First transmitted in 1975, the 150th anniversary of global rail transportation is marked by a visit to India to survey one of the world's most impressive railway networks.
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BBC Four Collections -
archive programmes chosen by experts.
For this Collection, Gary Boyd-Hope
has selected programmes celebrating Britain's steam railway legacy.
More programmes on this theme
and other BBC Four Collections
are available on BBC iPlayer.
NARRATOR: There are those who love the splendid steam train -
the great and disappearing iron horse -
and there are those who love India.
And there are, happily, those who love both,
knowing that the one was made by the other.
SITAR AND TABLA MUSIC
To all romantic amateurs of the history that runs on rails
and that which stands changelessly since the days of the nobles,
this is an affectionate salaam to the past that created the present.
Now, of course, development means diesel -
a thing of little charm and no chuff, but that is progress.
India makes her own engines now, and even exports them.
Urban India couldn't live without its railways.
Imagine the commuter traffic into one Bombay station alone
of nearly 1.5 million a day -
a rush-hour train every three minutes,
each with 4,000 people aboard, or almost aboard -
all packed so tight, it's almost impossible to pick a pocket.
Of the 2,800 million Indians who use the railways every year,
nearly half are commuters.
The suburban lines have been electrified these 40-odd years -
obviously had to be, to handle this sort of sardine traffic.
How could India do without the electric train?
Well, in many places, luckily it does.
The Puffing Billy is still the workhorse of the countryside
and of the hills, and its lover, historian, and defender of the faith
is a dedicated English zealot
whose life's purpose now is the preservation
of the great Indian steam train in a permanent museum in Delhi.
His name is Mike Satow.
MIKE SATOW: The first railway that I can recall ever turning me on
was the Matheran railway.
I think that's one of the most exciting little railways,
built most improbably, very little known by anyone outside India,
but it stems from the early days of this century.
It's the only link with Matheran and the outside world, and it represents
a technical achievement of some magnitude,
even though the scale is small.
I think a very good historical relic of the sort of technical ingenuity
that was being practised in the late 19th century.
The railway itself is 12 miles of track,
which on the map only covers four miles from point to point.
But in the course of that it rises 2,000 feet,
there are 281 curves, and probably the sharpest curve
on any working railway in the world, because the radius is only 45 feet.
And to get round these corners,
they have special engines which were the brainchild
of a dilettante engineer, Sir Arthur Haywood,
a landed gentleman in Derbyshire,
and his hobby was railways, and he used to build his own engines,
and they are the only known examples of this type of engine in existence
in the world, and furthermore they're all working, and working very well.
There are four steam engines on this railway which,
since 1907, have been hauling the trains up and lowering them down,
outwardly rather conventional engines,
but inwardly, rather complicated and very novel engines
which must be a full justification for the design which went into them
on a landed estate in Derbyshire.
NARRATOR: Mike Satow was once managing director of ICI in India.
For 15 years he lived in the country.
Retired to England, he resolutely returns twice a year
to the India he loves, and the trains he loves perhaps even more.
36,000 miles of railway spread a net over India,
uniting this huge country as nothing else could do.
This was the one holy bountiful legacy bequeathed to India
by a British Raj, perhaps the only one.
It all began in Bombay
and its memorial and temple is Victoria Terminus.
Victoria Terminus was built, as was the manner of the 1880s,
in the likeness of a shrine - a technological cathedral,
a great caravanserai in the most flowering
Victorian Gothic Saracenic Italianate Oriental St Pancras Baroque
to the glory of her late Imperial Majesty,
and that of the great steam train.
So the British bequeathed to India the trains and the stations
and the currency of a common language, and you might say,
a touch of the class system too, though India had hardly need of that.
The old times of the Raj also provided the rolling stock,
and some of these old beauties still remain, largely thanks to Mike Satow,
whose dream, now taking shape in Delhi, is the railway museum,
where the first of the old iron elephants is going -
not to die, but in fact to live.
THEY CHANT IN NATIVE LANGUAGE
Did you manage to get the boiler examination done before it came?
- Yes. - What's it like?
It is very good.
- Is it? - You've got to test it.
So that means, really, we've only got minor...odd minor repairs
- like the front spring pins to do. - Yes, only minor repairs.
