The oldest fast trains in India, and other topics for fans of the Indian Railways

Some generalities to start with. There is no firm answer to the question “Which was India’s first long-distance train?” The present Railway administration seems to have decided that the Punjab Mail from Mumbai CSTM to Ferozepur is the oldest, having started its run from Bombay VT  to Lahore in 1912.

While the dates of opening of different sections of track are well documented by the railways (with a full directory up to 1964), the date of introduction of trains is not so clear unless one looks at the old timetables, which are generally not accessible to the public. Anyway, some of the oldest trains would include:

Bombay-Poona Mail: probably soon after the line was opened in 1863. Was known to be running in 1869. However, the name vanished around 1971 when it became the Sahyadri Express to Kolhapur with the same timings between Bombay and Poona (which were yet to become Mumbai and Pune)

Madras-Bangalore Mail: probably soon after the line between these cities was completed in 1864. At that time it would have run between Royapuram (then the only terminus in Madras) and Bangalore Cantt (likewise for Bangalore). It would have started running from Madras Central after 1873 and from Bangalore City after 1882. It still runs on this route, although the stations are now Chennai Central and KRS Bengaluru.

Then there would be the Kalka Mail, which started as the Delhi-Calcutta Mail in 1866 soon after the last link of the Yamuna bridge was opened. At that time it would have run by the Sahibganj loop which was the only connection between Calcutta and the North then. It would have started running via the “main line” between Asansol and Kiul after 1871 and via the Grand Chord after 1906. And it would have been extended to Kalka after 1891. So this is also one of the oldest fast trains of India, despite the numerous changes of route. It is still running between Howrah and Kalka by the Grand Chord.

The Delhi-Karnal-Ambala-Kalka line was opened in 1891. Possibly the Kalka Mail ran via Delhi-Meerut-Saharanpur-Ambala at one time, as this longer route  had more commercial and military significance.

I am not actually sure when it started running via the Grand Chord, as that covered relatively unpopulated areas compared to the main line via Patna. This can only be answered definitely by seeing timetables from 1906 onwards. In the 1930 timetable of the North Western Railway the abstract timetables show it running via Patna. But in the 1935 Bradshaw it is running via Gomoh on the Grand Chord, where Netaji is supposed to have boarded it in 1941.

In the same way many of the older Mail trains would have started running soon after the routes were completed. Some which must  have started running in the 19th century include the Madras/Mangalore, Madras/Bombay, Bombay/Calcutta via Allahabad. By 1910 the Madras/Howrah and Bombay/Howrah via Nagpur would have started.

Some like the Punjab Mail from Bombay (1912), Frontier Mail (1928), and Deccan Queen (1930) are well documented, although the second one became the Golden Temple Mail in 1996.

The Delhi-Madras route never had a mail train. The last link between Balharshah and Kazipet was completed in the late 1920s in what was then the Nizam’s State Railway. This Grand Trunk Express ran for the first few months from Mangalore to Peshawar, then for a few months from Mettupalaiyam to Lahore and then settled to its long-term route from Madras Central to Delhi.

By the 1950s most trains from the West and South started terminating at New Delhi which had been a tiny station until it was expanded to be a station fit for a capital. Ultimately the GT  was extended to Delhi Sarai Rohilla a few years ago. A number of long distance trains suffered the same fate due to the lack of stabling lines near New Delhi and Delhi Jn.

And Sarai Rohilla is one of the most inaccessible rail terminuses in India’s major cities, though it gets good competition from Kolkata Terminus and (to a lesser extent) from LTT and Bandra Terminus in Mumbai. However, unlike in Mumbai and Kolkata many of these trains also have stops at New Delhi or Delhi Jn, so it does not affect reserved passengers that much. Those going towards Rajasthan and Gujarat may prefer the 2-minute halt at Delhi Cantt to the inaccessible starting point.

Most of the trains mentioned above have separate articles on Wikipedia and other sites like . Some sources are reliable, others are not. Anyone who says that the Punjab Mail of 1912 is the oldest train is clearly wrong.

To come back to the original question, the oldest long-distance train running on (almost) the same route throughout the years is almost certainly the Chennai/Bengaluru Mail, though the management of the CR and the NR would not like to hear that.

