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East Indian Railway: 1906 History of the EIR - Chapter XXVIII

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Note: This is a sub-section of the East Indian Railway

The History of the East Indian Railway by George Huddleston. Published 1906 by Tracker, Spins and Co


IN May 1898 plague first appeared in Calcutta, and a great panic among the native population of the city and suburbs followed. This panic was not caused so much by a fear of the disease itself as by a fear of the sanitary precautions which it rendered necessary. The precautions entailed much that was repugnant to the habits and feelings of the people of India, and extreme terror fell upon the lower classes of the native community, apparently due to exaggerated and absurd rumours about the nature and stringency of the precautionary measures to be taken; rumours originating partly in ignorance and partly perhaps in malice.

Shortly after the first outbreak in the metropolis, forty thousand terror-stricken persons left Calcutta, within a few days, by the East Indian Railway alone; many fled from the city by other routes. As a result no boatmen, carters nor coolies were procurable, and at one time over 1,100 wagons of merchandize stood under load at Howrah, because of the impossibility of procuring labour to discharge them. It speaks well for the loyalty and devotion to duty of the subordinate Railway Staff that not a single man left his post, though many succumbed to the disease, and there were outside agitators trying their utmost to provoke a strike. Various means have been adopted by the Government of India to prevent the spread of plague and to stamp it out, but so far these have met with little success. For some years all railway passengers were subjected to medical examination at different stations on the line, where plague camps were established, but this system effected no good and was most unpopular, so was abandoned. Plague has in fact unfortunately continued in India since 1898 to the present day, and unhappily there are as yet no indications of its disappearing.

The East Indian Railway has been remarkably immune from accident, but one of the most extraordinary occurred on the 29th of June 1902. A mixed train proceeding via the loop line was blown over by a tornado in the vicinity of Rampore Hat Station and thirteen passengers were killed and fifteen wounded. That the number was not far greater, seeing that practically the whole train was wrecked and that there were some 300 passengers in it, was due to the fact that the wind brought the engine to a stand before the vehicles were overthrown. Strange to say a very similar accident had occurred on the East Indian Railway some thirty years previously and very near the same place; in both cases the surrounding country was an open plain, the lines of the railway being laid on a slight embankment, about five feet high, with nothing whatever to break the force of the wind. Both these accidents were what is termed "acts of God"; serious accidents due to negligence or carelessness on the part of the staff have been rare and when they have occurred, there has fortunately been but little loss of life. Seeing that until very recently all points were worked by menials, there being practically no interlocking, this speaks well for the native staff.

In January 1903 a grand Durbar was held in Delhi in honour of the Coronation of His Majesty the King-Emperor of India. It was in November 1901 that the intention to hold an Imperial Durbar was first publicly announced, the railway had therefore little more than a year in which to prepare for the great accession of traffic it would have to carry in connection. The Delhi Station had to be completely remodelled, subsidiary lines and stations in the vicinity had to be constructed, the coaching stock, particularly the higher class, had to be augmented, the staff strengthened, their accommodation arranged for, and many questions of detail had to be worked out and settled beforehand. The East Indian Rail way had often felt the strain of a heavy goods traffic; on this occasion the experience was to be of a totally different character, for though it is true that the rush of goods to Delhi before the Durbar caused a block, which there was considerable difficulty in clearing, the real difficulty was to provide stock in which to carry the higher class passengers, all of whom wanted to arrive and leave at the same time.

To give some idea of the passenger traffic, it may be mentioned that in an ordinary month about four hundred first and second class passengers are carried by the East Indian Railway to Delhi; during the Durbar over twelve thousand had to be conveyed there within a few days, while the stock available was little more than sufficient to meet ordinary requirements. Fortunately a solution of the problem occurred to Mr. W. A. Dring, the General Traffic Manager. There were ready at the time the Durbar was announced, some bogie frames intended for the construction of lower class stock, and it was decided to alter certain of these for temporary use as sleeping cars, for higher class passengers. This step saved the situation. Had no additional stock been arranged for, it would have been impossible to deal with the traffic; practically no carriages could be hired from other railways, all were too busy themselves to lend any to the East Indian, and it was on the East Indian that the heaviest strain fell. The Englishman newspaper gauged the difficulty in a leader published on the 1st December 1902, and the following extract is taken from it:—

"The forthcoming Durbar at Delhi will be the biggest thing of its kind that India has ever seen. It will be attended by His Excellency the Viceroy, H. R. H. the Duke of Connaught and seventeen Governors, Lieutenant-Governors, Residents and Agents to the Governor-General, Chief Commissioners and other high British officials, fifty-four ruling Chiefs invited by His Excellency the Viceroy, and fifty ruling chiefs invited by Local Governments and Administrations, in addition to numerous titled native gentlemen and crowds of European guests and visitors from all parts of India. Most of the notabilities require special trains, many of them also require special trains for their guests and followers, and nearly everyone else wants special accommodation of some kind or another. Besides this the traffic in tents, camp equipage, horses and carriage will be immense, while the large army collected in Delhi and the vicinity means the transport by railway of vast supplies of all sorts. The magnitude of the traffic can hardly be appreciated, and seeing that a large proportion has to be carried over a lead of many hundred miles, it is not surprising that the Indian railways are confronted with difficulties and find it impossible to avoid congestion."