- Has it been running? - Yes.
MIKE SATOW: Fairy Queen is only the first of our exhibits.
There are hundreds more to come.
When the museum's finished, it should be the most comprehensive,
perhaps one of the largest in the world.
NARRATOR: 400 years ago, the great and wise Mughal Emperor,
Akbar, built the city of Fatehpur Sikri near Agra,
abandoned within 50 years because its wells ran dry.
Now it is a thing of dead beauty, a monument.
MIKE SATOW: I want to see India's industrial heritage preserved,
as well as her monuments.
After all, the Taj Mahal doesn't have much of a break-up value as scrap,
but unfortunately a locomotive does.
So unless we preserve them today, they'll just disappear.
My wife, Peggy, of course, had rather different interests from mine.
She was very much involved with Indian art, Indian music
and charitable work,
and on many occasions we'd been travelling together
for long periods perhaps, in Indian trains. Because journeys are long,
travel on railways over long distances
becomes almost a way of life.
A journey may take two, three, four, five days, even.
And so you take your cooking equipment,
you take your sleeping equipment, you may sleep in a railway coach,
you may sleep on a station platform - life goes on,
and in the course of it,
you ultimately move across the subcontinent.
NARRATOR: The evening brings that imperative of the night,
the ubiquitous bedroll.
The bedroll - turning up each evening.
No-one who knows India will ever forget it, nor ever remember it
without nostalgia maybe for the great railway names -
the Frontier Mail, the Deccan Queen, the Brindavan, the Rajdhani Express -
and even, perhaps, for the empire on which the sun did finally set.
MIKE SATOW: One of the interesting things about the research work
and the investigation work that I've been doing for this museum has been
the need to go off into all sorts of very remote corners of India.
The Rajasthan desert, for example,
held out the prospect of finding a special class of five locomotives.
I had reason to believe that some of the engines that were there
had now disappeared, or were laid aside,
so I wanted to go and investigate for myself
what in fact was still working there.
NARRATOR: What a place is India for the engineer - not only huge,
but hostile - rivers to be bridged,
jungles to be cut, mountains to be tunnelled.
Nothing is easy in India, but it gets done.
There are 1,750,000 Indians working on the railways,
by far the biggest employer in the land.
The gang men on the track pause to give a quick namaste
to the official trolley.
What sort of token system do you use here, or block system?
This section, I suppose, is on Neale's ball token instrument.
That's a small token, you know? I'll show you at the next station.
And that instrument does lock and block.
It cannot be operated by simultaneous coordination
- of the two stationmasters. - I see.
And not more than one token can be taken out from one end.
So only one driver can have a token?
NARRATOR: The signal system works with some elaboration.
The points man takes the token from the trolley.
He then inserts it in the signal.
He takes the key...
..approaches the lever...
..and pulls it.
The points then change.
The points man runs over to the point and locks it.
He pulls the signal lever, and the signal goes down.
This wonderful rigmarole not only fulfils the Indian love
of complication - it's also safe.
- These are the gang men, you know. - Typical Rajasthan gang.
You wouldn't have to ask anybody if you looked out of the window.
Mr Vishlani's men, you see, they are belonging to a particular
Rahat tribe, which used to be, in olden days, criminals.
Were they? You've tamed them?
Yes, before the railways came into being.
After the railways are come into being, we have found them.
MIKE SATOW: I went out into the Kamli Ghat section,
on a single metre gauge line, and for working the heavy mineral trains,
special engines were built in 1929, and they've been working there
ever since, one engine on the front, one engine on the back.
And since 1929, these five engines
have been shouldering this massive task
of moving the tonnage of freight up this incline,
and they're still in fighting fettle.
So you're re-laying this - this 75 pound?
Yes. We have re-laid this track only about three years ago.
Yeah? Is this old stuff over here?
Yes, this is the stuff.
- Let's have a look at it. - Have a look.
I'll say it's old. Come here. Look!
Look at this. It's got railing marks on it.
These are 1887.
These are older than anything I've got in the museum so far.
- I didn't know that. - Yes, they are.
I'd like some of these. So what are you doing with this?
