It is a fine summer day in 1927. A Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company’s ship has just arrived at Ballard Pier in Bombay with passengers from England. They alight and ride a horse-drawn buggy to Victoria Terminus, a short distance away, where a cream and brown train of The Great Indian Peninsular Railway with a mighty maroon steam locomotive is ready to take its passengers on a 36 hour journey across the country to Calcutta. This is no ordinary train and these are no ordinary passengers. Each of them has paid eight times the standard rail fare to travel on this train complete with a fine dining restaurant and bedroom suites with individual bathrooms. This is the most luxurious train in the world of its times. This is The Imperial Indian Mail.
Cut to winter of 2012. The British have long disappeared from India. A much shorter and faster route from Mumbai to Kolkata cutting across the central plains has opened long back and almost all trains between the two metros now use that route. The most prestigious train between the two cities is now the newly started non-stop Duronto Express. The luxurious Imperial Indian Mail is long gone but as its last reminder, there still exists a train, nowhere as luxurious as its predecessor, which takes the long circuitous route from Kolkata to Mumbai as it originally existed during the British Raj, taking 37 hours to complete the 2177 km journey passing through six states, stopping at 48 stations along the way, and that’s the train I was going to board- train number 12321 Howrah-Mumbai Mail via Allahabad.
The Imperial Mail route
I arrived at the sprawling Howrah railway station around 20.00 with two friends- RR and VI who were also traveling by the same train but in different coach than me, a little too early for the scheduled 22.00 departure of the Mumbai Mail and one look at the indicator display board confused me. It was showing “12321 Mumbai Mail Dep 01:00 PF 00” At first we ignored it, thinking the indicator might be malfunctioning but a visit to the Enquiry counter revealed what I had feared. The train was indeed scheduled to depart three hours late, and considering we were at the station two hours early, this meant a long five hour wait! Now,Howrahis one humungous station with 23 platforms and hundreds of trains departing throughout the day, so it is always buzzing with activity, but still, five hours is a long time to wait for the journey to start. We found the air-conditioned waiting room on the second floor of the main station building with a giant terrace overlooking the majestic Howrah Bridge, which was good to kill an hour or so.
Yet another friend CG was going to take the Mumbai bound Jnaneshwari Express departing at 23.00 (but reaching seven hours before I reach owing to its routing via the conventional shorter route) so once he arrived at the station, we headed to the big cafeteria in the concourse to grab dinner. Chaos ruled the place. It has a huge variety of food items displayed on the menu but on enquiry it was revealed that only dinner thali and biryani would be available, and for that too one would have to stand in a serpentine queue to first get a coupon and another one to get the actual food. Thankfully a Monginis outlet within the cafeteria serving mini veg pizza and spring rolls came to our rescue.
It was past 22.00 by the time we got our tummy full. CG’s train was to depart from Platform 21 in the so-called New Complex which is an extension of the originalHowrahstation built by the British and lies a long walk away from the main concourse. Having plenty time to kill, we walked all the way to see of CG, our luggage in tow, and back to the main concourse once his train had departed. Now it was time to wait for any announcement for our train. A large part of concourse floor was by now filled with poor passengers taking trains next morning but having no other place to spend the night. Once the last scheduled departure for the night was gone around midnight, the cleaning crews came out for their duty, while we waited, still clueless about the train’s departure time or platform. By 00.30 passengers started getting restless and some of them, including yours truly, started wandering around anxiously. Someone mentioned that the train always departs from Platform 9, and sure enough I saw enormous quantities of parcels and luggage being brought at the end of that platform to load into the Parcel Vans at the end of the train, so we decided to wait there, in anticipation.
At 01.00, the supposed-to-be departure time, an announcement was made in true Indian Railways’ ambiguous style “Mumbai Mail will depart from Platform 9 shortly”. No mention when it will arrive, no mention when it will depart. “Shortly” is all we need to know. By now we had figured out that the incoming train had arrived at 16.45, six hours late, and around 18.00 it had gone for primary maintenance, which takes about seven to eight hours. This means, even if the yard staff worked real hard, the train might be just about getting ready for its journey. In the next half hour, the same announcement as earlier was made about ten times. Still “arriving shortly”. Still no time of departure given. Finally around 01.35 the train was shunted back into the platform and the impatient crowd took no time to board the train. I had a AC 2 tier seat in a composite First AC + AC 2 Tier coach, numbered HA-1. RR and VI had AC 3 tier seats in B-2, two coaches away from me. My coach was a 1997 make vintage which had probably not undergone any overhaul ever since. Since I had booked my favorite Side Lower berth, I would have two windows to myself, out of which one was discolored and dirty. Thankfully the other window was relatively better off. Since this was such an old coach, there were no plug points, so I had to run to RR and VI to grab an empty power outlet in their coach to charge my dying cellphone overnight, before heading back to my seat, making the “bed” and lying down to sleep even before the train can depart. In my semi-sleep state I noticed we pulling out ofHowrahat 01.55am, almost four hours behind schedule.
