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Railways’ golden girl

When the Rajdhani Express had its first run in March 1969, its speed and amenities made it a wonder on wheels. Fifty years on, the journey may not be as luxurious, but it’s still a favourite for many

Poulomi Banerjee | Hindustan Times

It was sometime in November last year that 38-year-old Souroshankha Maji checked the availability of tickets in the first class of the Rajdhani Express travelling from Howrah to Delhi on March 3, and hit the panic button. “A bunch of us had been planning to take this trip for the past two-and-a-half years and one day I found there were only 16 tickets left,” recalls Maji, a rail enthusiast and member of several Indian railways fan clubs, including the Rail Enthusiasts’ Society and the Indian Railways Fans Club.

Maji immediately texted his fellow travellers, and the next morning, even as they started making online reservations, Maji made his way to the station. All the time, till he had the ticket safely in his hand, he was monitoring the number of seats left on the railway site. But he wasn’t going to make an online reservation. “I hadn’t been to a reservation counter in years. But I wanted a printed ticket for this,” he explains; a memento of a special journey – the golden run or 50th anniversary journey of the Rajdhani Express.

Looking back

In 1960, the Railway Board in India decided to undertake a study to achieve increased speed for its trains, says an Eastern Railway spokesperson. For the past 100 years, the maximum speed on broad gauge in Indian Railways had been restricted to 96 kilometres/hour. A target of 160 kilometres/hour for passenger traffic and 100 kilometres/hour for goods traffic with an intermediate stage of 120 kilometres/hour for passenger traffic was laid. Work started in 1962. As per a Hindustan Times report in 1969, “tests began in 1967. The diesel locomotives and coaches were tested under all conditions including heavy rains.”

Finally, on March 1, 1969, the Rajdhani Express, the country’s fastest train at the time with a speed of 120 kilometres/hour, was flagged off from New Delhi to reach Howrah the next morning. The first journey from Howrah was on March 3. “It was called the Rajdhani because it would connect the country to the capital, Delhi,” recalls senior Supreme Court lawyer Anoop Bose, whose late brother, Adhip, was among the passengers on the first train. Bose had gone to see off his brother, and remembers seeing then railways minister Ram Subhag Singh garlanding the train, before flagging it off. The Rajdhani covered the distance between Delhi and Howrah in approximately 17 hours, where earlier trains had taken at least 24 hours for the same.

“I remember hearing that when the first Rajdhani pulled out of Howrah, many Eastern Railway employees had taken the day off and gone to Dankuni (in West Bengal), to see the train speed by. There is a bridge there under which the Rajdhani travelled and they wanted to get a feel of the speed from there,” recalls former financial commissioner of Indian Railways and a rail enthusiast, Sanjoy Mookerjee.

Apparently, the train’s very exclusivity – and speed – had been points against it when it was being planned. In a feature published in the Outlook magazine on the 40th anniversary of the train, A K Banerji, part of the group at the Railways’ Research, Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO), which conceived and operationalised the Rajdhani in the late ‘60s, was quoted as saying, “Our team was not welcomed in many places.”

All such apprehensions were dispelled after the launch, though. The Rajdhani was a hit. “After Independence, if Indian railways got a brand internationally, it was through the Rajdhani,” says Mookerjee. “This was the second all air conditioned train – the first was the Airconditioned Express; it was fast and for the first time, food was included in the ticket. In those days. flying was not so common. In the Rajdhani we got that feel of travelling by air.”

The ticket was like a folio, like air tickets back then. There was an image of the Qutub Minar on one side and the Howrah Bridge on the other. “Porters were not allowed inside the train,” recalls group general manager (east zone), of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), Debashis Chandra, whose father Ratan Chandra Chandra was the first catering manager of the Howrah Rajdhani. “Coach attendants escorted passengers to their seats, and carried the luggage either to the seats or to the luggage room attached to the vans.” Initially, there were just chair cars and sleeper vans and in the sleeper vans, each compartment had a pedal-operated wash basin and a small cupboard. “Music was played, and recordings of the news broadcast on AIR,” remembers Bose. “There was also a lounge for passengers to socialise.”

The food is what most old-timers remember fondly – starting with tea and snacks to dinner – continental was their speciality – to breakfast the morning after. “My favourite was the breakfast. They always had grilled liver and such things which you wouldn’t get anywhere else,” says Mookerjee. And you would be asked if you needed anything more, adds Bose.

