Chapter III

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969


3. The Howrah - Amta Light

In its prestige advertisements Martin Burn Ltd (and note that its Bengali employees roll the ‘r’ strongly, for it was a Scots concern) lists its varied industrial interests – The Indian Iron and Steel Co., Burn and Co., foundaries, the Indian Standard Waggon Co., the Hooghly Docking and Engineering Co. ….and, down the list, ‘Railway Companies: Some of the first feeder railways in India, with six systems in four states, still a great aid to suburban travel.’ One detects an apologetic note, a sense of decline, and perhaps that is what the management expects, yet the railways remain quite active for all that. The reference to suburban travel applies mainly to the Howrah Maidan system; the combined assets of the Howrah-Amta and Howrah-Sheakhala Light Railways, in all 60 route miles of track with 39 trains leaving Howrah Maidan every weekday, the first at 0442 and the last at 2228. An arrival or departure every quarter of an hour is not bad for 2’ gauge and steam!

These trains deal mainly in passenger traffic, though they run the occasional goods train of little black vans. There are peak periods with crowded trains, but at other times things are comfortable. Being roadside tramways, the lines are liable to bus competition, but this doesn’t seem very serious except at the inner end.

All trains are locomotive hauled, using several dozen 0-4-2T’s and one small diesel. The steam engines are a rusty, dusty black with large numbers on their side tanks. Some point one way and some the other, which is the way it is for they are not turned, and so have big headlights both on coal bunker and straight-sided smoke box. Though they are carried on outside frames, they are narrower and perhaps taller than the dumpling, golden hamster sugar-trams of Queensland; in fact, their outline is so like the traditional British tank scaled down that one has to see somebody standing by one to realise its smallness. Even then, the average Bengali being small, the scale is deceptive. By contrast, the diesel is a little ladybird of a thing with windows all around and a lump of engine in the middle controlled by levers coming through a hole in the casing.

The carriages are all bogie, and deceptively large in photographs, for each has seats for but 33 passengers. By long-standing custom more people sit on the roof (air, rain, dust and soot conditioned.) There are grips on the ends of the carriages which, intentionally or no, allow them to ascend. With their sides curved into their roof, these cars have an integral look, but they are definitely wood framed, and often in poor condition to paint (brown outside, green in.) They have no brakes but are lit by through electric cable from the engine.

I turned up at Howrah Maidan one early afternoon, bound for Champadanga. I found a cramped station, squeezed beside the multiple broad gauge tracks half a mile west of their Howrah terminus, more or less under a reinforced concrete bridge that spanned the main line. Access to the station was down a stairway from this bridge, landing one among some stalls under a rough iron roof. Beside this, like the playground at an inner suburban school, was an asphalt concourse, with an unexpectedly recent, stuccoed station building at right angles to the track, issuing machine tickets through booking windows on its ground floor. The trains waited at two tongues of low level platform, separated from the government main line by a tall wall, their tracks converging on two that left the place under a smoke-blackened signalbox. Something would be happening almost all the time, what with arrivals and departures, light engines and empty stock workings (the depot was a mile up the line) and plain shunting.

After some interesting exercises in Bengali comprehension (so much for ye, O British companies!), I found a place in No. 49 Up, a train of eight carriages just high enough to stand up in; waited while a local arrived behind the diesel and a Sheakhala train left, waited while our engine arrived from the sheds, and took notice as we moved away, passing the depot, with its impressive sheds and straggling sidings – and continuous smoky activity. The line continued between the South Eastern Railway and a ditch with lilies and rubbish in it. There were a couple of passing loops where trains with a through run didn’t stop, then a dive under the main line to a junction where the Howrah-Sheakhala and Howrah-Amta joined their respective roads.

The truly suburban section lasted for six miles with five intermediate stations. The line kept to the side of the road all the way, separated from it by a wall at stations, which would have one loop at least. Good use was made of these numerous loops in crossing trains – indeed the railway ran very smoothly, without any safety devices beyond the telegraph and home signals. This staffless working saved time, for the train being crossed would ease away as soon as the points were clear, and be chuffing away merrily before the other had properly stopped. Who said the Scots couldn’t do it?

The peculiar suburbs of Bengal gave the line even more character than was its right. All the land round Calcutta lies low, often too wet for building, so the suburbs are patched with swamp and the suburban roads become narrow causeways. Indeed, one section of the Howrah-Amta road has come under water, which was lapping the railway’s sleepers and slowing its trains. But most of the time the light railway was running past buildings that came right up to the loading gauge on the left, and were perhaps no more than a single traffic-lane away to the right. These – houses, workshops – were small and low, huddles of colour-washed stucco with porous-looking tiles. Among them Martin’s trains were true to scale.

By Bargachia there had already been one mite of private right of way, where the train dodged behind some hutments to ease a dogleg in the road. But there the Amta branch, diverging left, took its own reservation right away, while the longer line to Champadanga waited for one more stop. By now the train was already out in rural West Bengal where sweeps of paddy fields ran green and wet between islands of palmy village. The railway alternated between steaming in the open, following the inexplicable windings of the raised rural road more or less closely, and swaying through villages, past their ponds and in front of their stalls. One tea bunk at a water stop received a lump of coal, kicked up from the footplate as the engine drew away from the water crane, and landing at the feet of the proprietor as he squatted by his brass urn – he had given enginemen’s free tea.

Thirty-two miles and 3½ hours from Howrah we reached the small terminal town of Champadanga where the loco busied itself with rearranging the train to the required mix of eight lower class coaches and one upper (though few patrons could read their English labels.) Train No. 54, the return service set out with a comfortable load, stopped at Bargachia to hitch on a load of hay (what would the Board of Trade say about such an unbraked trailing vehicle?) and then encountered the outbound trains of the evening peak. It would wait in a darkened siding, with a kerosene lamp burning dim and yellow in the low station office, and soon there would be a beat of approaching steam engine, marked by a bright and moving headlight. The up train would ease into the station, its carriages full, its roof-passengers sitting cross-legged, on the last few cars, facing north. But No. 54 would slip away quickly, beside its curving road, with glimpses into the fronts of bunks and once into a fiery foundry. So to Howrah Maidan, to its somewhat unassuming terminus where, despite the quiet, something or other is usually moving; some people walking, alighting or boarding. And yet this little railway in Howrah carries over nine million passengers a year.