Ever bought a train ticket and found that you couldn’t get a seat? No, really? Tell me about it!

A photograph of a train at a train station.

A modern express train waiting to leave Pandharpur bound for Mumbai.

You surrender your hand-wrung spondoolics – or for the naturally digital among you – flash your smartphone at whichever human or machine you first happen to scan. Your ticket transaction may not even require any human interaction. Then, for the fraught commuter, ‘paying to be swaying’ can be the final sprinkling of salt in the wound. The least you can expect for your hardship is a seat.

So, you may well feel some sympathy for the ire of one Shankar Narayan who took India’s Barsi Light Railway to court in April 1946 for shirking their duty to deliver seat-shaped padding to his posterior in return for his purchasing a third class ticket. That day, Mr Narayan wasn’t doing battle with office workers to earn his crust, he was going on a Pilgrimage.

a black and white photograph of two people walking towards a train.

A passenger train on the Barsi Light Railway, probably in the 1930s, with a freight wagon towards the front of the train.

Pilgrim traffic was a major source of income for the Barsi, with demand surging during the religious festivals celebrated people of Hindu, Sikh, Jainism and other faiths. On 20 November 1939 Mr Narayan took the train to the pilgrim town of Pandharpur (218 miles South East of Mumbai) for the Kartiki Purmina, also known as Diwa-Diwali. He had changed trains at Kurduwadi Junction for the last leg of his journey, expecting his 3rd class ticket to earn him a place in a 3rd class carriage – a reasonable enough aspiration. With no space available in 3rd class, Mr Narayan was evidently dismayed to be shown into a part of the train that did not contain any seats or toilets.

A photograph of a river scene, with lots of people crowding around the water's edge

Pilgrims at Pandharpur.

This portion of the train – let’s not call it a carriage – was commonly known in India as a ‘Pilgrim Traffic Vehicle’. The car’s officially vague classification may have been the railway’s way of masking the uncomfortable reality that Mr Narayan, along with many thousands of fellow pilgrims, had bought a ticket to be carried in a goods wagon. The court case shed light on a practice prevalent among railways across the Sub-Continent, where wagons which carried freight for most of the year were pressed into service to meet the huge demand for rail travel during periods of religious festivals. Under this practice freight wagons effectively became 4th class passenger rail cars, completely devoid of any comforts normally associated with everyday rail travel.

Much in the same way that today’s delayed commuters take to social media to air their grievances in real time, Mr Narayan rapidly wrote a note of protest and insisted that the station masters of each station he passed sign the letter of complaint. Applying the concept of ‘delay repay’ with a vengeance, Mr Narayan – or the Indian legal system –allowed 6 long years and a World War to intervene between that forgettable journey and his day in court.

An advert for Leeds Forge from 1913.

Railway press advertisement for Leeds Forge Company bogies and wagons.

Back in Leeds – stay with me here! The Leeds Forge Company who had found success with the corrugated boilers soon tapped into the highly lucrative market for building railway wagons and carriages. As with many other successful British engineering companies they understood that the British market was too small to meet their grand ambitions. The firm began to extend their gaze overseas. Not content with forging into North America with the Fox Solid Pressed Steel Co. in 1889, the company squeezed every possible advantage from British Colonial rule to stretch its trading tentacles. Key among these captive markets was India.

In the mid to late 1920s the Leeds Forge won a contract to build a number of these ‘Pilgrim Traffic Vehicles’ for the Barsi Light Railway. These vehicles – wagons essentially – were based on the company’s winning formula of lightweight all-steel construction. A works photograph exists in our collection showing one of these shiny new steel wagons just off the production line before being loaded onto a ship bound for India. The only visibly apparent concession to carrying passengers are in the shape of a few small windows that could be bolted shut again to securely carry freight. Sadly, because of the necessary COVID-19 restrictions on movement, I can’t show you this image (another time!). My point, however, is that this vehicle was in most aspects identical to the all-steel covered wagons that Leeds Forge marketed to railways across the world for carrying freight.

A model of a train model.

An ‘0’ gauge model of a Leeds Forge Co. built bogie wagon, in the Leeds Museums and Galleries collection.

In service, these vehicles were often dirty because they were usually used for transporting livestock and perishable goods. Christian Wolmar in Railways and the Raj notes that local pilgrim committees complained about the conditions some pilgrims were expected to travel in. The Barsi Light Railway callously responded that the pilgrims were fortunate to have this additional accommodation and at a cheap price to boot. After the First World War opposition mounted against cramming passengers into steel covered freight wagons. The Railway Board was forced to act, issuing a mealy-mouthed edict discouraging their use. Railway like the Barsi plainly took no heed and continued to order brand new purpose-built Pilgrim Traffic Vehicles from the Leeds Forge Company well into the 1920s.

The trial court found that Mr Narayan had to suffer “much mental and bodily agony, discomfort and inconvenience during his travel from Kurduwadi to Pandharpur”. It failed to censure the railway company on the ground that there was no accepted definition of which facilities a 3rd class carriage should offer. Insultingly, Mr Narayan was offered less than a Rupee in compensation – the difference between his 3rd class ticket and the cost of carrying his equivalent body weight in freight.

Leeds Forge Company closed its Armley works in 1929.

 

By John McGoldrick, Curator of Industrial History.

Find out more about our Industrial History collection.