The International Steam Pages
The Palace on Wheels
This article by Ray Ellis was written in 1992, some ten years after the journey was made (with a friend), and was originally published in the defunct but much-missed Indian Railways Study Group Newsletter, edited by Kelvin White. It was part of a much longer trip encompassing the POW in India, a rail journey from Bangkok to Singapore (in stages), then to Sabah (where VF 2-6-2 No. 6.016 was specially steamed for us) and back to Australia via Manila in the Philippines.
The author has a particular interest in Indian metre gauge Royal or Viceregal trains and their carriages. If anybody has any information, particularly photos, of the pre-Partition trains (prior 1947) the author would love to hear from them (email: ray_ellis (at) optusnet.com.au).
The idea of running a luxury tourist train to consist of vintage viceregal and tourist saloons, with the name Palace on Wheels, was developed in the early 1980s as a joint venture between the Indian Railways and the Rajasthan Tourist Development Corporation. It is the first and original train to bear this title which will be discussed here, and not the later metre gauge and broad gauge trains which carried the same name.
The idea was developed and the train assembled during 1981 and the early part of 1982, with the train making its inaugural trip on 28th January 1982. Only five promotional trips were run in the first part of 1982, for the purpose of familiarization and publicity, before the train started its regular operation in October 1982, making 13 weekly and 13 short trips during a season. Between 1982 and 1992 this original metre gauge Palace on Wheels train transported its passengers through western and north-western India on a nostalgic journey to some of the better known and popular regal tourist spots of Rajasthan. Initially the train travelled two routes alternately - a 13 day - Delhi - Jaipur - Udaipur - Jaisalmer - Jodhpur - Agra - Delhi journey, and a shorter 8 day - Delhi - Agra - Jaipur - Delhi journey, and operated in the Indian winter season only, between October and March. The short trip did not prove quite as popular as the fortnight-long trip, and is believed to have later been dropped.
Most of the data available on the train deals (understandably) more with the sites visited than with the train itself and these notes describe and outline the background to the vehicles used in the train, as well as giving some details observed during a journey on the train in 1983. The train was a magnificent replica of the Royal and official trains of the Indian metre gauge in the 1920s and 1930s. On the 1983 journey it was a massive train of 20 cars, including 13 vintage saloons of wide variety, plus dining, lounge and staff/service cars, some modern, some vintage. Contrary to popular opinion (fuelled by publicity photos), the train was rarely steam-hauled other than on special occasions and then only on certain sections. It was found that with such a large train and the longer service stops that steam required, steam locos were hard put to keep time with the train, and were not popular (?!) with passengers or staff. No doubt the slow and increasing disappearance of steam traction from Indian railways at this time had a bearing on the decision as well. On the 1983 trip, the train had steam on only one section (which was then totally steam worked anyway), the 252 km from Pokaran to Jaisalmer and return. A WR official travelling with the train confirmed that steam, when used, was only otherwise operated from Delhi to Jaipur and Agra to Delhi, using YG 2-8-2s, sometimes double-headed (a frequent performer was YG 2-8-2 No. 3415 Desert Queen).
On the 1983 journey, from Pokaran to Jaisalmer, the train had two YG class 2-8-2s: one pulling and one banking on the outward journey, double-heading on the return. The lead loco was YG class No. 4320 Fort of Jodhpur, absolutely immaculate, with YG class 2-8-2 No. 3511, which wasn’t quite so clean but showing signs of having been ‘dolled up’ on a previous occasion. 4320’s nameplates came from the ex-Jodhpur Railway Baldwin built HP class 4-6-2 No. 154 (the type with the large 12-wheel tenders) which was seen in pristine condition in green livery in the shed at Jodhpur on an earlier visit in 1978 where it was reposing following restoration and was waiting its call to the National Railway Museum in Delhi. YG 4320 also carried on its front buffer beam the Jodhpur royal coat of arms which was carried on JR royal train engines in pre-war years. Photos of this can be found in Bhandari’s book on the Jodhpur Railway. Unlike on an earlier 1978 visit, when there was still much non-standard steam around (including the HP Pacifics mentioned above, complete with their ‘steamboat’ type chime whistles!), in 1983 mainly YP class 4-6-2s and YG class 2-8-2s were to be seen, although the odd ex USATC MAWD class 2-8-2 shunted at some places. One of the highlights of the 1983 trip was to see MAWD class 2-8-2 No. 1562 (which had certainly seen better days) make a gallant and successful effort in shunting the POW train from its service bay into the main platform at Agra. YP class 4-6-2s have been used on the train only occasionally, examples being (and there are probably others) on one of the familiarization trips in early 1982, another being on one trip in the 1990s when the Pokaran to Jaisalmer section was run using a YP + YG double-headed combination.