We imitate this weight of these old rail stores
for disposal orders and scrap.
Oh, right. Let's just see what lengths these are.
Four, five, six...
Yes, you're absolutely right. These are 30-foot rails.
- You are right. - Will you keep ten for me?
Kindly get the orders so that I have the necessary authority.
All right. I'll do that.
NARRATOR: The Indian railways are an enormous absorbent of labour -
the one commodity, perhaps, of which the nation is never short.
They are as hierarchical as India itself.
There are those who are saluted, and there are those who salute.
Those 36,000 miles of railway track need endless maintenance,
and almost endless men, which is not indeed a bad thing, on the whole.
But this immense system of communications
needs all manner of men,
all manner of skills and crafts and backroom techniques.
The days are done when the lines were shared among many companies -
the great Indian Peninsula, the Madras Company,
the Bombay, Baroda and Central India,
the Jamnagar-Dwarka and dozens more.
Indian railways belong to India now.
An awful lot of it still depends on that good old fossil fuel, coal.
And a good thing, too,
since India has quite a lot of coal and not much oil.
And coal is comparatively cheap and oil is ferociously dear.
In consequence, however,
a good deal of this loose coal gets itself nicked,
as indeed do most movable and stealable assets of the railways,
sometime or another.
Therefore, someone has to keep a pretty close eye on the scene.
And before you triumphantly interrupt,
let us agree that this scene was set up.
It was enacted as, shall we say,
a training exercise for the railway police.
MIKE SATOW: The great advantage of the steam engine
is that it is very cheap to build, it's very reliable
and it can be maintained by more or less anyone.
The steam locomotive is a labour-intensive machine,
compared with the diesel or the electric.
But on the other hand, labour is available in India
and is very well versed in maintaining the steam engine.
NARRATOR: They have, of course, to go to training schools
to learn the complications of the modern systems.
Any indication on the signal post.
Now, sometimes, this signal becomes defective.
That time, the driver or the motorman is authorised
by the station master to pass that signal by a written authority,
which, on our Western Railway, is prescribed on form TA T8B.
Second signal, under this system of working,
is semi-automatic stop signal.
NARRATOR: Howrah, in Calcutta,
is the biggest passenger station in all India.
Just a glance at Howrah shows how much of India's economy
relies on the rail - not just the passengers,
but all the other businesses who depend on the station.
The taxis, the coaches.
..and the porters -
1,800 of them in Howrah alone, unpaid and living on baksheesh.
But still it's the ironmongery of this great business
that absorbs Mike Satow.
The locomotives, their hisses and snorts to be recorded here
and recollected in tranquillity.
One of the prototype WD class, built by Baldwin,
of which there are seven left.
Faizabad. Number 7208.
RECORDING: 'Comes into INDISTINCT Cantonment Station.
'And this one happens to be drawing behind it
'one of the standard tenders...'
TRAIN WHISTLE DROWNS OUT VOICE
NARRATOR: Udaipur was once a princely state of great prestige and renown.
The Lake Palace is now a tourist hotel of equally great
prestige and renown, perhaps the loveliest in India.
There in the middle of the Pichola Lake in an unspoiled town
with the dhobi ghats coming down to the water's edge,
you would think you had everything.
But Mike Satow dreams only of trains.
MIKE SATOW: Ron Kumar, the curator of the museum,
had only recently been appointed and there was much to show him.
You can't learn everything by just looking into dusty files.
I took him around with me on several visits.
One of the more exciting ones, I think, from his point of view,
was the monorail at Patiala.
There's the engine shed and the track coming in here
and another track over there.
Here's the remains of one of the passenger coaches.
And here is Colonel Bowles' saloon,
with some of the original paintwork and lining on it,
so we can get all that.
And then up the front here, we've got the engines.
Let's go and have a look at those for a start.
This one's very good, but, unfortunately,
the boiler's missing off this one and I can't find it anywhere at all.
In splendid condition, you know,
because these things haven't worked for 47 years.
We've even got the original lettering on the side of these things.
What is PSMT?
It's the Patiala State Monorail Trainway.
What is the history of this monorail?
It was built in 1907 for the maharajah by Colonel Bowles.
It ran for 20 years.