A footnote: some old timetables of India (including pre-1947 India) can be seen here:

It is not very systematic as bits and pieces have been added by a large number of people. If you expect to see the full all-India timetables for a particular year you will be disappointed. Some attempt has been made to give the full timetables for a particular company or zone, for instance the NWR from a 1943 Bradshaw:

and the Jodhpur railway, 2 pages from the same Bradshaw:

There are also a few pages from the NWR of 1930 and Assam Bengal Railway of 1929. But basically you have to find your own way in this site.

Another section of the irfca site which may interest you is:

although this was prepared over a decade ago and all the information may not be accurate.

Some railfans have acquired soft and hard copies of old timetables by various means over the years. If you expect them to put up the scans of the full timetables of the past, it will not happen because either the books are bound in such a way that scanning is difficult, or the pages are too yellow and/or fragile, or they are the result of multiple photocopies and are not very legible (the ones mentioned above are examples of this).

Anyway, I have been requested to summarize the timings of the Kalka Mail and Frontier Mail over the years. Probably the best you can expect is a summary of timings at some important stations retyped here.

Follow this blog, there are many other topics such as aviation and cricket covered here.


Life on the border-Munabao (2)

Hope you have read the first part:

A bit of ancient history first, courtesy of a nice little book “Jodhpur Railway” by R.R. Bhandari, published by Northern Railway in 1982. Copies might still be available at the bookshop at the NRM in Delhi.

The start of this desert route came about by public demand in Sind province (which, unlike Jodhpur state, was ruled by the British). Thus a BG line was built from Hyderabad (Sind) to Shadipalli, a little east of Jamrao and Mirpur Khas. It was opened in 1892 and did not run at a profit.

Ultimately the British did some arm-twisting and persuaded the ruler of Jodhpur to extend the MG line from the then railhead at Balotra to Shadipalli. The line from Shadipalli to Hyderabad was then converted to MG, and the through MG connection was opened in 1901. The last section was transferred to the Jodhpur Railway. It was generally considered to be one of the best run mid-sized railways in India, and it was not surprising that they could run it at a profit.

An interesting sidelight from this book relates to the station now known as Marwar Jn. Marwar is the name of a region but not a town. This station came into being when the first connection from Pali (then an important town in Jodhpur state) was to be connected to the Ahmedabad-Delhi line. As it often happens, the optimum connection happened to be at a place with little local population. But it was chosen as the water supply there was more abundant than the other possible points. This station went through various names such as Kharchi, Jaswantganj, Jodhpur (which was OK until the line to the real Jodhpur was opened), Bitoora and finally Marwar Jn. It is still essentially a railway town with few other activities.

By the 2000s, the MG system in Pakistan was on its last legs. Hyderabad to Mirpur Khas was now converted back to BG and the latter town had two expresses from Karachi. The pathetic state of the MG network can be seen from these extracts from a PR timetable of 2001:PR-47

The BG connection up to Hyderabad is shown above.


Here you can see the pair of trains which ran once a week between Mirpur Khas and Khokhrophar. They ran with ancient steam locos, as did the other MG lines.PR-49

The line from Mirpur Khas to Nawabshah appeared to have only two trains a month, and a single intermediate station functioning on the 129-km route.


And this loop line from Mirpur Khas to Pithoro had one train a week, which ran only in the anti-clockwise direction and returned via the “main line” as you can see from page 48 above.

There were a few BG routes such as Quetta – Zahidan which had a similar pattern of service.

A recent picture of Hyderabad Sind station, which is a junction unlike its larger Indian counterpart:

By 2006 the Indian BG conversion had reached up to Munabao and was then extended up to the border. Similarly Pakistan converted the line up to the border. As Khokhropar was a few km away from the border, they decided to build a new station “Zero Point” just inside the border. There is a general understanding between the two countries that no new structures will be erected within a few hundred metres of the border, but India seems to have let this pass.

The geography of the border stations can be seen here:,70.2551959,14z

The service began in 2006 with the Indian train running from Jodhpur to Munabao, the trans-border train running between Munabao and Zero Point, and the Pakistani train running from there to Karachi Cantt with commercial halts at Mirpur Khas and Hyderabad. The Indian train apparently runs non-stop. After a couple of years the terminus was shifted from Jodhpur to the suburb of Bhagat-ki-Kothi (BGKT) Apparently it was easier to handle security from the smaller station, which is more known for its diesel locomotive shed.