The genesis of the Palace on Wheels train was the royal and official trains which operated on the metre gauge lines of western India in the years prior to the Second World War. The Bombay, Baroda & Central India Railway and privately owned Princely State railways all owned large contingents of royal and official saloons, and it is surprising how many of them survived, some still being in regular use, even today. Some of these saloons were used to form part of the POW train, whilst others were and are used as tourist saloons or inspection saloons for a wide variety of railway officials. Apart from those on the POW train, quite a number of these saloons were seen all over western India in both 1978 and 1983.
The BBCIR (or Rajputana - Malwa Railway as it was then known) was probably one of the first of these lines to assemble a royal train, in the early 1880s. Dining Saloon No. 5, built in 1889 and from an early 5-coach version of the royal train, is now preserved in the National Railway Museum in Delhi. The train was added to over the years, more modern vehicles were included, until by the early years of the 20th century, it had developed into a 350 ton 13 car affair which had to be double-headed most of the way and ran from about 1905 until at least the 1930s (and maybe longer). It included, as well as its brake vehicles at each end (which accommodated railway and official staff), a number of 1st class and tourist saloons (used by lesser officials), a dining car, a kitchen car (with lighting generator), the royal staff car, and the 12-wheel royal saloon, the latter two having clerestory roofs and end platforms. A 3rd class car was often added for royal servants. All of the cars appear to have been built at the Ajmer shops of the BBCIR, many using imported underframes and wheels.
This train was widely used on the metre gauge lines of western India, including trips on the Princely State lines, conveying the likes of Royal visitors, the Viceroy, government officials, and even some of the Indian princes. Even though some of the latter had their own carriages, they did sometimes use the BBCIR train both on and off their own lines. Some of the cars from the BBCIR train are now used in the POW train whilst others are still in use as tourist and inspection saloons.
The only other permanently assembled complete royal train was that owned by the Jodhpur Railway which consisted of 8 cars and was assembled between 1922 and 1939. Saloons Nos. 1 and 2, both 12-wheelers, were for the Maharajah and Maharani, No. 3 was the Member’s Saloon (the senior British official), Saloon No. 4 was used by senior officials accompanying the Maharajah, the dining car was numbered 5, and 6 and 7 were brake 3rds attached at each end of the train to accommodate staff and attendants, with one fitted with a lighting generator. An additional saloon, numbered 13, used by senior officials of the Durbar and railway officials, also accompanied the train from time to time. Saloon No. 1 was wholly built by the Birmingham RC&W Co. in 1927, whilst the other saloons were built in the Jodhpur shops of the JR, some using imported underframes.
Four of these saloons are still in regular use. No. 13 is used on the POW train, whilst Saloons Nos. 2 and 4, and dining car No. 5, are operated by the Maharajah of Jodhpur in conjunction with the Northern Railway of Indian Railways for small tourist groups travelling from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. Nos. 2 and 4 are attached to the regular train in each direction, whilst No. 5 is based permanently at Jaisalmer and provides dining facilities for the other cars during their lay-over at Jaisalmer.