It came into this engine shed and never ran again.
All that's happened is the rails have been buried by wind-borne dust,
trees have grown up around the track over there between two wagons.
But, apart from that, the climate is so good,
that everything has been preserved very well indeed.
The principle of this monorail was for temporary light railways
for building factories,
moving materials about on construction sites.
And they were never in one place for more than about one month.
And it didn't really matter what the condition of the ground was like.
It only had the one rail under the centre
and the weight was about 90% on the rail, 10%...
This wheel which ran on the road to steady it,
but after 20 years going over the same track,
it got into a fair amount of difficulty
because of the grooves worn by the iron wheel here.
Did they have such systems in any other countries?
Not this system.
This system was only used in India.
These engines themselves came from Berlin. They're on a standard couple.
The main thing now is, having found it,
we've got an opportunity of saving it.
I don't mind how long it takes to get it put back into working order,
the important thing is that anything as historic as this
just should not be cut up and sold for scrap.
But if we can get this thing to Delhi, lay a bit of this track,
because there obviously is still plenty of track in the yard here,
if we could do that, this would be an absolute winner, it really would.
NARRATOR: Indians are great travellers within their own land.
Some of them, you'd think they almost lived on trains.
The vast bulk of them travel hard, third class,
for hours and hours and days and days.
INDISTINCT CONVERSATION THROUGHOUT
Patience. Patience is the thing
and no-one has more of that than the Indians.
We shall arrive sometime, somewhere. We always do.
An Indian railway station is more than a stopping place.
It is, in fact, a way of life.
Indian people don't GO to railway stations,
they inhabit them, sometimes literally so.
The station is a social centre, a nexus of life,
a bazaar, an island of activity in the midst of 800,000 villages,
where you can come by almost anything you want,
from an orange to a bangle.
It may be a couple of days, or three, before your train is due,
so what can be the hurry?
In the meantime, on the station,
one plays, waits...
lives, waits some more while time slips by,
washes, eats, sleeps, reflects on eternity.
Above all, waits.
WOMAN SINGS INDIAN SONG
Even on the track, there are pickings to be made.
Even cinders are not without value in a poor country.
And Indian railway values and economics
are not to be judged by Western standards.
Of course, there are hundreds and thousands
of ticketless travellers every day.
The railways tolerate them. What else could they do?
Benares, on the Ganges, is the holiest place
on the holiest river for all pious Hindus.
At sunrise, it is a place for the cleansing of the soul.
Yet this peculiarly sacred place
is one of the major centres of the Indian railways.
Most of the pilgrims come to Benares by train, after all,
from all over India to this especially hallowed riverside
where one washes away one's spiritual impurities in the Ganges...
though perhaps acquiring a few physical ones in the process.
TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS
And the tireless Mike Satow is still at work,
still busy on the enshrining of the great Indian railway system
on film, tape and memory.
And coaxing the powers that be not to forget
what the railways were all about.
VOICE DROWNED OUT BY TRAIN
TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS
MIKE SATOW: All over India, one finds
amongst the great family of railwaymen
the generosity and kindness
which has been so much a tradition of railwaymen.
You find drivers who will invite you onto their footplate
and, quite frequently,
extend that hospitality beyond that of the footplate
and even into their own homes.
How do you do? Namaste.
- Here is the eldest son. - Eldest son.
HE INTRODUCES THE FAMILY
- Please now take your seat. - Thank you very much.
HE READS IN NATIVE LANGUAGE
We also respect to our guest, Mr Michael.
This is the way and significance that you have with us.
- Namaskar. - Namaskar.
Sit down, please.
- Your family are coming, too? - Yes.
You come and sit down here, right? That's fine.
- Please, please. - Now, did...
Did Mrs Sharma make these?
Oh, yes. You should start all these things.
I enjoy this food.
It is very, very kind of you to ask me to this,
this festival, because I've never been inside a family house
during a Diwali festival before.
And this is really the Hindu New Year?
Yes, new Hindu year. So everything we start today.
NARRATOR: Diwali is, in fact, the autumn festival of lights,
when every Hindu home is aglow in honour of the coronation of Rama,
the God King, or the King God -
who could possibly know after 2,000 years?
