The thing about being 167 years old is that few things surprise you. No matter what comes your way, you’ve probably experienced it before, maybe even more than once. Surviving a nationwide lockdown included.
For the country’s Railway system, described with the beaten-to-death cliché “Lifeline of India”, shutting itself down indefinitely and directing its vast machinery to keep only the essentials running required just a flipping back of a few pages.
Take the small example of running parcel trains. The Railways has started some 20 trains to exclusively carry parcels — perishables, grocery items, e-commerce consignments etc which would ordinarily go by trucks — to major centres of the country. In the age of a lockdown, faced with the threat of a deadly virus, it’s no easy task. Putting together the necessary staff and the whole paraphernalia to load and unload and then stick to a schedule would unnerve the best player in the business. But for the Railways, it’s a bit of a walk in the park. Its experience of running services despite constraints goes back some several decades.
Around the time when India was waking up to the need for a network of modern highways and was just about passing a Highways Act in 1956, Indian Railways, in the late 1950s, began dedicated parcel trains called Quick Transit Service (QTS).
Mainly taking essential commodities of everyday use from the then industrial/business hub of Calcutta to other major centres such as Delhi, these QTSs were major money spinners. In those days, when few government services were certain, the Railways guaranteed timely delivery through QTS or refunded a surcharge to clients.
Pulled by steam engines that required servicing a few times and even replacing along the way, the successful run of the QTS tapered off a decade or so later only when Railways started faltering on its promise of timely delivery. Then came the age of the “Super Goods” trains.
These were similar in concept, “superfast” in speed, but had mixed success. They ran well into the early ’80s, even though not much in vogue, getting intermittently interrupted during the Naxalite movement in the ’60s and ’70s and, of course, during the famous Railway strike of 1974.
It was the 1974 total strike of the Railways that first showed India what life was without trains — much like in March-April 2020.
When the then Prime Minister remained unshakable to the demand for fixed working hours for train drivers and an across-the-board pay raise, a chakka jam became inevitable.
For around three weeks in May 1974, no trains ran. Because there was no one to run them — drivers, station masters, guards, track staff and many others.
In a single swoop, the government locked up all union leaders. Railway lore has it that when George Fernandes was picked up from Lucknow, Mrs Gandhi gave an earful to her Railway Minister Lalit Narayan Mishra. “You want to make a hero out of Geroge?” she is said to have told him.
But Mrs Gandhi ensured one exception — much like Modi has in the face of the current outbreak. Goods trains carrying essential industrial supplies such as coal and others could not be included in the strike. And, she made the unions agree that strike or not, at least one passenger train should run on the trunk routes.
So the Kalka Mail ran from Howrah to Delhi, the Frontier Mail (now Golden Temple Mail) ran from Bombay and so on. That was the PM’s decree.
Oldtimers still recall how difficult it was to ensure that. “There was virtually no staff. They were on strike and angry.
We had to scramble for resources every day to put together that one service. But then the playbook of railwaymen says, no matter what, if a train has to run, it will run,” said Shri Prakash, a 1971-batch Indian Railway Traffic Service (IRTS) officer who retired as Railway Board Member (Traffic) in 2009.
There are other instances of the Railways stepping up in trying circumstances. How, during the 1971 war with Pakistan, railwaymen worked 24 hours at a stretch for five days to ensure India’s military capability remained well-supplied at the Eastern and Western fronts. The thousands of backroom boys who worked to make that happen don’t brag, even today.
Take the days of the Babri Masjid demolition, for instance. How an unknown cub officer of Railways took out a train full of people from Ayodhya — a firebrand woman leader of the BJP hitching a ride in the driver’s cabin — through a rampaging sea of people, is a story only a few in the system know.
So in the age of an unprecedented lockdown, to the thousands of people working every day to ensure food items reach the godowns, the power plants have coal, some 20,000 coaches turn into isolation wards and vehicle workshops churn out hand sanitisers and masks, the novel coronavirus will seem like, well, just another lemon.
And when you are 167 years old, you know what to do with the lemons life gives you.
This article first appeared in print edition on April 5 under the title “Once upon a time, when trains stopped in their tracks”.
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