indian railways is perhaps the most powerful myth of the British Raj. Even after last week's disaster when two trains collided in the Himalayan foothills killing nearly 300 passengers, there is no symbol that evokes so much nostalgia for our imperial past. Nothing evokes such pride, either. "But we gave them the railways," is the standard reply to criticisms of the Raj.

The pride is justified by the achievements of the British engineers who built the railways, but why the romance? There is a romance about all railways and the age they created, but in India there was also the sheer size of the enterprise. There were the holy and the historic places first linked by the railways, the sacred river Ganges whose course the railway followed, the foothills of the Himalayas the railways managed to climb.

There was the role the railways played in the lives that still so fascinate us - the young subaltern boarding the Frontier Mail at Bombay to join his regiment for the first time in "Pindi", the Oxford-educated civil servant travelling from one dusty district headquarters to another, the Viceroy in his special train, and the Maharajas in theirs.

Kipling's Kim was the most joyful person in India entertaining the passengers of a third class railway carriage through the night. John Masters' most famous heroine was the daughter of an engine driver. David Lean included two trains in his film of A Passage to India to satisfy our nostalgia for the railways of the Raj.

But there can be no romance without reality, no fantasy without fact. For us India's railways may symbolise the romance of the Raj but their builders intended them to symbolise the harsh reality of British rule. Indians were to be overawed by the magnificence of the great termini. The Victorian Saracenic-Gothic grandeur of Bombay's Victoria Terminus made St Pancras look positively plain. The symbolism of Lahore and Delhi's stations, built like fortresses, was even more obvious. Indians were to be discouraged from mutiny by the speed of troop trains. The extravagant luxury in which the British travelled was to demonstrate that they were a caste above any Brahmin. The Anglo-Indian drivers and firemen, station- masters and signal-men told Indians that only those whose loyalty to the foreign rulers was beyond doubt would be trusted and rewarded.

But Indians were not overawed by the railways. They used them to spread the message of the independence movement. Mahatma Gandhi deliberately chose to travel third class to demonstrate that he shared the suffering of the poor. He put the British in their place, saying railways were not, as they had tried to suggest, "evidence of a higher civilisation". They were at best, he said, "a necessary evil".

Necessary the railways certainly were to the development of India. It was only after the railways came that cotton could be brought to the ports to be shipped to Manchester and jute to Dundee. The tea travelled down from the hills in the tiny trains of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Long, lumbering, goods trains brought coal to fuel the mills of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay.

First class compartments were luxurious, and first class passengers on mail trains could eat in restaurant cars with elaborate French menus, far beyond anything I can ever remember experiencing in a British train. Every possible comfort was available, including plenty of space for their servants. Skilled barbers boarded the train in the early hours of the morning. A British Raj traveller told me he knew it was time to get up when he felt his cheek and found he'd been shaved.

As passengers went down the pecking order the reality became less pleasant. Kipling, who researched at least one of his stories by travelling intermediate class, described that as "very awful indeed". It took the railways nearly 30 years to provide lavatories for third class passengers. They were eventually forced to do so by the public outcry about conditions in third class. One Mr Sen wrote to the East Indian Railway: "I am arrive by passenger train at Ahmedpore Station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just as I doing the nuisance that guard making whistle blow off for train to go off and I am running when I am fall over and expose all my shockings to man and female on the platform."

These days only the most adventurous foreigners actually travel on Indian Railways. Travel agents, put off by the bureaucratic barriers to booking tickets and the miserly commission paid by the railways, usually persuade customers to go by air or road. "Oh, I would love to travel by train but I was advised not to," is a refrain I often hear from tourists beyond back-packing age. There is now a special luxury train, the Palace on Wheels, which cruises round the North Indian tourist spots. It may well be romantic. I haven't tried it, but it is certainly far from the reality of most Indian rail travel today.

Train is still the preferred means of travel for most younger tourists, often students in their gap year. They take a realistic view. The railways are as cheap as buses and usually faster and more comfortable. But they find little romance. Steam has disappeared almost entirely. Restaurant cars are a thing of the past. The alternatives are snacks on the station, or an indifferent take-away. Some trains retain their romantic names from the Raj. The Grand Trunk Express still runs from Delhi to Madras, but the once-proud Frontier Mail, its journey shortened by the partition of India, is now the Golden Temple Express. Carriages once painted in the liveries of the different companies are now almost universally a dull maroon. Only first class travellers enjoy the privacy of separate compartments. The trains do cover enormous distances but often lose hours on the way. My uncle told me of a dressing down he gave to a stationmaster who appeared to have sent the Madras Mail on its way early. The stationmaster replied: "Oh no, sir. It's you who are mistaken. The train you have just missed is yesterday's."

Even roof-top travel is a rarer sight now because overhead electrification has made it suicidal instead of just dangerous on many lines. But the unavailability of a seat on the roof only makes the cheaper carriages even more crowded. Although lavatories are now provided Mr Sen might still have suffered an indignity if he was travelling today because the loo would probably be occupied by passengers with nowhere else to stand. I recently interviewed a passenger by sitting beside him in a luggage rack. There is no doubt that the list of casualties in last week's accident would not have been so long if the two trains had not been so crowded.

After the accident, which all the evidence so far suggests was caused by negligence, the chairman of the Indian Railways Board talked about enforcing military discipline on his million-strong staff. Pride in being a railwayman and the discipline that went with it has withered away, which is perhaps the saddest as well as most dangerous reality of today's Indian railways. A retired driver put the blame on the departure of steam. "What's there to be proud of in driving a diesel?" he asked. "It takes years to be a top steam engine driver; anyone can drive a diesel after a few months." But lax discipline can't all be blamed on new forms of traction. Times have changed in India as elsewhere and modern management doesn't exactly put a premium on old-fashioned loyalty. Fear has now replaced loyalty as the spur to efficiency, but Indian railways are still nationalised, so no one is afraid of losing their jobs.

Perhaps Indian railways need to be privatised, but I think even Richard Branson might blanch at the thought of Virgin Trains India.

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