India's 60,000-km Lifeline: A Report on the Indian Railways from 1978

From the plains of the Punjab to the jungles of Kerala, from the deserts of Rajasthan to the Himalayas, from Calcutta to Bombay, the world’s largest democracy literally moves on its rails

By Arthur Zich Published Jun 9, 2023 15:49:36 IST
India's 60,000-km Lifeline: A Report on the Indian Railways from 1978 An Indian Railways class WP steam locomotive, Nr. 7599 at Erode, Tamil Nadu in 1977; Photo: (this and previous spread) Courtesy of Alon Siton; Historical Railway Images (

By almost any measure, it is a staggering operation. With 60,000 track and Rs 4,320 crores in capital assets, the Indian railway system is the largest under one management in the free world. It moves more people than any other transport system anywhere. And with 1.7 million workers, it is the biggest single employer in India. Each day, its 11,000 trains haul some 7,00,000 tons of freight. “Stop the trains for 20 days and you’ve completely disrupted the Indian economy,” says K. S. Rajan, the chairman of India’s railway board.

With an average passenger fare of 3.5 paisa per kilometre, it is also the world’s cheapest transportation system. Indians make the most of it every 12 years. Near AIlahabad, for example, the Kumbh mela festival draws some five million Hindu pilgrims. It is, by the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest gathering of humans anywhere. In 1977, 950 trains got them there.

But it doesn’t take festivals to bring out the crowds. The rails carry an astonishing nine million people every day of the year. Unfortunately, not all of them pay. Some four million cases of ticketless travellers clog the courts each year, and no one knows how many others go undetected. Other forms of crime are more serious on train murder, robbery and dacoity. Armed robbery involving physical injury have risen alarmingly in all 22 states. Theft of pig iron from wagons is so common that some illicit foundries depend on it as a main source. Railway properties such as fans, lights, window frames and whole lengths of track is spirited away. In the past five years, for example, close to 7,000 kilometres of copper cable have disappeared.

image-51_060923034849.jpgRecovery and repair efforts underway after a washout accident on the Bengal–Nagpur railway.

Seasonal Disasters

But nature is by far the biggest threat to the sprawling network. Sandstorms in the Rajasthan desert bury tracks to depths of up to three metres on lines threading through the Himalayan foothills. Landslides close the tracks an average of 30 days a year. In the jungles of Assam, wild elephants derail locomotives, but monsoon rains and sudden storms cause the most damage. To guard against washouts, bridge piers are marked at high water danger levels, and some 20,000 linemen patrol the tracks during the wet season.

Still, accidents happen. In the spring of 1977, a lake in the mountains of Bhutan overflowed and sent down deluge that tore out four bridges. An express train plunged into the torrent, and 85 people were killed. Such tragedies are rare. However, the railway is remarkably quick to respond in emergencies. About three o’clock one rain drenched night in July 1977, a flood swept away the Damanganga River bridge on the coast north of Bombay, blocking train movements on the Western railway. R. P. Singh, then additional chief operating superintendent for the Central Railway, immediately sent six diesel engines to the rescue. Hooked up fore and aft, the diesels hauled the stalled traffic by another route over the coastal mountains, up the steepest rail grade in the world. Western Railways officials then supplied buses to carry passengers to special trains on the other side of the river. Next, the railway got its work crew out. “Within four months, repairs had been completed, and we were back to normal operation,” Singh recalls. And most important, not a single life was lost.

Spectacular Journey

My first experience on India’s railways was a journey up the precipitous face of the Nilgiri Mountains from Mettuppalaiyam to Ootacamund, the fabled ‘Queen of the Hill stations’. A four-hour, 45-kilometre crawl, the trip offers spectacular views of the coastal plains and some heart stopping halls atop trestles stretching over seemingly bottomless gorges. I’ve ridden other trains as well, including the high speed Taj Express, which zips from Delhi to Agra and back in a single day. But the trip that captured for me the feeling of Indian rail travel at its best was the one I took from Bombay to Delhi.

As on most of India’s long distance trains, there are accommodations for every pocketbook, ranging from first class air-conditioned, (with which I indulged myself) to second class ordinary. The platform was the usual world of milling passengers and porters balancing luggage on their bright red turbans. The coaches were alive with wailing babies and people stashing bundles on overhead racks. Singing beggars plucked their one string fiddles, and vendors crying “Chane walla!” sold paper cones of boiled pulses sprinkled with chopped green chilies and lemon juice. I had a four-berth compartment to myself, which was spotlessly clean and blessedly quiet as the train glided silently smartly on time out of Bombay Central Station.

