Iconic WR’s Churchgate hq enters 125th year with plans for grand celebrations

Mumbai, Dec 31 : The magnificent landmark, Western Railway (WR) headquarters building at Churchgate enters its quasquicentennial year with a series of month-long celebrations planned in January to mark the 125th anniversary, officials said here on Sunday.

The white-and-grey stone building was the erstwhile headquarters of the defunct Bombay Baroda & Central India Railways (BB&CI), the forerunner to the modern WR, said the Chief Spokesperson Sumit Thakur.

The construction work started in 1894 and was completed in early January 1899, and since then the building has seen many historical developments while standing the test of time and tide.

Initially serving as the headquarters of BB&CI, post-Independence in 1951, it became the official command post of WR, which looks after the busy suburban section of the country’s commercial capital and the long-distance trains that ply right upto Jammu & Kashmir.

  • The imposing building was designed by British architect, Frederick William Stevens (1847-1900) – who had also designed the UNESCO World Heritage Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, barely a km away – on a plot of land in the Old Fort area.

It was finally completed as a blend of Venetian Gothic and Indo-Saracenic styles of architecture, at a cost of around Rs 7.50 lakhs, with a combination of materials like Porbandar Stone, Malad Stone, sandstone, basalt, wood and even some Italian Stained Glass windows.

The WR network was created on November 5, 1951 by merging the BB&CI, the Saurashtra Railway, Rajputana Railway and Jaipur State Railway, along with the narrow-gauge lines of Cutchh State Railway.

It has now mushroomed to cater around three million daily suburban commuters through some 1,400 services between Churchgate (Mumbai) to Dahanu (Palghar), around 124 kms away, plus operates long distance train servicing Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir.

According to The Victorian Web, each facade of the WR headquarters has a central gable with flanking, pinnacled domes and a winged figure at the top, while the main one, above the porte-cochere and below the tower has a monumental group at the top, with a female figure representing ‘Progress’.

The female figure holds a railway engine in one hand, there are two cherubic figures at her feet, appearing to be associated with railway work, one with his hand on a wheel and another performing some task.

Around 30 years ago, a former WR general manager had narrated an anecdote of how a former President of the International Union of Railways had visited the Churchgate building and was being taken around.

The VIP lady visitor, who also headed the Italian Railways, was highly impressed by the building, especially by many of the huge stained glass windows adorning the building, and casually enquired of the WR authorities whether they knew the value of those multi-coloured apertures.

The ignorant WR gents shook their heads, but were shell-shocked when the lady revealed that those stunning stained-glass windows could well be worth upwards of USD 100,000 each!

The former general manager then rued how, during various ongoing minor repair or renovation projects, several of the stained-glass windows were brutally shattered or broken away to make way for pipes, electric wires or other mundane stuff.

However, after realising the value, the WR authorities clamped down on further pillaging of the precious stained glass windows, many of which still stand intact, today.

A retired senior lady officer recalled an incident when another President of the global body was escorted to a tiny viewers’ gallery during the morning peak hours, with the hordes of commuters coming out of the Churchgate station just opposite, he stood there silently for nearly half an hour, eyes soaking in the picture below.

Later, during his talks with the senior officers, the visiting dignitary opened up and exclaimed: “My God! I have never seen so many people at a time, walking out in such an orderly fashion and it keeps going on… You (WR) people are doing an amazing job…! We have nothing to advise you!”

Over the past 12 decades, the building and its precincts were beautified, restored, renovated, illuminated, landscaped and improved while retaining its old world charms and stunning beauty.

Chief Spokesperson Sumit Thakur said that to herald the 125 years, the WR will hold an exhibition, heritage walks, release a Coffee Table Book, a sound-and-light show, an exclusive mega-cultural show attended by top dignitaries, etc.

For the railway staffers and their families, there will be drawing, sketch, painting, quiz and other competitions, street-corner plays and photo exhibition by rail-fans, during the month.