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Tuesday, 16 April, 2002, 13:37 GMT 14:37 UK
Indian rail marks 150th anniversary
Steam engine
The first train carried 400 passengers
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By Sanjeev Srivastava
BBC correspondent in Bombay
line

Indian Railways, one of the world's largest rail networks, has launched its 150th birthday celebrations.

Bombay rail terminus
The station was built during colonial rule

As the network moves into its anniversary year, a re-run has got under way of the country's first train journey between Bombay's Victoria Terminus and the nearby town of Thane.

The steam train left the station amid much fanfare at exactly the same time with the same number of carriages and passengers as the original trip.

Railway officials have tried to re-create the original journey as faithfully as possible.

But amid the nostalgia, there are many who believe authorities should concentrate on the present and improve the nationwide service for the millions who use it every day.

Memory lane

The Bombay-Thane train was flagged off from Victoria Terminus at 3.35 pm - the same time the first train left for Thane on April 16, 1853.

Preparations for the anniversary journey
Teams of mechanics have been preparing for the celebrations

A team of mechanics and engineers have been servicing and polishing two steam engines in a central Bombay railway workshop for the big occasion.

Almost 150 years on from that first journey, the network now serves even the remotest corners of India, and the statistics are mind-boggling.

Indian Railways carries 13 million passengers and nearly two million tonnes of freight every day.

In Bombay alone nearly 6.5 million commuters use the city's suburban rail network. The railways are also the country's largest employer with a staff of nearly 1.6 million people.

Overcrowding

But many passengers feel that authorities are not coping with the massive demand.

Indian rail passengers
Overcrowding has raised widespread safety concerns

During the rush hour, a suburban train in Bombay with a capacity of 1,200 passengers sometimes carries as many as 5,000 commuters.

Railway officials concede that overcrowding is a big problem but also point out that the railways are the only real transport available to the country's poor.

According to Mukul Marwah, chief public relations officer of Central Railway, much needs to be done to make trains more comfortable for commuters.

"But the fact that they are overcrowded, it's a salute to the Indian Railways," Mr. Marwah said.

"It just goes to show that trains remain the only transport medium which is both accessible and affordable to a vast majority of Indians," he said.

Safety concerns

There are also concerns about the safety of train journey in India which averages nearly 350 accidents a year.

The accident average compares with some of the world's best rail networks in terms of the number of accidents per kilometre - the Indian average is one accident per 0.57 million km.

But the number of deaths is often much higher because of the large number of people on Indian trains.

Despite a massive increase in train services in recent years, much of the traffic management and safety equipment on Indian Railways still dates from the colonial era and relies heavily on manual operations.

While a lack of funds is one reason for the slow modernisation of the network, analysts say the problem is compounded by the sanctioning of new train links by Indian politicians to please their voters.

This results in diversion of scarce funds, leaving less for upgrading the existing infrastructure.

See also:

26 Feb 02 | South Asia
India hikes rail fares
25 Feb 02 | Business
India pledges economic reform
07 Feb 02 | Business
India targets renewed investment
18 Feb 02 | Business
India frees up bank investment rules
05 Feb 02 | Business
Boost to India privatisation
05 Feb 02 | Business
Slow growth threatens India's poor
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