One of the greatest joys of being a child in Mumbai in the ‘70s was waiting to ride the No 3 bus from across our home to the Byculla Zoo. The big draw was racing up to the top deck of a double-decker bus and hurtling into the front seat! The wind in my face and the awesome views from the top were perhaps as delightful as were those monthly visits to the zoo with my grandfather. Imagine my excitement when I went to visit family in Surat and the train we took, the Flying Ranee, was a double-decker too!
The double-decker bus is a Mumbai icon as much as it is a fixture on the streets of London. The buses in Mumbai, of course, were a reflection of their British counterparts. But, interestingly, the first-ever double-decker bus wasn’t a British invention. It was designed by a Frenchman in Paris in 1828, and it was horse-drawn. Londoners soon followed suit and had one of them up and about by 1829. It carried 22 persons, it was horse-drawn, and it was publicly owned.
The first motorised double-decker buses came about only after World War I, in 1923. There were a number of companies that operated them, and they used short and narrow double-decker buses as they carried more people and were very convenient in the narrow and twisting bylanes of London. Regular buses were too long to negotiate the twists and turns in these streets.
Among the many private operators in this completely unorganised sector was the London General Omnibus Company, and it was they who first painted their buses red, to make them stand out among the competition.
The double-decker bus was first introduced to India in Bombay. Or was it Trivandrum? While each of these cities claims this distinction – Trivandrum says it was first and the year was 1938, while Bombay insists it was first and the year was 1937 – the winner and runner-up were separated by a whisker.
In Trivandrum, or present-day Thiruvananthapuram, the then ruler, Raja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, decided to revamp the public transport system and hired an Englishman, E G Salter, to head the project in 1937. Salter, who used to work for the London Passenger Transport Board, imported engines and double-decker chassis, and the bodies were locally made of wood. The first double-decker bus in Trivandrum was inaugurated on 20th February 1938. Salter himself drove the bus with the Raja and his family in tow!
Meanwhile, in Mumbai, the popularity of the double-decker bus grew by leaps and bounds, given the city’s large population. The most memorable model to rule the city’s streets was the front-engined Routemaster, a variant of the London version first developed in 1954. Its open-rear platform made hopping on and off quite a reckless experience, and its single, levered windowpane in front made it look like it was always winking! The semi-articulated, double-decker trailer bus or ‘bendy bus’ was another unforgettable model.
Over the years, double-decker buses were introduced in other cities in India and they continue to ply in Thiruvananthapuram, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, but only those in Mumbai are painted red.
In Mumbai, though, these gentle giants appear to be at the end of the road, their numbers dipping from 242 at Independence to less than 125 today. They are scheduled to be phased out by 2023, a decision dictated by economics. The transport division of the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking, which operates Mumbai’s public buses, has been posting losses for a long time and it is especially unprofitable to operate double-decker buses. Operational and maintenance costs have made them completely unviable and, in addition, they use three employees instead of two. When these double-decker lookalikes of the London buses finally do go off the streets, the city will lose one of its most visible icons.
If the double-decker bus was a great innovation, the double-decker train wasn't too far behind, and the first such trains were up and running in the 1850s and 1870s in France. These were originally regular railway carriages with seats on the top and a cotton awning above them. The fully-built carriages were made only in the 1860s. They soon became very popular all over the world.
According to Mumbai-based railway historian and transport journalist Rajendra Aklekar, the very first double-decker train carriages in India were made almost wholly of wood in 1862 for the Bombay Baroda & Central India Railway (now the Western Railway). They had seats on the bottom and plain planking on the top deck. They seated between 190 and 210 individuals in a single carriage. But they were ungainly and top-heavy and were soon discontinued.
Double-decker trains returned to India in 1976, with a newly designed carriage based on the new ‘bilevel carriage’ or low-platform design, where you enter at platform level and then climb up or down into the respective decks. The first train in India to deploy these carriages – although it no longer does – was the Sinhagad Express of the Central Railway, which operates it daily between Mumbai and Pune.
Due to the greater number of passengers that double-decker trains can accommodate, other two-tier trains were launched. Among these were the Flying Ranee, which still runs between Mumbai and Surat, and the Mumbai-Valsad Fast Passenger. They continue to use these carriages today, long after most others stopped deploying them. The upper deck wasn’t designed for comfort and tended to get very hot. Also, the low, platform-level windows of the lower deck let in a lot of dust at every station. These were some of the reasons two-tier carriages were not very popular then.
Air-conditioning gave double-decker carriages a new lease of life in India in 2011, when the Indian Railways introduced it in these trains. It solved the issues created by heat and dust. Two-tier carriages currently run on six different trains, on the Mumbai-Goa, Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Chennai-Bengaluru, Lucknow-Anand, Jaipur-Delhi and Visakhapatnam-Tirupati routes.
– Double-decker trains were such a novelty and such a hit in the 1970s that Cadbury’s launched a chocolate bar with a dual filling and called it the ‘Double Decker Bar’.
This type of train was so synonymous with Mumbai that it featured in a number of Bollywood movies like Shaan (1980) and Chhoti Si Baat (1975) and celebrated Mumbai cartoonist Mario Miranda regularly featured them in his work.
Like one of those happy travel stories, the paths of the double-decker bus and train in India have run parallel to each other for the better part of a century, but for one of them, it is the end of the line. While the trains have been given the green signal, technology and economics have decided that the double-decker bus will have to grind to a permanent halt. In a couple of years, when that happens, Mumbai will have lost a bit of magic.
Cover Image: Double Decker Electric Trams operated by BEST in the 1920s, Wikimedia Commons.