IT would surprise many in the financial capital of the country that the now severely overburdened suburban line of Western Railway (WR), which carries over 35 lakh commuters daily, was once considered a likely waste of money when it was conceived 150 years ago by the British.
In its 150th year now, the Mumbai suburban railways of WR is already saturated, with even a 15-minute shutdown of services making it to the headlines the next day. A once-doubted railway line is now a key part of Mumbai’s lifeline.
When plans for expansion of railway network of Bombay, Baroda & Central India (BB & CI) were under way, a railway line from Surat to Bombay, now Mumbai, was thought to be costly as it was proposed to be built along a valley.
Records with the Western Railway show that some officials were even of the view that rail line from Surat should be connected to rail line of Great Indian Peninsula Railway, which had already been established in 1853 between Bombay and Thane (present day Central Railway) and had been extended along the ghat section up to Kalyan. Officials thought it would be relatively inexpensive to simply connect Surat and Kalyan.
After all, Mumbai was then not yet commercially successful. In fact, after initial surveys were conducted and Grant Road station identified as the Bombay end of the WR line, doubts were raised on whether the proposed line would attract enough passengers and business.
It was Mount Stuart Elphinstone, the Governor of Bombay, who put forward this case as beneficial to the British Empire. He pointed out that the new line would connect Bombay with the rich Gujarat province and it was found worthwhile to ship cotton from Bombay.
In his book Railways of India, author Edward Davidson writes: “After much discussions and protracted deliberations, it was decided that the Bombay, Baroda & Central India Railway should have its own direct approach to Bombay, with a station at Grant Road, not far from the Byculla Club and the Race Course, with the intention of eventually extending its line through reclaimed land in Backbay to a permanent terminus at Colaba. The station at Grant road is conveniently situated for the town of Bombay and has a short junction with the Great Indian Peninsula Railway Terminus, though it has not the advantage of direct communication with the Harbour and shipping.’’
With its close proximity to Boree Bunder station, which was used for trading and shipping of cotton, Grant Road was selected as the Bombay terminus for the line.
Construction of the railway line started from Utran reached Grant Road in Bombay in 1864. On November 28, 1864, the first BB& CI train on what was initially referred to as the “western coastal lines” chugged from Grant Road station to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, heralding a new era of seamless and direct connectivity of Bombay with Gujarat and further northward. For the inaugural run, a bottle of wine was smashed on the engine by British officials.
The train left Grant Road station at 7 am and reached Ahmedabad at 5 pm the next day. In its return journey, the train left Ahmedabad at 7 am the following day and arrived at Grant Road station at 5.30 pm the next day.
The long journey time is attributed to the fact that the trains leaving Bombay and Ahmedabad ran on the first day only up to Surat. The train would reach Surat around 5 pm and depart for its onward journey at about 7 am the next day. There was a refreshment room and a traveller’s bungalow at Surat for passengers who wanted to travel beyond Surat.
Hemant Kumar, General Manager, Western Railway (WR), says, “These celebrations for 150 years of the Western Railway fetch us to glorious part of Railway. The Railways have made a valuable contribution in the socio-economic and overall development of Mumbai and Gujarat. To further improve the connectivity and to provide faster services to the passengers, the work on the projects of introducing semi-high speed and high-speed trains are in the pipeline. It is also planned to introduce bullet trains on this section, which will be the first in the country.’’
At present, Western Railway operates one of the largest suburban networks in the world, serving 35 stations carrying 3.5 million commuters (approx.) every day in 1305 train services in Mumbai. It is aptly called the lifeline of Mumbai Metropolis.
For the record
In times when the Narmada bridge at Surat was not yet built, a boat would ferry passengers across the river to go to destinations beyond Surat.
In April 1867, the first suburban service propelled by a steam engine ran in Mumbai. The network was extended till Churchgate by 1870. A senior railway officer says, “At that time, the number of commuters was less than 100 at Grant Road Terminus. Now WR runs 1,305 services daily.’’
In 1870, Churchgate station was built and the railway line was further extended towards Colaba by 1872. A goods shed was built at Colaba. By 1896, a new station was established at Colaba to serve as a Terminus for both long-distance passengers and suburban commuters.
By 1900, 45 trains were employed in both directions to carry more than 1 million passengers every year.
However, by the 1920s, the government’s plan to reclaim land for what would be later known as Backbay Reclamation meant that the railway line between Churchgate and Colaba would be an obstruction and so the Government of Bombay ordered the Railways to hand over the section between Churchgate and Colaba.
It took the BB&CI company 10 years to create a new terminus at Belassis Road, which is known as Bombay Central now.
Before the curtains drew at Colaba Terminus, the BB&CI ran its last service on the night of December 31, 1930. After the last train left for the northern end of the city, the line between Colaba and Churchgate was sealed and handed back to the Secretary of India.
With Metro planned from Colaba now, many in the railways still wonder whether the administrators then were short-sighted about the way the city would develop in the years to come.
As the BB& CI made progress, the first electric train between Churchgate and Borivali was launched in 1928.
November 5, 1951, was a golden day in the history of Western Railway. It was formed by merging numerous state-owned railways together with the BB&CI and the Saurashtra, Rajputana & Jaipur Railways.
There still are several things of the British era that continue to be a part of the railway system in Mumbai. One of them is the bell tower on top of Bandra station. Before the Railways came into existence, all vehicles were driven by animals. A bell tower was set up at the railway station which was used to signal horse-drawn Victorias or tongas to come and pick up the British officers who arrived at the station.
Mumbaikars may also not remember why Dadar railway station is referred to as Dadar BB or Dadar TT among railway authorities. The Western Railway side of Dadar station is referred to as Dadar BB (Bombay, Baroda) while the Central Railway side is referred to as Dadar TT (Tram Terminus).
Map of Western Railway
Ratlam-Mumbai Central, Ahmedabad-Vadodara and Palanpur-Ahmedabad are some of the main railway lines that come under the jurisdiction of Western Railway. WR covers the state of Gujarat, the eastern segment of Rajasthan, a fraction of Western Madhya Pradesh and coast of Maharashtra. It also serves a number of ports on the west coast of India.