I had a comfortable night’s sleep thanks to nice thick blankets and a good soft pillow provided and when I woke up we were at what is today probably the weirdest named station in India- Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Gomoh Junction. It was called a decent “Gomoh Junction” named after the town but then a certain influential politician decided to append the freedom fighter’s name to the station while keeping the town’s name intact too. One of the best parts about travel on Indian Railways is the feeling of waking up in a completely unknown place and finding a chai vendor to start off the day.
A quick look at my copy of The Great Indian Railway Atlas revealed the delayed departure was going to be a blessing in disguise for me- instead of crossing it in darkness, the run through Gurpa-Gujhandi ghat (mountain pass) section would now be in soft morning light, so while all other passengers in the coach were still fast asleep, I opened the door and stood braving the cold winter morning wind blowing into my face. Soon the coach attendant came and asked “Kya janaab! Yahaan bahar kyun jhool rahe ho?” (Young man, why are you swinging at the door here?) I told him my desire to photograph the scenic run and that convinced him. He just smiled and went away.
A look inside the coach revealed all other passengers still fast asleep, curtains drawn, so I walked across two coaches to B-2 where RR and VI were already out at the door, occupying the coach attendant’s seat, and I joined them. A vendor from the Pantry car selling breakfast was stopped in his path and we ordered (and ate) our breakfast sitting at the coach attendant’s fold-down berth next to the door (and that means, next to the toilets too!). Others would cringe at this idea, but for us, it was fun, to have breakfast enjoying the cold morning breeze and the run through ruralBiharinto Uttar Pradesh awaiting the next major halt- Gaya Jn. At Gaya, an elderly Buddhist lady alighted from our coach, probably heading to Bodh Gaya where Gautam Buddha attained nirvana, and as soon as she was seen on the platform, a frail and elderly porter (coolie) walked up to her and to our surprise, asked in English “Where you go? Any more luggage inside?” Yes,IndiaShining!
The run after Gaya was smooth and the coach attendant had by now resigned to the fact that these three crazy guys are not going anywhere and made himself comfortable some other place, leaving the door and his fold-down berth for our use. An hour later, we slowed down for the long crawl across the Upper Sone bridge at Dehri-on-Sone. This 3.2 km long bridge, built in 1900 was the longest railway bridge inIndiafor 110 years before the bridge toKochi’s International Container Terminal took over the crown. Even today, the Upper Sone bridge is the longest bridge one can cross as a passenger in a train inIndia, since the other bridge is for freight trains only. The section from Dehri-on-Sone to Mughal Sarai is triple tracked and we had a good run since the slow freight trains were happy to be on their own different track. I peeped into my coach once and in spite of it being close to noon, even now everyone else was sleeping or lying down with all curtains closed. Don’t these people ever feel claustrophobic? So I decided to head back to the door and awaited the sight I badly wanted to see, one of the prime reasons why I took this train- the run through the gigantic Mughal Sarai yard that seems to go on and on for several kilometers. It is said to be the largest railway yard inAsia, and after looking at its expanse, I don’t doubt this claim.
Mughal Sarai, for those who don’t know, is the major railhead for the city of Varanasi, located a few kilometers away on the opposite bank of the Ganga; the famous Dufferin bridge (rechristened Malviya bridge now) that has formed the backdrop for several photos and movies shot in Varanasi connects the two towns. I was hoping to find some delicious authentic food to grab for lunch here but being at the 21st coach of the train put us way too back from all the food stalls, so I had to settle for the drab and boring lunch provided by the Pantry car. Post lunch I was feeling drowsy so I finally made some good use of the quiet environs of my coach to catch some sleep once we were out of Mughal Sarai, still maintaining the four hour delay we had started off with. At one point I woke up, saw we were crossing Mirzapur, and slept off again. When I woke up we were stationary in the middle of nowhere. A little enquiry revealed we were few kilometers out ofAllahabad and it was 4.30pm, which means the section controllers royally screwed up the once-prestigious Mail’s run between Mughal Sarai and here, adding almost two hours of delay in less than 150 km. Damn!
A couple of more unscheduled halts, a slow crawl over the kilometer long rail-cum-road double decker bridge over the Yamuna and a short parallel race with a freight train later, we pulled in to Allahabad at 17.15, a little over six hours behind schedule. To add to it, I spotted a sparkling new WDP-4B class EMD diesel locomotive standing ready for duty, spoiling my mood further. How? One of the prime reasons I wanted to take the Mail was because it used to be hauled by a pair of classic Alco WDM class diesel locomotives between Allahabad and Itarsi but off late they had instead started assigning it a single “modern” EMD diesel locomotive. I did not like this for two reasons- one, this “upgrade” was actually a downgrade for the Mail, reducing the total hauling power available from 6200hp (2x3100hp) to 4500hp, and two, I get to see truckloads of similar EMD locomotives in the United States, the fun of Indian train journeys is behind classic chugging Alco locos. Anyways, as they say, change is the way of life. The Mail reverses its directions at Allahabad, so the diesel loco was attached behind the last coach (which now became the first coach), the electric loco was detached from the other end, crew changed, train watered and we were out at 17.45, still over six hours behind schedule.
