Railways and the Raj: How the Age of Steam Transformed India by Christian Wolmar - review by John Keay

John Keay

Riding the Gravy Train

Railways and the Raj: How the Age of Steam Transformed India


Atlantic Books 363pp £25 order from our bookshop

Things aren’t what they used to be on Indian Railways. There was a time when, on boarding a long-distance train, you were invited to fill in a menu form for as many lunches, dinners and breakfasts as your journey looked likely to entail. The form was then collected and you forgot what you’d written. But thirty-six hours later and half a subcontinent away, as the train ground to a halt at some unfancied station in the middle of nowhere, there, on a platform peppered by the first rays of the rising sun, breakfast number two was waiting. It was on a tray, one of several, stacked pagoda-like on the head of an aproned bearer as he stood to attention in the golden light. Seconds later the selfsame bearer appeared by your side, bringing omelette (usually Spanish), toast (wrapped in a napkin), butter and jam (in electroplated dishes), juice (in a glass) and a cup and saucer (to await the separate beverage service). It was all as ordered, though how the system worked in those presatellite days was a mystery. At the time, say 1970, it took longer to book a super-fast ‘lightning’ call to such a remote destination than to travel there by train.

Nowadays meals come as a selection of prepacked items in a floppy box. The omelette oozes from its tin-foil wrapping, the bread, sweating in a tissue, is a ready-buttered sandwich, and the cereal is always cornflakes. There’s less choice and no style. Pantry-car attendants, in between dispensing hot

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