Mumbai: Once the preferred service for British officials disembarking at Mumbai and travelling up-country, the Punjab Mail entered its 100th year this month. It is the first train to achieve this distinction
on Indian Railways` broad gauge network and still connects west and north India.
Though the exact date of start of the Punjab Mail, running between the then Bombay and Peshawar in today`s Pakistan, is unclear, Central Railway has calculated its "birth date" based on an old document and a passenger complaint - about the train arriving a few minutes late!
"From a cost estimate paper of 1911 and a complaint by an irate passenger dated Oct 12, 1912, about the late arrival of the train by a few minutes at Delhi station, we have more or less inferred that the Punjab Mail, or Punjab Limited, as she was then called, made her inaugural run from Ballard Pier Mole Station, on June 1, 1912," a Central Railway official said.
This makes the Punjab Mail 16 years senior to its more glamorous sister, the Frontier Mail, running on the Western Railway network.
Although there are other trains which have completed 100 or more years of service on some metre or narrow gauge sections, the Punjab Mail record on the broad gauge is based on available historical material, the officials said.
The 24-coach train, a mix of air-conditioned and ordinary sleepers, traverses the entire 1,930 km distance between Mumbai and its terminus, Ferozepur city in Punjab, near the Pakistan border, in 34 hours.
Its regular passengers have remained loyal and appreciative.
"I have always found the journey by Punjab Mail fast, efficient as far as timings are concerned and good service in terms of lodging and boarding en route," said businessman JS Kahaan, 60, who has frequently travelled on the train between Punjab and Mumbai.
The train used to be popular with the British officers, along with their families, who usually disembarked at Bombay after a two-week steamer voyage from Southampton.
"Since they held tickets combining the sea journey with an inland train journey on the subcontinent to various destinations, the officers and their families hopped on to one of the trains taking them to places like Delhi, (the then) Calcutta or (the then) Madras," the official said.
Running on some fixed days of the week to carry mail and postal articles, Punjab Limited was the fastest train in British-ruled India for those travelling to northern India.
It traversed the picturesque 2,496- km-long Great Indian Peninsular Railways route, dotted with hills, mountains, deserts, rivers and forests, from Bombay to Peshawar in about 47 hrs, or almost two full days.
Major stops en route were Itarsi (in present-day Madhya Pradesh), Agra, Delhi and Amritsar as well as Lahore (in present-day Pakistan) before it terminated at Peshawar Cantonment.
"The train was made up of six cars, three for the passengers with a total carrying capacity of 96, and three for postal goods and mail. The sparkling clean cars were all corridor cars, and made up of first class, dual berth compartments," the official said.
All the cars had shining clean toilets, bathrooms, a restaurant car and a compartment for luggage and the servants of the British officers.
In 1914, the train`s originating and terminating point moved from the Ballard Pier, in south Mumbai`s Colaba, to Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). It also became a daily service.
Over the next two decades, the train which catered primarily to the upper class British travellers also came to be patronised by Indians. By the mid-1930s, the Punjab Mail started offering third class cars.
As the train`s popularity soared, so did its speed. Barely a decade after it was launched, its transit time was reduced from 47 hours with 55 halts to 27 hours, 10 minutes with 18 halts.
It was in 1945, just a couple of years before India got independence, that the Punjab Mail got its first air-conditioned car.
The train has come a long way from the days it was powered by electric engines and steam engines, and later diesel engines at different parts of its route. Now it is fully electrified.