It's dedicated to Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity,
so every little lamp and light is auspicious
for both this world and the next.
FIREWORKS DROWN OUT VOICES
Now we really take to the hills.
This is what the true railway buffs all wait for -
the famous Darjeeling Himalaya Railway.
TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS
This is the spectacular little toy train with its 2ft gauge,
scrambling up the mountains on gradients sometimes 1 in 20,
chasing its own tail in extraordinary loops and curlicues.
A single-line track with all the down trains going one after the other
and then all the up trains going up.
TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS
Sometimes the track is too steep even to go in loops,
so the train has to reverse itself onto a new level,
while the one five minutes behind busily pursues it.
TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS
It takes eight hours to do its 54 miles
and it isn't always quicker by rail,
not when you can hop off at one side of the loop
and hop back again on the other.
You learn these techniques only through experience.
TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS
At the little hill town of Kurseong, the little hill train
runs smack down the middle of the main street.
This is road-rail integration of the closest kind.
For a while, the train is a tram.
For all little hill towns, the train is an event, an occasion.
It is the train that links these remote places with everywhere else.
TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS
This is quite particular.
For Mike Satow, a special little train as befits a specialist.
An observation coach for the number-one connoisseur
of all Indian trains and the Himalayan toy train in particular.
How many of the B-class engines are still working?
- All 25 of them are. - 25. All working.
And, on line, we have 16 of them.
TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS
Every so often, of course, some disaster strikes this railway.
The monsoon washes away large sections of the track.
And every time this happens, those of us who love it
feel this must be the final death knell of the railway,
which, after all, is losing money
to the extent of 75% of its operating costs.
But there are strong arguments in keeping it alive.
First of all, if it were closed,
2,000, 2,500 people would be without a job
in an area which certainly can't provide alternative employment.
But even on the emotional side, on a more emotional side,
as seen by the railway enthusiast,
this is surely one of the most famous,
one of the best known of these hill railways.
I don't think anybody can fail to be moved by the excitement
of the toy railway, as it's called, up to Darjeeling.
It's always known in a most friendly fashion as the toy railway.
And for 54 miles, this exciting little railway plods uphill,
over the top at Ghum, right on top of the world.
Because when you come through Ghum
and into the famous double loop at Batasia,
you get your first glimpse of the snow
and Kanchenjunga looming behind Darjeeling,
which, at that point, lies about 600ft below you.
NARRATOR: Now, the downward coasting ride towards Darjeeling.
Darjeeling, one of the famous hill stations of the high North-East,
squashed in at 7,000ft between Sikkim and Nepal,
almost within the shadow of Everest.
A great resort for the sahibs in their heyday
and the rich tea planters from Assam.
Now, Darjeeling is a very cosmopolitan place indeed,
with its Nepalese, Lepchas, Sikkimese, Bengalis,
all the high-ground people of the edge of India.
And now, of course, especially the refugee colonies from Tibet,
the society that insists on retaining its curious identity.
It is possible to find parts of India
that aren't within a bullock cart's ride of a railway line,
but it isn't easy.
HE SPEAKS IN HIS OWN LANGUAGE
India is so big, so various.
15 recognised languages and uncountable dialects,
which could well have been a great Balkanised confusion
had the railways not, in their long, lumbering way, united it.
Wherever you are in India,
when the train comes, everything stops for the train.
And when the train has gone, India takes over again.
It isn't very beautiful, really.
But it IS beautiful.
And because it's part of life, it isn't immortal.
This will go, one day,
unless Mike Satow and his friends succeed
and insist that it shall not go,
or at least not go unrecorded and unsung.
First transmitted in 1975, the 150th anniversary of global rail transportation is marked by a visit to India to survey one of the world’s most impressive railway networks. For rail enthusiasts India’s railway system, which has continued to utilize steam locomotives, represents one of the most spectacular systems the world has to offer.The World About Us team join forces with Michael Satow, who in 1970 took up the post of honorary adviser to the Rail Transport Museum in New Delhi, Asia’s first railway museum.As they set out to explore the Indian subcontinent in search of railway memorabilia, ranging from minute objects to full scale steam locomotives, the spectacular beauty of India’s railway system is revealed in all its glory.