Not only was the train a class apart from others running at the time, so were its passengers. “Women would dress in their best to travel in the Rajdhani. The men would often wear a tie for the journey,” recalls Chandra. He remembers hearing from his father that senior politicians and celebrities from the fields of art and culture would travel on the Rajdhani. The train was a great hit also with business travellers. “They preferred the overnight journey, rather than reaching the evening before and paying for a hotel,” recalls retired chief public relations officer, Eastern Railways, Samir Goswami.

The trip today

Naveen Kumar Gupta, who mans the AH Wheeler book and magazine stall at platform 9, has seen many Rajdhanis and other trains roll in and out of the station in the last seven years that he has been here. And insists that the Rajdhani is still different. “More VIPs travel by this train,” he says. But no one turns to gape now as the Rajdhani arrives at Howrah – there are too many Rajdhanis now connecting Delhi to destinations across the country.

Age has not managed to slow down the Rajdhani; indeed the speed of the Howrah Rajdhani (or Kolkata Rajdhani as it is known) now is 130 kilometres/hour. But it has nevertheless allowed newer entrants in the race to speed ahead. (The recently launched Vande Bharat Express, India’s first semi-high speed train, is billed as the country’s fastest at present). And the ease of flying and competition from economical flights has taken some of the sheen off this once luxury train. While the two and three-tier sleeper coaches that have replaced the chair-cars over the years, mean more people are able to avail of the facility, it seems to have also made the service more mass; like the packaged ice creams and curd that have replaced the made-in-pantry deserts or paper napkins that have taken the place of damask ones with the cutlery tucked in.

There is a still an old-world charm about the first class coaches – black and white sketches of old cityscapes line the aisles and individual tables covered with checkered table cloths are laid for each guest. The wash basins and cupboards in each compartment have disappeared, but advancement has come in the form of disposable toilet seat covers. There are mosquito repellents. The staff – uniformed railways staff has mostly given way to outsourced workers – wear gloves while they serve guests of all three classes. The water cooler has given way to packaged drinking water; there are sachets of tea, coffee, salt, pepper, butter and ketchup on meal trays.

But the famed Rajdhani comfort seems to be sighing in defeat as a passenger on the middle berth of a three-tier compartment sits uncomfortably hunched over his dinner tray. Nearby, a lady repeatedly tries to get the attention of an attendant to ask for a sugar sachet, but the number of passengers he has to attend to means that it will be ages till he can cater to her.

Palate peeve

Food especially is a disappointment for most. “Earlier they would serve soup and fish fry. Look at the food now (points at a greasy samosa and tiny sweet),” says 62-year-old artist A Bhattacharjee. Others grumble about the taste, or the lack of it. In a first class coach, a passengers stares perplexedly at the chicken which is a part of the continental dinner he had ordered – “I can’t make out whether it is boiled or grilled or fried,” he says. “It is just too tough and too tasteless.”

The IRCTC manages the catering on the train, but the on-board service is outsourced to a private vendor. Food for two and three-tier passengers is picked up from base kitchens and only for the first class travellers, meals are prepared on board.

“The clientele is reducing because of air competition. The pressure on pricing has reduced quality. The only place where they can cut corners is in the food,” says a railways employee on condition of anonymity. The attendants still try to offer comfort. And most passengers find the Rajdhani is cleaner, safer and offers a more comfortable journey than other trains in the country. It mostly also maintains the time.

“The last time I boarded a Rajdhani was from Ahmedabad. I knew what I was expecting – clean coaches, good food and comfortable journey – and I got all that,” says senior journalist and author Mark Tully. The train is popular with senior citizens who get a discount on the fare and have the liberty of leisurely travel. It allows 60-year-old housewife Rina Singh to carry more stuff for her children when she visits them in Delhi than a flight would have; gives Madan Sharma more comfort than cramped economy-class flights; and Madhu and Vinay Sinha, who prefer to travel on the Rajdhani first class, a more comfortable and enjoyable journey.

Mookerjee feels it is, in good measure, the emotions of the railway staff that help meet passenger expectations and perceptions about the train.

“I have heard that in the initial years, once when the train was running a little late, a supervisor at a station sent a note to the driver saying ‘make up’. When the train finally arrived on time, the driver sent a reply back saying ‘she has arrived three minutes early’. The locomotive was a ‘she’. A lady. And she continues to be our darling girl,” he says.

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