While the recent railway budget could have sent many dreaming about bullet/high-speed trains hurtling across cities in the years to come, we could also dive deep into the past on the conditions of trains, train travel, linkage and other strange incidents familiar to old-timers. In the good old days, long-distance trains used to stop at several major junctions for long enough to enable travellers perform their morning ablutions or wash their clothes.
Those waiting for connecting trains would cook their meal on the platform. The platforms would have water taps that could not be closed at all. There also used to be dry taps in some stations, driving the passengers to the station master’s room. At major stations, people would not mind walking out to have a shower under giant pole taps (that would release water like from an elephant’s trunk) meant for filling steam engines. Washing platforms had leaking pipes.
There were stations which would see hardly a couple of trains passing by. Their station masters worked like part-time employees. Many had to double up as bellmen, man the counter and also check tickets. The tickets were printed on thick cards of the size of the platform ticket or even smaller and the person at the counter would struggle to write the passenger’s name and personal details on the reverse. He also maintained bulky registers. There was a time journey and reservation tickets were issued separately. Those travelling in a group would keep a bunch of tickets like playing cards. The tickets were embossed on a machine for the date/time of issue in case of platform tickets. TTEs would issue tickets using a book and making carbon copies.
One also used to find people quarreling with TTEs about mistakes made at the time of issuing tickets. For cancellation, one had to surrender them and they’d be struck off with red ink and preserved carefully for audit by the head office. A TTE used to be in each compartment not only to check tickets but also wake up passengers to get down at intermediate stations in the night. He’d receive those getting into the compartment at odd hours. He was a perennial source of information on trains, timings, etc. besides offering moral support to those in crisis. He’d alert the SMs on emergencies and the travellers had little or no insecurity thanks to the official in uniform in his seat. Now we find no ticket examiner for a major part of the journey because one man has to take care of four compartments and in case of requests for adjustments from passengers he is detained/delayed in one place. There were fewer trains and not vestibuled. First/upper-class passengers received royal treatment from the attendant in their compartment.
Now we have vestibuled trains where hawkers, beggars and railway catering personnel wade through the aisles all the time. Passengers with heavy luggage would earlier swamp the compartment and TTE was summoned to broker peace. In spite of separate charges for excess baggage, people travelled with holdalls and bedding. A journey used to be remembered for long because of the fights or friends made on board trains.