Nourishing Meals

M. L. Narula, chief catering inspector for the Bombay section of the Western Railway, joined me for a delicious cooked-to-order lunch of spiced chicken and parathas. Later, I sampled the hot-plate fare served airline style in the coaches, and that too, was delicious. “Food for the masses on a no-profit, no-loss basis,” Narula explained. “Two vegetables, one dal, three parathas, 150 grams of pulao, one yoghurt, one dessert—all for three rupees”. He beamed expansively: “21 years on the line and not one complaint.”

In the morning, a little after seven o’clock, we slid into Bharatpur, Rajasthan. Above the green and black station sign, a polished brass bell glinted in the sun. Out of low lying mist, barefoot porters laden with fresh fruits and milk for breakfast shuffled towards the pantry car. Goats trotted herky-jerkily down the platform. Food aboard the train gave the faintest lurch and moved out again. Three hours later, I was looking out on the bustle of New Delhi station and was on my way to a round of appointments at the sprawling redstone Rail Bhavan in the cluster of Delhi’s government buildings.

The men who inhabit the Rail Bhavan and run India’s railways look on the system with a pride and esprit that borders on ferocity. And well they should. The system began out of the British 125 years ago, but it was the Indians themselves who made it what it is today.

image-52_060923034910.jpgBengal Nagpur Railway Poster, 1950

On 16 April 1853, amidst waving banners and a fortress cannonade, three steam engines hauling 20 coaches and 400 people clanked out of Bombay Station and traversed 34 kilometres to Thane, to the astonishment and wonder, reported the Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce of the assembled thousands. By the time the Union Jack fluttered down for good in 1947, the outlines of the present system were in place. But what the British left behind was not a system. It was 42 different systems with three gauges, and much of the equipment had been sent to West Asia for the war effort. “At the end of the war,” writes M. A. Rao, a former general manager of the railways and the author of its most thorough history, “the entire railway system was almost on its last legs.”

The newly independent government forged a five year railway development plan, then budgeted 20 per cent of all public sector funds for its implementation. It reorganized the British mish-mash into nine regional zones operating under Delhi’s control. It added 6,000 lines and increased the length of existing lines. And the railway put people to work there’s. The largest civilian employer in the free world.

Now Self-Sufficient

To date, Indian railways manufactures its own rolling stock, maintains its own research and development facility and runs a full time management college at Baroda, a 22 hectare spread converted from a maharaja’s palace that turns out 900 officers a year. 

As Rajan puts it, “We’re a family—and like all Indian families, we’re a big one.” The railway offers its workers and their families low cost housing, free medical care, schooling, libraries and transportation, and even runs a string of holiday homes for workers. A fraternal bond plainly ties the system’s employees together. Even the loftiest desktop executive in the Rail Bhavan speaks of himself as “a railway man.” And it’s not an affectation. A third of the system’s 9,000 officers, including board chairman Rajan and most of the other board members came up through the ranks.

Labour relations are good, but they have not been without trial. Back in 1974, labour management difficulties boiled up into a nationwide strike that ended only after mass arrests and the dismissal of 17,000 workers. But that is now a thing of the past. In one of his first acts as railway minister, Madhu Dandavati reinstated all employees. And to a man, the current members of the board speak of the need for a continuing dialogue with the ranks of labour. “We’ve come a long, long way,” concedes Maniben Kara, president of Bombay’s Western Railway Employees Union and perhaps the nation’s foremost woman labour leader. “The days of 1974 will never come again.” 

The rank and file echo these sentiments. Employees—a repairman from the Punjab, a gatekeeper of the desert, a diesel driver from the jungles of Assam—not only like what they do, but they take pride in their work. Swaroop Lal, 49, station master for tiny Garhi Harsaru, on the edge of the Rajasthan desert, summed up the feeling: “My grandfather was a station master,” he said. “My father was a railway guard. My uncle was a transportation inspector. I just never thought of going into any other work.” He added thoughtfully, “I’d be proud if my son followed in my footsteps.”


From the Reader's Digest December 1978 edition


Do You Like This Story?
Other Stories