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Indian Railways Celebrates 150 Anniversary - 2002-04-16

India is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its railroads with a rerun of the country's first steam locomotive trip. The Indian rail network is the world's second largest, and has played a vital role in integrating a nation of unimaginable ethnic diversities.

Spitting smoke, a vintage black and silver steam engine wheezed out of Bombay station, recreating India's first rail journey a century and a half ago. Since that historic 33-kilometer trip, the rail network has grown by leaps and bounds.

Today, trains are India's lifeline, providing a billion residents with cheap transportation and hauling nearly 40 percent of the country's cargo.

"We carry 13 million people a day, which means that our annual passengers are equal to the world's population," said railway spokesman Davinder Sandhu. We move the world around once a year. In addition to that, we carry 1.5 million tons of cargo per day. You ask me what is Indian Railways. I would say Indian Railways is India."

Historians say the rail network has played a vital role in creating modern India. It was built by British colonial rulers to consolidate their command of the region, which, until they came, consisted of several independent Hindu and Muslim kingdoms.

The network did not merely serve British interests. It unified a subcontinent of vast ethnic diversity. Historians say the railways welded the nation together by linking people who spoke different languages, had different customs, and had never known what people in different regions looked like.

India's struggle for independence from the British became inextricably linked to the railways. Trains became the vehicle through which freedom fighters created a national consciousness that had never existed before. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who led India's independence struggle travelled the length and breadth of the country in trains to carry the message of freedom, and in "absorb the psyche of my countrymen".

Today, 14,000 trains run over 63,000 kilometers of track.

Because of the system's prominence, rail authorities are often the target of criticism. Many rail stations and trains are overcrowded and dirty, and trains often run late.

The railways have also been attacked for their poor safety record, and there are endless calls for improving the service. Modern trains and state-of-the art engines are mixed with many aging ones and part of the services are computerized, but several systems still rely heavily on manual operations.

Railway spokesman Sandhu says the emphasis is on running a service that people can afford, and feels the railroads have done a reasonably good job.

"If you consider it is 150 years, we are in a developing country, sometimes there is a resource crunch, I think it is a creditable record. The only reason why we sometimes come in focus is because since we are carrying a large number of people, when we have a problem it's a disaster."

In an era overtaken by air traffic, the Indian Railways say they are also making efforts to preserve the romance of a train journey, and recreate an age when travel was an adventure.

In recent years, some steam engines have been pulled out of museums for tourist runs. These include the world's oldest working steam locomotive, the Fairy Queen, which hauls tourists on a slow, leisurely run between New Delhi and a tiger sanctuary in Rajasthan.

In the northeast, a train with narrow, small carriages known as the "toy train" travels through the misty Himalayan foothills to the tea-growing hill station of Darjeeling.

Whether it is a trip on these trains, or in the packed carriages of the ordinary ones, a train journey in India is called a slice of life on the subcontinent.