Bhagat ki Kothi

There are full immigration and customs checks at both border stations. The trans-border train is the true Thar Express, while the train from BGKT is correctly called the Thar Link Express. The trans-border train is supposed to be run by India and Pakistan alternately for 6 months. When it is the Indian train, everyone gets on to the same train they came by once the border formalities are over. It takes them to Zero Point, where everyone gets down and the passengers from Pakistan board for their trip across the border. Similarly, the Pakistani train from Karachi takes their passengers across their border up to Munabao and returns to Zero Point. Everyone gets down for the formalities before they board again for Karachi.

The formalities may take several hours on each side and frequent seizures of smuggled goods and counterfeit currency are made. Expired visas and other irregularities are also commonly found, although visas are supposed to be checked before boarding at BGKT.

These are the timings of the Thar Link Express:TharLink

And on the Pakistani side:

Thar Pak TT

Note that this website can be seen only in some countries, so you may have to make some adjustments.

The timetables are more of a work of fiction as delays for checking often take longer than expected.

When the new service started, India already had a daily passenger train between Barmer and Munabao. But on the Pakistani side there was only the 405/406 running between Mirpur Khas and Zero Point with no intermediate stops. Khokhropar, the only place of some importance in that remote area, found itself totally cut off as roads were in a poor condition. More recently a daily passenger train has been introduced on this route:

Pak Pass TT

The current timetable does not show any services on the MG lines on the Pithoro loop or the Nawabshah branch, so we presume they are now closed. Thus Pakistan is now an unigauge country like Sri Lanka, but unlike India and Bangladesh where the metre gauge and narrow gauge will be around for a long time to come.

Here are a few videos of this train:

Arrival from Pakistan at Munabao:

Leaving Zero Point for India:


And passing through Chanesar, a suburb of Karachi:

It needs to be mentioned that it is a long and uncomfortable journey and not particularly worthwhile for Indian railfans. This is in contrast to the Samjhauta route where Lahore and Amritsar are both within an hour of the border.

They could, of course, travel from Barmer to Munabao by the local train. With luck, you might see some action between 12 noon and 2 pm on Saturday though the cross-border train is more likely to arrive late. Even if one could find a place to stay there, there is supposed to be a curfew between 7 pm and 6 am.

Life on the border-Munabao (1)

The Samjhauta Express gets all the news coverage, but its little known cousin the Thar Express remains away from the limelight. A look at its history.

While most of the railways in Pakistan came under the North Western Railway headquartered at Lahore, the metre gauge lines in Sind were run by the Jodhpur state railway. This is what the network looked like in 1933. Some smaller branches were not completed by then.Jodhpur Railway in 1933

This being 1933, there is only a little dashed line indicating the boundary between the British-ruled province of Sind and the state of Jodhpur. At around that time there was a mail train between Jodhpur and Hyderabad on the metre gauge, possibly with coaches from Ahmedabad which would have joined at Luni. Here you can see the “trans-border” timetable of the Jodhpur Railway in 1943, which was not too different from what it was in the 1930s:


The rest of the Jodhpur Railway in 1943 is here:


So we see the mail trains between Luni and Hyderabad Sind running without a stop at Munabao, although Gadra Road and Khokhropar seem to have been more important stations.

It would have been possible to travel by train from Bombay to Karachi by a roundabout rail route via Ahmedabad, but this would (at the bare minimum) have involved changes of train at Ahmedabad and Hyderabad. Probably ships were more convenient.

Came 1947 and the Jodhpur railway authorities continued to run trains into West Pakistan for a few months. There seems to have been some cross-border services up to 1965 but details are lacking. Apparently the Pakistani forces did intrude across the border to Munabao (as they did at Khem Karan further north), besides shelling Gadra Road which is close to the border. This station was to serve Gadra town which was now on the other side. All cross-border train services between India and both wings of Pakistan ceased after this.

In 1971, the Indian army returned the compliment and advanced about 50 km into Pakistan, capturing Khokhropar and a few other stations beyond it. Documentary films of that time show Indian diesels (probably YDM-4s) running to Khokhropar. Incidentally Pakistan Railways generally neglected these MG lines and never got round to getting diesel locos there, though they seem to have shifted some of the more numerous steam locos from East Pakistan to run the limited services (much to the delight of foreign steam fans).

By 1976, the Samjhauta Express between Amritsar and Lahore got going. Now that was the only way (other than limited air services) for the ordinary passengers from India and Pakistan to cross the border. Anyone from western India who wanted to travel to southern Pakistan had to make a long detour up to Amritsar and Lahore.Gradually both countries got round to reopening this long-forgotten link.

To be continued.