A JOURNEY ALONG THE TRACKS OF TIME - THE FRONTIER MAIL

BY SYED ALI HAMID

 
 

I was introduced to the Frontier Mail while gathering information on the operations of the British Indian Army in the NWFP and came across a photo taken of the Frontier Mail arriving at Rawalpindi Station.

The Frontier Mail was operated by the Bombay, Baroda and Central India Railway (BB&CIR). It was flagged off in 1928 for carrying passengers and mail from Bombay to Delhi via Ratlam and Mathura, and in collaboration with the North Western Railways (NWR), beyond to Peshawar, via Lahore and Rawalpindi (which was then the detraining point for Kashmir). The distance from Bombay to Peshawar was 2,335 kms which the train covered in a record time of 72 hours and at one time it could claim being the fastest long distance train in British India. The Great India Peninsular Railways (GIPR) who was the main competitors of BB&CIR already had the ‘Punjab Limited’ running between Bombay and Peshawar, but the journey took several days.

The BB&CIR took pride in the punctuality of the Frontier Mail and 9 times out of 10 you could you could set your watch by it! In August 1929, eleven months after its inauguration, when the train arrived 15 min late at Peshawar, there was a big uproar among the railway circles, with the driver being asked to explain the reasons for this 'inexcusable' delay. The Frontier Mail was considered more than just a train: it was rather a conversation piece, an exotic fast running train that whisked passengers through India and set them down deep into the North West Frontier town of Peshawar. In 1930, The Times of London described it as 'one of the most famous express trains within the British Empire'.

The train was so famous that a film was named after it starring ‘Fearless Nadia’ the star of Indian stunt and action films of the 1930s & 40s. Blonde, blue-eyed Nadia, born to a Scot soldier and a Greek dancer wore daring shorts and tight, sleeveless blouses. She slashed villains with her whip, rode galloping horses, threw men about like toys and fought them on the roof top of the Frontier Mail.

The Frontier Mail used to depart from Ballard Pier Mall Station at Bombay harbor; the entraining point for passengers arriving from England by ship. It was also a pick up point for mail brought in from Europe by the P & O mail steamers like the S.S. Rawalpindi, one of the first P & O ships with a refrigerated hold.

The mail carried by the train provided a critical link between British troops stationed in the Punjab and way out stations like Razmak in the Frontier and their relatives and loved ones back home in England.

Over its 20 years of service to the Jewel in the Crown, it carried Governors and Generals, Civil Servants and Soldiers and a multitude of Indians along its route. In 1944, while Subhas Chandra Bose of Indian National Army fame, was using it for escaping to Afghanistan enroute to Hitler’s Germany, the ‘to be famous’ singer Mohammed Rafi boarded its III Class compartment at Lahore to seek his destiny in Bombay. It is also likely that the young Yusuf Khan from Peshawar seeking stardom, travelled the Frontier Mail from to Bombay where he came to be recognized and remembered as Dilip Kumar.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Frontier Mail carried 450 passengers in six carriages. It wasn’t as luxurious but was a close second to the 'Imperial Mail’ (that featured in a ‘Passage to India”) which ran between Bombay and Calcutta and carried only 32 passengers in Royal comfort. Each First Class carriage on the Frontier Mail was self contained, right down to an attached lavatory and shower bath. The compartments had specially constructed 'modern' berths, with 'Queen Anne' armchairs for use during the day.

The dining car (one of which was named the Queen of Rajputana) was not very large, but it was spacious. Initially, there was no air conditioning, but ceiling fans cooled the interior quite efficiently. White damask on the tables coupled with white napkins was compulsory. Silver cutlery and exquisite crockery with crystal fruit platters were placed on each table, along with salt and pepper shakers. The table settings had to be perfect, with different forks and knives for each course.

The Frontier Mail was one of the first trains in India to get an air conditioned car in 1934. The air conditioning system was basic using ice blocks, carried in sealed receptacles beneath the car floor. These were replenished at several halts along the line. A battery operated blower blew air into these receptacles, and the cold air entered the insulated cars through vents.

After the Partition of India, the Frontier Mail ran between Bombay and Amritsar, which is the last city in India on route to Pakistan. In 1996, for political reasons it was renamed as the Golden Temple Mail after the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar.


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©Jules Stewart 2010