The Princely State railways of Jaipur, Bhavnagar, Bikaner, Porbander, Morvi and Mewar (and others) also maintained royal saloons of varying numbers but these were only used as a basis for the formation of a royal train, as distinct from having a permanently assembled train like the BBCIR and JR trains. These railways also had saloons used by both government and railway officials and it was these, along with the royal saloons, which would be used to form a royal train, often of varying length, as and when required. It was also not unknown for royal saloons to be attached to regular mail and express trains as occasion demanded, and the BBCIR train was even used from time to time, sometimes supplemented by vehicles from the Princely States lines. The two Jaipur State Railway saloons on the POW train were two of three Viceregal cars, Saloons Nos. 1, 2 and 8, all built at the Ajmer Shops of the BBCIR in 1936 for the Maharajah of Jaipur, which formed the basis of a royal train. These three cars, all of which originally had end platforms, were supplemented by other vehicles as required. Prior to the Second World War the cars carried a livery of cream with purple brown lining which was later adopted for the livery of the POW train.
The royal trains were always maintained in excellent condition and were always hauled by immaculately turned out engines, often carrying the coat of arms of their royal owner on the front buffer beam. Depending on the size of the train, it would often be double-headed, particularly in the case of the BBCIR train. The BBCIR favoured its P and G class 4-6-0s for this train, although sometimes the M class 4-4-0s were used. On the princely states lines the O class 4-4-0s were sometimes used, but more likely one of the variants of the BESA design passenger or mixed traffic type 4-6-0s. Later YB class 4-6-2s appeared on some of these lines and would have hauled such trains, whilst the Jodhpur Railway of course used its magnificent Baldwin built HP class 4-6-2s on royal train duties from time to time.
It can be seen therefore that there were plenty of excellent vehicles to draw upon for use in the Palace on Wheels train. The train was assembled by the Western Railway of Indian Railways with the assistance and co-operation of the Northern Railway who originally owned some of the saloons. All them were place under WR control for use on the POW train. The cars were refurbished, and in some cases given a rebuild, at the famous Ajmer shops of the WR (ex BBCIR) to suit their new task.
Looking at the cars themselves used in the train, many of them had been rebuilt previously, or for the POW train, and a number of them came to the POW train as tourist saloons. Because of the age of the cars, the train was restricted to 60kph, although this speed was sometimes exceeded to make up time, and a combination of age and poorly maintained track in some areas could produce a bumpy ride in some of the cars! Each saloon was painted in a creamy white livery with purple brown lining, which was the livery used for the Jaipur State Railway royal saloons. Each carriage also had on its sides the railway coat of arms applicable to the railway of its origin. As well as carrying a railway running number, each saloon was also numbered for tourist identification purposes. Each car was attended by a saloon captain and saloon attendant, and along with other service staff on the train, they were dressed in the livery used by the palace staff of the Maharajah of Jaipur.
In 1983 the train was made up of 20 carriages of which 13 of the vehicles were vintage saloons, whilst the dining car annex and lounge car were also vintage vehicles. The five remaining cars were modern day standard steel Indian Railways vehicles which were painted in the same livery as the rest of the train. Whilst these modern vehicles were very functional, they detracted in some way from the rest of the train, as did the use of diesel haulage instead of steam haulage, no matter what the practicalities of the use of diesel may be.
The train consisted of the following vehicles:
(the note 'Delhi' after some cars - nine in all - denotes that they are now preserved at the National Railway Museum in Delhi)
It will be noted that a saloon from the Nizam’s Guaranteed State Railway in southern India is included in the train. How this vehicle came to be included in an otherwise all WR/NR train is somewhat a mystery, even to the officials on the train! This highlights the fact that saloons of similar viceregal style to the ones on the POW did, and still do, exist elsewhere on the metre gauge in India. As is known, the metre gauge developed in three fairly distinct areas: the west & north-west, the north and north-east, and the south, and it is only since formation of the IR that any real efforts were made to link these three systems. Maybe there is an argument for having included representative vehicles from all three, but when one considers the journey the POW train makes, and its chief promoter is the Rajasthan Tourist Development Corporation, it was probably appropriate that most of the vintage vehicles should originate from the western part of India.
The matter of maintaining these cars in good running condition was a concern for the railway staff for all of the train’s operational existence from 1982 to 1992! Much work had to be done on the cars during the off season to keep the cars in serviceable condition, and it was a credit to the maintenance staff at Ajmer that this seems to have been achieved. The idea of replacing the original under-frames with totally modern ones had been around since the train started, and in fact there was even a proposal that all the cars be so treated prior to the train’s commencement. It was felt, however, that this would detract from the overall ‘vintage’ appearance of the train and the cars retained their original frames. Many of the cars are also wooden bodied, and this was another area of concern, although probably not as difficult to keep up to standard.
