The year was 1969. Independent India did not have a marquee high speed train of its own, until then. On February 19, 1969, Dr Ram Subhag Singh, the then railway minister announced independent India’s first high speed train, the Rajdhani, between New Delhi and Howrah.
The idea was to cover the 1,441 km distance in less than 18 hours. Flagged off on March 1, 1969, from New Delhi at 1730 hours, it reached Howrah at 1050 hours next morning. The distance was covered in 17 hours and 20 minutes. The return trip was done on March 3, 1969. The train left Howrah at 1700 hours and reached New Delhi at 1020 hours the next day.
Symbol of luxury
With this bi-weekly train, a symbol of luxury for some, aspiration for some others and awe for the general, public had finally arrived on the Indian Railways. It was the first such train where the common railway employee could not use his railway pass for reservations.
No student concessions were admissible. Railway ministers raised fares for four consecutive years since the train’s inception, understanding the fact that ticket prices were immaterial to the crème-de-la-crème travellers of Rajdhani. So much that Lalit Narayan Mishra, in his rail budget speech of 1973 said “I propose to raise the ACC fares for Rajdhani Expresses to Bombay and Calcutta equal to or more than the air fares.”
By then, the Bombay Rajdhani had also been introduced, and the government was contemplating a metre gauge Rajdhani between Delhi and Ahmedabad via Jaipur [Delhi Jn or Old Delhi had metre gauge lines in those days].
The first Rajdhani
The train left New Delhi each Monday and Friday and Howrah each Wednesday and Saturday. The configuration was four AC chair cars, one air-conditioned class (that was the name for First Class AC), one pantry car with dining facilities and two generator cars cum luggage vans.
The Rajdhani was hauled end-to-end by a WDM-4 diesel locomotive based at Mughalsarai loco shed. The service was booked to hit a top speed of 115 kmph on a section fit for 120 kmph.
Technical halts were provided at Kanpur, Mughalsarai and Gomoh for crew change, watering and replenishing the catering inventory.
Over the course of time, these halts became commercial. The halt at Gomoh was shifted to the divisional headquarters; Dhanbad. Today, the Howrah Rajdhani stops at Asansol, Parasnath, Gaya and Allahabad in addition to the original three.
Crew held in high esteem
In the railway colony that yours truly lived in at Mughalsarai, the crew that worked the Rajdhani between Mughalsarai and Dhanbad were admired for their competence.
Such was the Rajdhani’s aura that only fit loco pilots (with 6/6 vision), with over two decades experience and an unblemished safety record, were the chosen ones to work the WDM-4 loco. The guards and the TTEs were all nattily dressed.
Priority thy name is Rajdhani
Punctuality of the Rajdhani was a top priority for all the divisions and zones that it passed through. Precedence was given towards its diesel locos. At Mughalsarai, staff from the diesel shed used to be deputed to conduct checks related to the loco and this was why it had a 12-minute halt.
One of my uncles, Shri K G Shankar, who worked in the diesel loco shed at Mughalsarai, was called upon to take care of any glitch in the Rajdhani locos during its run.
Rajdhani: The brand still holds its own
Over time, Rajdhanis were introduced from the national capital New Delhi to almost all state capitals. Other high-speed trains such as the Shatabdi, Gatimaan, Duronto and Vande Bharat may have been introduced but none can replace the Rajdhani.
Rajdhani fares form the basis of pricing tickets of special trains on Indian Railways. Fares of Rajdhani’s first AC class continue to match airfares to this day.
Happy 50th birthday to India’s first high-speed train- the Howrah Rajdhani (via Gaya).
Featured Image Courtesy: Lalam Mandarkar