In his Report on the Durbar traffic the Officiating General Traffic Manager remarked:—

"It is hardly necessary to say that the Durbar traffic was unique and without precedent in Indian Railway working, for the Durbar of 1877 bears no comparison with it. It was recognised from the first that we had before us a task bristling with difficulties, and that the special class of traffic we would have to deal with would strain our resources to the utmost."

That all obstacles were overcome in the end without any serious single accident of any kind was more attributable to the personal exertions of the staff than to any facilities that were, or could possibly be afforded for the purpose. Crowding and some delay were inevitable, and the difficulty of preventing these was enhanced by the awkward and confined situation of the Delhi main station, into which most of the traffic had perforce to be brought.

One great result of the Durbar was that the remodelling of Delhi Station, which had long been contemplated, was materially hastened, while many lessons were learnt which should prove useful on a future occasion of a similar kind; but it is evident that Indian Railways, having ordinarily but a comparatively very small upper class traffic to convey, will never be in a position to meet a great demand of this nature without difficulty. Commenting on the Durbar traffic General Sir Richard Strachey said to the shareholders:—

"The general effect of the great assemblage at Delhi on the traffic has been of doubtful advantage, the benefit derived from the increased receipts of the higher classes of passengers having been to no small extent counteracted by necessary increased expenditure in various directions. It may be frankly admitted that Indian railways are not adapted to cope with sudden and large demands for increased accommodation for the higher classes of passengers, and that it is on the third class, which provides nineteen-twentieths of the numbers carried and four-fifths of the receipts that the prosperity of this branch of the traffic depends. I may add that it is for its development, and convenience that our attention should be specially directed."

Towards the close of 1901, Mr. Thomas Robertson, C.V.O., was deputed by the Secretary of State for India—

(1) To enquire into and report upon the administration and working of Indian railways, whether controlled by the State or by Companies, with special reference to the system under which they should be managed in India in the future;

(2) To report upon the feasibility of a systematic plan of railway development in India, to be worked up to by the Government over a series of years;

(3) To advise as to the management and development of the traffic, the convenience of the public and the improvement of the revenue, and

(4) Generally to make such suggestions as he might think useful for any or all of these purposes, including the extension of branches and light railways as feeders of the main line.

Mr. Robertson's report was issued in 1903, after he had travelled extensively over the Indian railways and investigated their general working and administration, and after he had visited America to study the methods of railway management there.

Mr. Robertson's general conclusion was that the "working of the Indian railways cannot be regarded as at all satisfactory," and that root and branch reform was needed; "if," he said, "the railways of India are to render that full and efficient service to the country of which they are capable, they must be permitted to be worked more as commercial enterprises than they have been in the past."

Mr. Robertson's report dealt in some detail with various questions of administration and working, criticised more particularly the Government system of control and recommended its replacement by a Board composed of specially qualified railway men, who should be allowed to manage railway affairs entirely on commercial lines. Mr. Robertson also made certain suggestions as to the organisation of departments, salaries of officials and Home Board control. He compared State with Company management and advocated the transference of all lines to Companies. He dealt with the question of finance and commented upon railway working generally, making several proposals and suggestions, which will no doubt be given the consideration they deserve by the Board of Control since appointed by the Government of India.

General Sir Richard Strachey made some interesting remarks on Mr. Robertson's report, which are here reproduced. Speaking at the general meeting held in June 1903, he said:—