Next are described the vintage saloons which formed the bulk of the train in 1983 This information has been gleaned from a variety of sources, some of which might be a little questionable, so no guarantee is given as to its accuracy! The cars are grouped together by original owning railway and not as they were formed in the train. In listing the accommodation in each car, the following abbreviations have been used:
L = Lounge C = Two berth coupe 4B = Four berth coupe T = Toilet/Bathroom P = Pantry
Two of these saloons were kept in reserve. Saloon No. CT7S was the current ‘relief’ saloon and was observed in the bay platform at Jaipur. Saloon No. CT 94 was not seen and was believed to have been at Ajmer.
In the early 1990s the fears expressed early on in the train’s history about the suitability of such elderly saloons for a day to day grind in service became reality, with claims by Indian Railways that they were receiving many complaints from passengers about how the cars rocked uncomfortably when in motion. The result was a decision to withdraw the original Palace on Wheels rake and replace it with a modern steel air-conditioned rake. The new metre gauge steel air-conditioned train was built by the Integral Coach Factory at Madras and consisted of 14 saloons, 2 restaurant/kitchen cars, one bar/lounge car and 4 service cars. Whilst the coaches of this new rake maintained the original livery (though an updated version), the interior of the cars was entirely different, and purpose built. Each saloon now contained four coupes (sleeping rooms) with attached bathroom and toilet, and there was now one saloon captain and two attendants to each car. This new train went into service at the end of 1992, and on some sections, notably the start of the journey from Delhi, was still on occasion hauled by steam, usually YG class 2-8-2s Nos. 4315 and 4328 kept specially for the purpose at Rewari shed, and highly embellished in typical POW style.
The new POW train was, however, to be short-lived due to the ongoing conversion of the metre gauge to broad gauge in the area in which the train operated. The metre gauge train was therefore withdrawn in April 1995 and was replaced by a new broad gauge train, with the same POW name, which commenced operation in October 1995. It was an altogether different train! It appeared that there would be no future for the metre gauge train until the State of Gujarat and the Western Railway of Indian Railways decided to promote a new train which would operate on those sections which remained metre gauge. The journey would be from Delhi travelling to Chittorgarh, Udaipur, Palitana, Somnath, Diu, Ahmedpur, Mandvi, Sasangir National Park, Junagarh, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and back to Delhi, taking 7 days. The train was given a new livery of dark blue and renamed The Royal Orient. The train was still maintained at the WR workshops at Ajmer, and steam still works the train out of and into Delhi Cantonment station, generally using two of three YG class 2-8-2s, Nos. 3415, 3418 and 3438, based at Bandakui. Whilst this new train maintains the traditions of the first Palace on Wheels train, it is a far cry from the elegant vehicles of a bygone age used in the original train.
In September 2000 it was reported that a new ‘southern’ version of the Palace on Wheels had been planned, to operate Bangalore, Ootacamund (which would require a side trip up the famous Nilgiri metre gauge rack section), Mysore and Cochin. To date nothing further has been heard of this proposal, including a likely train name, and any resulting train is likely to be a modern steel version of the POW.
Nine of the vintage saloons from the original Palace on Wheels train have been preserved, being sent to the National Railway Museum at Delhi. The fate of the remaining saloons (and the vintage service cars) is not known; hopefully they may survive somewhere as all are historic vehicles. The cars in the NRM Delhi were there by November 1997, but showing signs of not having been well maintained, unfortunately. In the museum they have been placed in a long line at the back of the museum, and there are plans afoot to convert them into a luxury hotel but at this stage nothing further seems to have taken place in this regard. Whilst the preservation of these historic cars is commendable, and probably ensures their security, it seems a sad end to an otherwise illustrious career for these ‘palaces on wheels’.
Note: In the event, Jodhpur Rly. Baldwin 4-6-2 No. 154 did not make it to the NRM, it’s place taken by another HP class No. 152 / 31412, and sadly No. 154 was scrapped. What a waste!