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The Rajdhani at 50

  • Even as Indian Railway starts work on the Train 20 project, a Rajdhani loyalist looks back at 50 years of the iconic train
  • Since Rajdhanis are among the rare trains on Railway that make profits, there was a temptation to introduce more and more of them

The Rajdhani’s old coaches used to be dull maroon or rust-coloured. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The Rajdhani’s old coaches used to be dull maroon or rust-coloured. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

What were the important events of 1969? Too many.

You may think of the moon landing. So let me refine the question. What were the important events in India? Split in the Indian National Congress, bank nationalization? For train travel, it should be the introduction of the Rajdhani Express on 1 March 1969, 50 years ago.

The 1969-70 Railway Budget speech promised: “It is proposed to introduce Rajdhani Express, a biweekly service, between New Delhi and Howrah, which will cover the distance in less than 18 hours." Sometimes, the date of the inauguration of Rajdhani Express is given as 1 March, sometimes as 3 March. Both birthdays are correct. The inaugural Rajdhani left New Delhi at 5.30 pm on 1 March and reached Howrah at 10.50 am the next morning—17 hours, 20 minutes. But unless they are specials, trains come in pairs. The return Howrah-Delhi Rajdhani left Howrah at 5 pm on 3 March and reached New Delhi at 10.20am the next morning.

Those speeds compare very favourably with today’s Rajdhani speeds. But it is not as if those speeds were readily accepted back in 1969. The maximum speed permitted for Express trains then was 100 kmph and here was a proposal to increase maximum speed to 140 kmph. There would be safety issues, it was argued. Tracks wouldn’t be able to take it, nor would coaches or locomotives (initially, the locomotive was diesel). Zones opposed it, so did the railway board. These debates continued as trial runs started in 1967. Eventually, a maximum speed of 120 kmph was allowed; it was increased in 1971 to 130 kmph.

That Rajdhani was special. I have lost count of the number of Rajdhani Expresses today. Every state must have a train named Rajdhani Express, connecting it to the national capital. I think there are 26 pairs of Rajdhani trains now. Till 1972, there was only the Howrah Rajdhani. The Mumbai Rajdhani started in 1972. In the 1970-71 Railway Budget speech, we were told, “The Rajdhani Express between New Delhi and Howrah introduced from 1st March 1969 has proved to be very popular. In response to demands for similar trains to Bombay by the Western Railway route and to Ahmedabad by the Metre Gauge route, feasibility studies are now in progress." Nevertheless, till 1992 (I think), there were just two Rajdhanis—the Howrah Rajdhani and Mumbai Rajdhani, the only trains permitted those kinds of speeds.

Since Rajdhanis are among the rare trains on Indian Railway that make profits, there was a temptation to introduce more and more of them and charge higher fares. Plus there was the prestige of one or more Rajdhanis in your state. Psychologically, however, I feel there are only two Rajdhanis, Howrah and Mumbai. The others don’t count, even if we have tried to dilute the special by reducing everything to a lowest common denominator. Travel on these different Rajdhanis and you will see the perceptible difference.

As a student, I travelled on the Howrah Rajdhani in 1970 and it was quite an experience—India’s only fully air-conditioned train. At the time, it didn’t stop anywhere between Howrah and Delhi, except at Gomoh, Mughalsarai and Kanpur—technical halts to fill overhead tanks and for catering. Kanpur became the first passenger stop in 1971, and, succumbing to demands, more and more stops were allowed.

Back then, the Rajdhani ran twice a week. If you wanted to travel by it, you carefully chose the day of the week. Now, there is a Rajdhani every day. Back then, there was no second class (2 tier or 3 tier) on the Rajdhani. If you wanted to sleep, you travelled first, or chose some other train. As a student, there was no question of travelling first. Therefore, the AC chair car. The fare was probably 90 by AC chair car and 280 by AC first. This included food, which back then was extremely good and a novelty, a precursor of standard IRCTC (Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corp.) stuff now.

That you couldn’t open the windows and would stare at the world and passing stations through tinted glasses was a novelty. The wide windows were a novelty. Once you boarded, there would come a trolley that was a library. You could borrow books to read during the journey, even in the AC chair car. AC first, I believe, had a lounge where you could sit and read, or play cards. Computer-printed tickets were a novelty. As I said, the Rajdhani was special. Today, the Rajdhani is just another good train.

In its day, the Rajdhani brought plenty of innovations. Just as Train 18 has changed the nature of the Shatabdi, perhaps Train 20 will change the future of the Rajdhani. There is never a uni-causal explanation for developments. But it was the Rajdhani that triggered the introduction of WAP electric locomotives. It was the Rajdhani that triggered innovations in air-conditioning equipment during winter, or in emergency lighting. It was the Rajdhani that triggered some of the comfort and accessories we associate with coupés and coaches today.

Locomotives and trains sometimes have distinctive liveries, though we tend to notice liveries of coaches more than those of locomotives. Old coaches used to be dull maroon or rust-coloured. Once the system of braking changed, the new coaches became blue. For a long time, you could identify the Rajdhani (there is a similar story with the Shatabdi) through its red-cream-red livery. If you see that livery today, can you be certain it is a Rajdhani? No, it might be the August Kranti Express, or some other Express.

I think this typifies what has happened with the Rajdhani. It has lost its distinctiveness and has become old, though the Howrah and Mumbai Rajdhanis have aged more gracefully than the others. At the age of 50, one heads for vanaprastha and yields to the younger generation. While I feel nostalgic about the old and undiluted Howrah Rajdhani, I think something like Train 20 is an idea whose time has come. We need another trigger for innovations.

Track record

The Rajdhani started as a biweekly service

1,445 km: The inaugural Rajdhani Express covered the distance between New Delhi and Howrah in 17 hours, 20 minutes

26: Pairs of Rajdhani trains run today

3,149 km: The distance covered by the Thiruvananthapuram Rajdhani that connects the Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station and the Thiruvananthapuram Central railway station

120 kmph: The inaugural Rajdhani Express was the only train allowed this maximum permissible speed

—Nitin Sreedhar

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