Pulling out ofAllahabad, we crossed the same Yamuna bridge once more, diverted from the line we had just come from, and stopped on a curve at Naini Junction. This station is crossed twice by the Mail, once before going toAllahabadand once after leavingAllahabadbut it stops there only once. Darkness fell little after we left from Naini, so I could not see anything in the entire non-electrified section betweenAllahabadto Itarsi. It was dark but the three of us continued to stay near the open door in B-3. I decided to sit on a small staff seat near the door and my posterior accidentally touched a fire extinguisher cylinder sitting in the corner and activated it. We tried plugging it but it was too late. Within a minute the entire corridor between B-3 and A-1 was filled with foamy white smoke. I ran across the coach and woke up the attendant happily sleeping in his cabinet and informed him about the “accident” and opened all the doors which quickly allowed the smoke to disperse, but the incident left a thin white layer over the floor in the corridor, a tell-tale sign of what had just conspired!
The dinner provided by Pantry Car was again insipid and tasteless and I ended up throwing away half of it. I tried my luck to get something to eat at Shankargarh and Manikpur but both being small-ish stations and my coach now being third from the loco meant we were too far from the food stalls, so I just gave up and decided to sleep, but not before wondering how stark contrast this is from the Imperial Mail of the past that had a well-appointed restaurant car for onboard meals! This night I broke my personal record for longest uninterrupted sleep on a train and woke up directly after ten straight hours of sleep when we were just departing from Khandwa Jn. At around 07.00, means we had maintained our six hour delay through the night. My first instinct was to go to the door and check out who is hauling us now, since we would have had our second loco change at Itarsi sometime in the night, and as expected, an old workhorse WAM-4 from class electric from Itarsi shed was now effortlessly pulling the 24 coach load. Soon we came to an unscheduled stop at a wayside station and the lowly Chhapra-LTT Express overtook us, no respect for the Mail anymore!
We pulled into Bhusaval Jn around 09.30 and the long halt was used to pay a visit to the locomotive and stretch out. In the meantime I realized my cellphone had ran out of juice completely, so I went to RR and VI but the charging point near their seat was being used by other passengers. So now I had to start the treasure hunt in search of an elusive available plug-point! All points in all the AC coaches were occupied, so I walked further ahead into the non-AC section. The non-AC Sleeper coaches have two charging points at one end of the coach, near the door, if present at all. First coach, no plug-points. Next coach, two plug points, both empty, so I happily plug in the phone, but no response. Both were faulty! Walk further ahead. At the next coach finally I found working plug-point, and not just that, also an empty door next to it and enjoy the breeze! I was impressed at the near-absence of any unreserved/ticketless passengers in the non-AC Sleeper coaches. I stood at the door, cellphone in one hand, holding it upright in a way that the charging cable reaches upto the plug point mounted high up, upto Jalgaon and then decided enough of this exercise, back to the confines of AC coach.
The run from Jalgaon to Manmad was through familiar farmlands ofMaharashtraso I decided to join RR and VI inside their coach and indulge in what is also an important part of Indian Railways travels- small talk with fellow travelers about anything and everything. Instead of reaching at teatime, we reached Manmad at lunchtime and not wanting to experiment with Pantry food once more, I grabbed a veg sandwich and mango juice from the station. Since RR and VI were getting off atNasik Roadto take a bus to Pune, all three of us decided to spend the last hour together at the attendant’s berth outside. We pulled intoNasik Roadat 13.45 and RR and VI made their way out as soon as possible to catch their bus while I returned to my original berth, only to realize that my phone had not charged enough in the morning and I need a plug point again! This time luckily in the 3A coach I found one entire bay of six berths empty with a plug point so I decided to make full use of it upto Igatpuri. At Igatpuri it was time for the third loco change of the journey, now the good old WAM-4 giving way to an AC/DC dual power WCAM-3 class electric loco for the last leg into Mumbai.
The halt at Igatpuri was quite long and the passengers were getting impatient by now. I wanted to be at the door for the run through the mountains of Thull Ghat so I waited outside until everyone else had re-boarded. Soon after the train started the coach attendant came to the door, saw me there, I just looked at him and said “Photos”, he probably remembered something from 24 hours ago, smiled and let me stand at the door, even suggesting that there is a “nice bridge ahead”, which I obviously knew! After two fairly long mandatory brake-testing halts we were at Kasara at 15.40 and I told a curious co-passenger that we would be at Kalyan in an hour which he refused to believe. The loco pilot lived up to my expectation and we were at Kalyan’s outer signal at 16.45, but then had to wait fifteen minutes for a platform assignment. I had tickets upto Mumbai CST but I decided to end my journey at this distant suburb of Mumbai and use suburban transport for the remaining journey home, bidding farewell to the train that had been my home for 40 amazing hours.