Railways’ golden girl: 50 years of the Rajdhani
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 have 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. “I was in Chandannagar at the time, and when I went to the station, there were some 10 people in front of me in the queue. I was paranoid that I wouldn’t be able to get a ticket. So I rushed to the Bandel station (a nearby town) and got a printed ticket from there.” 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.
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 km/hour. A target of 160 km/h for passenger traffic and 100 km/h for goods traffic with an intermediate stage of 120 km/h for passenger traffic was laid. Work started from 1962. And then, as a Hindustan Times report in 1969 states, “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 120km/hr, 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 on March 3, 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.
Rail historian and enthusiast Shubhabrata Chatterjee remembers looking at the train in wonder as a child even in the 1980s, more than a decade after it had been launched. With its dark glasses, shielding its luxurious interiors from prying eyes, it was a star.
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.” Mookerjee’s own memories of travelling in the Rajdhani dates back to soon after the train was launched. “In those days. flying was not so common. In the Rajdhani we got that feel of travelling by air,” he says.
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 Debashis Chandra, group general manager (east zone), of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), 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, and the brand has been there for too long, to inspire that kind of feeling.
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 130km/hr. 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. In another seat nearby, a lady repeatedly tries to get the attention of an attendant to ask for a sachet of sugar, but the number of passengers he has to attend to means that it will be ages till he can cater to her. Finally, a fellow passenger helps her with her own unwanted packet of sugar.
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, one of the 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 – “once when the train was running late, one of the servers advised me to have an extra egg for breakfast so that I am not hungry later,” remembers Samit Roychoudhury, a rail enthusiast. 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, which is why it still continues to be a favourite.
“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 housewhife 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 – an Anglo Indian chap – 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.
Certainly it enjoys a special bond with railways enthusiasts. Today - Sunday, March 3 - members of the Rail Enthusiasts’ Society will be at Howrah with banners inspired by the first ticket of the train, to celebrate the Rajdhani’s 50th anniversary. At least 25 fans, including those living in Pune, Bengaluru and even Singapore will board the train from Howrah to travel to Delhi. More are expected to join along the way. “We haven’t done this kind of thing for any other train,” admits Roychoudhury who had also travelled on the train on its 40th anniversary run, and will be a part of this. For its part, the railways will greet all passengers with a card and a pamphlet with a history of the train. The coaches will have carry stickers or banners with the anniversary year mentioned. New linen will be put out for the passengers and the IRCTC will ensure that for that day at least passengers feast again on the famed Rajdhani fish fry. For passengers in the first class the celebratory meal will include a desert of caramel custard, while two and three-tier passengers will be served rosogolla.
Maiden Run: Three Men From The First Ever Rajdhani
A Ramji: Divisional Operating Manager, Allahabad, in 1969
When the Rajdhani was launched, A Ramji, as divisional operating manager, Allahabad division (which stretched from Ghaziabad to Mughalsarai in Uttar Pradesh), was asked to travel in the train’s locomotive or footplate, as it is called in railway parlance. “Usually, there is a driver or loco-pilot and an assistant in the locomotive. But because of the Rajdhani’s speed – unprecedented at the time – it had two drivers on that journey, and both had control of the engine,” says Ramji, who retired as general manager of south-eastern railways in 1995.
As the train passed through Tundla, people gathered to watch, since this was the first train that didn’t stop at the station, he recalls. “But as we approached Ekdil, near Etawah, we got information that a goods train had derailed and was blocking the tracks. One of the officers, however, immediately rushed to the spot and ensured that the track was soon cleared and the Rajdhani didn’t have to stop for too long. There was a tremendous pride in the rail staff about the Rajdhani” says Ramji. Still, there had been a delay of about half an hour. “But the drivers took the train at the maximum possible speed, to make up for the delay and to ensure that the train arrived at Howrah on time – we had many journalists and VIPs on board and it wouldn’t have done for the high speed train to be delayed on its maiden run.”
Ratan Chandra Chandra: First Catering Manager, Howrah Rajdhani
Debashis Chandra, group general manager (east zone), of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), sits in the cabin, from where his father, Ratan Chandra Chandra, had retired as assistant commercial manager (catering), Eastern Railway. But it is for his work on the Rajdhani, when the train was introduced, that Ratan, who passed away in 2016, is best remembered. “He joined the train as catering manager then rose to the rank of catering supervisor and finally train superintendent,” says Debashis. “He would carry chocolates in his pocket and would give them to children travelling on the Rajdhani. This gesture became so popular, that the railways made chocolates part of the offering on the train. Often, even older people would put their hands out for the chocolates,” remembers Debashis.
As manager and later supervisor, Ratan Chandra Chandra was actively involved in drawing up the menu. “And he would taste every dish before it was served to the passengers,” says his son. The menu would be changed – real beckti fish fries were served on the train. “And if some passenger said he didn’t want chicken, my father would get him an extra fish fry. Or if someone wanted mutton some day, or was ill and wanted khichdi, it would be prepared for him. There were fewer restrictions and he didn’t worry about cost when serving a passenger.”
The Rajdhani moulded his tastes. “I never saw him without a tie. And he loved perfumes. He would say that the passengers smelt so good, that he had to follow suit,” says Debashis. Ratan Chandra Chandra left the Rajdhani in 1984. His son joined Eastern Railway in 1991. “ But once, when I was travelling by the Rajdhani , and someone mentioned my name to one of the passengers, I was told the passenger wanted to see me. I went to see singers Dhananjay Bhattacharya, Shyamal Mitra, Arundhuti Holme Chowdhury and Shibaji Chattopadhyay were travelling together. Dhananjay Bhattacharya looked at me and said I wasn’t the person he was seeking. I laughed and asked whether he was looking for my father, Ratan Chandra Chandra, and he exclaimed ‘yes’, and asked me his whereabouts. I told him he had been made an officer. He hugged me. All passengers of the Rajdhani in those years knew my father by name.”
Ashwani Kumar Kohli: Worked on a computer programme for realignment of curves on the Rajdhani tracks
In 1968-69, Ashwani Kumar Kohli was a probationary officer in the Eastern Railways, stationed at Asansol. “We were working on the track realignment for the Rajdhani, suitable for the superfast train, and I worked on a computer programme for realignment of the curves,” says Kohli. “At the time, computer science was at a very nascent stage in India, and I used the computer at IIT Kharagpur for the programme,” he recalls.
Kohli explains: “Basically when there is a bend or curve in the tracks, there is a jerk. This programme helped the train to negotiate the curve smoothly. It was accepted by the railways to be implemented for the Rajdhani and it was a privilege for a probationary officer to be associated with the Rajdhani project.”