"It will be of interest to you to know that the Government of India has published the report on the working of Indian railways, specially drawn up by Mr. Robertson, under the instructions of the Secretary of State, and has distributed copies to the various Railway Companies, apparently with the view of inviting opinion on the recommendations made in the report. I consequently feel in a measure bound to refer to it. While recognising that there is much in the report with which everyone conversant with the subject is likely to agree, and disclaiming any disposition to dogmatise on questions of administration, which no doubt involve many very complicated considerations, I may briefly state my personal conclusion that in this case, as in many others, it has been easier to point to defects than to suggest adequate remedies. That in some directions the system of Government administration may be improved I regard as indisputable. I fully concur with the report in describing the existing system of administration as 'cumbrous machinery, which is apt to impair the sense of responsibility, crush initiative, check progress and delay business to an extent which would be fatal to any other commercial enterprise.' Nor have I any difficulty in accepting the view that this is largely due to the fact that the administrative head of the department, namely, the member in charge of the Public Works Portfolio, has never had any previous training in railway working and management.' It might have been added that so far from the selection of this member of the Government being at present made on a consideration of any special aptitude for the discharge of his responsible duties, it is understood to be determined by some supposed established claim of the senior members of the Civil Service of the three old Presidencies of Bengal, Madras, and Bombay to obtain seats in the Governor-General's Council by a system of rotation.' In one of Lord Rosebery's recent speeches he remarked, when referring to the government of this country by Cabinets, 'that it works well on the whole is a tribute, less to the institution itself than to the capacity of our race to make any conceivable institution succeed.' With some hesitation as to the character of the results of the Government control of Indian railways, I think his remarks will well apply to it also.

At the same time, it appears impossible to deny that, notwithstanding what I am prepared to call very glaring defects, the general result of the treatment of railways in India considering the many serious difficulties that have been encountered, financial and administrative, has been remarkable, and the development of the present system of railways, extending to 26,000 miles, is highly creditable to those through whose exertions such a large measure of success has been obtained. I am therefore unable to accept, as justified by the actual results, the sweeping assertion of the report, that 'the present administration and working of the Indian railways cannot be regarded as at all satisfactory,' nor that 'root and branch reform alone will be productive of lasting good.' I see no reason for thinking that thoroughly qualified persons with adequate Indian experience may not be found to be entrusted with the management of the Public Works Department in India, in all its branches, as has been the case in all other branches of the administration, and in those cases has had the result of making Indian administration the admiration of all who have a real knowledge of what it is, and the difficulties it has to overcome.

The discussions that have taken place during the past year in this country as to the general character of English railway management, have not had the effect of showing satisfactorily any very remarkable superiority that it may possess over that of other countries, and this I am disposed to extend to India. I am unable to admit, for instance, that the management of a railway like the East Indian, which, mile for mile, carries without difficulty about eight times the number of passengers carried by the Illinois Central of the United States of America, and almost the same quantity of goods, and at rates not higher, with a net yearly profit to the Government, which owns the line, of something like a million sterling, after paying all charges for interest, and supplying a contribution of upwards of £400,000 towards the redemption of the original capital outlay, can be properly spoken of as calling for root and branch reform. I am, therefore, unable to see that the substitution of a body of English railway experts, with no knowledge of Indian conditions, is at all likely to supply what is wanted to produce satisfactory management of Indian railways, or that this is not to be obtained from persons trained in India itself.

I venture to say that the fundamental defects of the methods of control adopted by the Government of India arise from the inherent character of its bureaucratic organisation, which leads to a centralised system of intervention, extending to the smallest details of management, carried out through officials who are in many cases less competent to deal with the business in hand than those whose actions they control. It is, however, hardly possible to avoid the conclusion that the conditions of the contracts that exist between the Secretary of State and the Companies entrusted with the working of railways in India, render some such general system as that now in existence for the purpose of authorising expenditure essential, and so far as I am able to form an opinion, the objectionable friction that has often arisen in the case of this Company, to which alone my knowledge in this matter extends, has been caused by the mischievous tendency of the superior officers of the Government, to interfere with the discretion of the officers of the Company, rather than from the initiative of the consulting engineers, who communicate directly with the Company's officers, and are naturally animated by the spirit of their superiors.

On this subject I will further only add that I can call to mind no case in which, in my judgment, has the Government control, in recent times at all events, conduced to 'prevent extravagance in construction, and subsequent waste in maintenance and working.' On the contrary, in many cases it has certainly led to results the reverse of this, by causing the postponement of works the construction of which might, with great advantage, have been taken up earlier, and by being distributed over a longer period have reduced the eventual pressure, financial and executive, which the growing urgent need of improvements has eventually rendered inevitable. Of the parts of the report that deal with questions of technical railway working, I do not think that I can usefully say more than that it is impossible to treat Indian railways as though they were all alike in their condition, and that to attempt to discuss details of this description on an occasion such as the present is out of the question, even if I were competent to offer opinions as to lines with the condition of which I have no specific knowledge."

Since these remarks were made, the Railway Board has been formed and now rules the destinies of the Railways in India.

In 1900 the work of removing the carriage and wagon building shops of the undertaking from Howrah to Lillooah was commenced. The move became necessary because of the cramped accommodation at Howrah, and because of the entry of the Bengal-Nagpur Railway into that terminus; but while the move was being effected the work of the Department naturally fell into arrears and when this happens it takes time to make up for lost way. Since then the construction of a new station for the joint use of the East Indian and Bengal-Nagpur Railways has been started and the portion so far sanctioned by the Government is now well on Its way towards completion.

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