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How Indian Railways came on track of luxury travel

Convenience and luxury travel in the Indian Railways are as old as the entity itself. It is another matter that barely a miniscule number of Indians beyond the royalty could avail of it for around a century.

Written by Nandini Rathi | New Delhi |
Updated: April 12, 2018 12:26:38 pm
jodhpur luxury saloon interior Indian Railways: A luxury coach built for the Jodhput royalty by Sheffield and Co. in 1930, was configured as a two bedroom, one living room, kitchenette and washroom. It was later refurbished as the Jodhpur Saloon of the first Palace-On-Wheels train.  Courtesy Heritage Transport Museum

Convenience and luxury travel in the Indian Railways are as old as the entity itself. It is another matter that barely a miniscule number of Indians beyond the royalty could avail of it for around a century.

India’s first luxury tourism train Palace-on-Wheels — a joint venture of Indian Railways and Rajasthan Tourism — may have been conceived and constituted only in the early 1980s, but the genesis of such modern luxury train tourism in India came from the royal and official trains which operated on the meter gauge lines of western India in the years prior to World War II.

Railway lines were laid down throughout British India and in the princely states, who were urged by the Government of India to build these facilities for the movement of military troops, maintenance of law and order and for trade and commerce. The Indian princes who wished to be seen as in-sync with the times also quickly embraced railway technology and by the 1880s, many Maharajas and Nizams had begun commissioning luxurious railway saloons to British companies, which were used by them and their families for their own travels. The big rail companies of colonial period Indian Railways, such as the Bombay, Baroda & Central India (BBCI) Railway and the Great Indian Peninsular (GIP) Railway, as well as Princely State railways, such as the Jodhpur Railway, Bikaner State Railway, Jaipur State Railway and the Gaekwads Baroda State Railway, to name a few, all thus owned large contingents of luxury saloons.

“Even when the trains did not belong to the maharajas, there were always luxury saloons attached for the top officials of the rail company or the government who never used to travel in regular first-class,” says Tarun Thakral, Founder and Managing Trustee of the Heritage Transport Museum in Manesar.

The most prestigious and luxurious train to ever run in India during the Raj was the Indian Imperial Mail, which carried first class passengers only, and ran between Calcutta and Bombay. It was scheduled in such a way that passengers coming by ship from the UK at Ballard Pier in south of Bombay could easily get on board. 

While official saloons may not have been as lavishly decorated as the royal coaches, they were certainly state-of-the-art. And while the First Class may not have been official, it still offered a highly privileged experience, air-tight as it virtually was from the inconvenient world of the colonised.

Tourism for the (mostly) white platter

At a time when the option of air travel simply did not exist, tourism by train was a legitimate and in many ways, the only way to go about touring the vast Indian subcontinent.

travel in luxury indian railways “The day saloon with its comfortable, specially sprung chairs and couches, the sleeping compartments with their real bedsteads and pile carpets, the bathrooms with their white enamelled baths with shower, while tiled floors and walls make travel in one of these coaches a real luxury.” A GIP Railway ad released on Nov 16, 1935 in ‘The Illustrated London News,’ courtesy British Newspaper Archive.

“Typical were three, full pages of advertisements in the Indian State Railways Magazine (a glossy periodical with world-wide distribution designed to promote railway travel in India) of December 1933 encouraging tourists to see India by train,” writes Dr. Ian Kerr, a scholar of the Indian Railways. The first of the four offered ‘standard’ tours featured in it was a four-week itinerary encompassing Calcutta, Darjeeling, Benares, Lucknow, Cawnpore, Agra, Delhi, Lahore, Amritsar, Peshawar, Jaipur, Udaipur and Bombay, while three others provided two week, one week and ten day train-based itineraries. These tourist saloons would be attached to regular trains like the Frontier Mail which ran from Bombay to Peshawar.

ajanta ellora caves tourism poster Tourism by rail: Nizam’s State Railway advertisement. Courtesy Heritage Transport Museum.

“There were several poster and magazine tourism-by-train advertisements, developed by British artists who were commissioned by private rail companies primarily with the objective of promoting these overseas,” says Thakral, “In India too, one can find them in rail magazines and old Times of India Annuals”.

indian railways, tourism posters indian railways Advertisement by the North Western Railway (left), 1936 BBCI Railway advertisement in The Times of India Annual (center), South Indian Railways poster ad featuring Kodaikanal hill station. Courtesy Heritage Transport Museum.

Another area of top-notch quality and service in the railways of British India was the food and catering offered in the Refreshment rooms at nearly all main stations and the Restaurant Cars that were a part of many long-distance passenger trains. The modern luxury trains of India offer a similar experience. “Part of the joy of a long train journey in the days of the Raj was walking along the platform to the restaurant car at stations designated in the time table for lunch or dinner. Here the hygiene, cuisine and service was of the highest standard, and managed by a Dining Car Manager…  Like in an expensive restaurant, he made a point of enquiring of every diner if all was to their liking … ,” recalled late Kenneth Hugh Staynor, an India-born Briton and Indian Railways enthusiast, in his reminiscing 2015 piece ‘Railway Travel in the Raj’. These services catered to the British, first and foremost, and occasionally included Hindu (vegetarian) and Muslim (halal) options. 

The tourists, ‘safe’ and isolated in these state-of-the-art comforts, were often not too cognizant of the other compartments on the same train.

Classy and the Class system

“Privacy and comfort were of paramount importance to the railways for First and Second class passengers, who travelled almost like a privileged class,” Staynor wrote. The difference between the first three classes and the last, however, was vast. On the one hand, the First and Second Classes, he recalls, were well upholstered and pleasant with superior fittings, en suite western-style toilet and shower facilities. The Intermediate Class got fans and Indian style toilets.

On the other hand, “Third Class,” he writes, “to put it as kindly as possible, was really an indictment on the British, who gave India its railways, but rather thoughtlessly, relegated the lowest class of travel on the railways, to the harshest and humiliating of conditions”. The upper class experience was generally economically out of reach for most Indians travelers.

Lacking any cooling fans, upholstery, space and even toilets, the travellers of Third Class were forced perform ablutions on the sides when the trains stopped at stations. Foreigners, who were disgusted by this practice that eschewed both privacy and dignity, were often not fully aware of appalling conditions in these coaches. The inhumane situation of the Third Class were so horrid in comparison that Mahatma Gandhi castigated it as a gigantic evil undermining health and morality in his piece, ‘Third Class in Indian Railways,’ wherein he observed, “In the Madras case the first class fare is over five times as much as the third class fare. Does the third class passenger get one-fifth, even one-tenth, of the comforts of his first class fellow?” 

Indian Railways, Indianised

Post-1947, when the railways were nationalised and royalty abolished, the royal and the tourist saloons with their valuable interior furnishings and high upkeep costs, could no longer be maintained or run. Initially discarded, they eventually became the inspiration for luxury trains. The Palace-on-Wheels was thus designed to reproduce the regal splendour and nostalgia of pre-independence day Indian maharajas and many of the old royal saloons were refurbished to become a part of the first version of it that ran on meter-gauge (many also served for a long time as inspection saloons for railway officials).

Recently, on March 31, the Railway Ministry announced operationalising its first charter service for a saloon, booked by M/s Royal India Train Journeys for six of its premium customers, from Delhi to Jammu.

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In post-colonial India too, the representation of tours of Indian Railways as a safe and luxurious way to tour India, with a generous helping of the Indian royalty experience, was recreated for western tourists. A number of new trains with varied offerings and destinations have since joined Palace-on-Wheels the fleet. Only now middle-class Indians can also easily fit in the target bracket.

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