By Quaid Najmi
Mumbai, May 31 (IANS): The popular and reliable 'Punjab Mail' -- the fastest train to zip across the subcontinent from Bombay (now, Mumbai) to Peshawar (now in Pakistan), completed 111 years on Wednesday and will step into its 112th year of operations on Thursday, Central Railway officials said here.
Sixteen years 'senior' to the more glamorous Frontier Mail (now, Golden Temple Mail) plying almost on a similar route via the Western Railway, the Punjab Mail was originally known as 'Punjab Limited' and steamed out in a cloud of smoke from the erstwhile Ballar Pier Mole station in south Mumbai for its long journey to Peshawar in the north.
CR officials say that though the exact origins of the Punjab Limited are unclear, based on a Cost Estimate Paper of 1911 and a passenger complaint of October 12, 1912 about its few minutes 'late arrival' at Delhi station, it has been concluded that the train made her maiden run on June 1, 1912.
The train was a hit, and convenient for the British officers and their spouses coming for their first postings in colonial India and the mail shipped through the P&O steamers to Bombay from Southampton Port (the same where the ill-fated but the world's most famous ship 'Titanic' had set sail on April 10, 1912 and sank after five days) after a 13-day long voyage.
The British officers held combined tickets for the ship voyage to Bombay and the inland journey by trains to their posting or final destination, and hence after disembarking would just hop onto one of the trains bound for Delhi, Calcutta or Madras.
For the northern destinations it was mostly the Punjab Mail running on fixed days from Bombay to Peshawar via the GIP route, traversing the 2,496 km distance in 47 hours.
In those days, the train was quite short and modest with just six cars -- three for passengers with a total capacity of 96 and another three for mail and postal goods, but it ranked as the fastest train of British India -- which introduced the railways in India 170 years ago, on April 16, 1853.
The Punjab Mail would cover places like Itarsi, Agra, Delhi, Lahore and terminate at the Peshawar Cantonment, unloading both its human and material cargo or mail at various points en route.
After the Victoria Terminus - now the UNESCO World Heritage site, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus - was built in 1888 and fully operational, the Punjab Mail started originating-terminating there from 1914 and also became a daily service.
In view of the growing demands, by mid-1930s, Third Class cars were introduced and it gobbled up the 1,541-km long journey from Bombay to Delhi in 29 hours and 30 minutes, which it was further reduced to 27 hours and 10 minutes, it had 55 stops on the journey and the first air-conditioned car was introduced in 1945 on Punjab Mail.
During the bloody Partition riots, Punjab Mail, along with other mainline trains running beyond Delhi, were terminated at the national capital, and after the Partition of 1947, the train terminated at Firozpur Cantonment near the new India-Pakistan border.
In 1968, the Punjab Mail was diselized upto Jhansi and then till New Delhi, and in 1976 till Firozpur, but in between in 1972, its running time was again increased to 29 hours ostensibly due to extra halts.
In the late 1970s-early 1980s, the train got dual current locomotives to run on electric traction from Bombay to Bhusaval, with the changeover from DC to AC traction at Igatpuri in Nashik.
Presently, the Punjab Mail takes 32 hours and 35 minutes to run 1,930 km from Mumbai to Firozpur Cantonment with 52 stops, fully hauled by electric engines, and a restaurant car now replaced by a pantry car.
Probably for the first time in its long history, the train services were suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown from March 22, 2020, but reintroduced gradually in the series of special train services after the 'un-lockdown' started from June 2020, and normal operations were started only from November 15, 2021.
Today, in its latest 111-year-old existence, the Punjab Mail has one Air Conditioned First Class cum AC-2 Tier, Two AC-2 Tier, Six AC-3 Tier, 6 Sleeper Class, 5 Second Class General coaches, one Pantry Car and one generator van, and zooms through Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Punjab states.
The train was immortalised in a Bollywood film, "Punjab Mail" (1939), with scenes shot in "Jab We Met" (2007), among many others in different languages.