Chapter VIII

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The North West

4. Amritsar; Kangra Valley

Since Partition, Amritsar has been the virtual terminus of the grand trunk railway from Calcutta towards the frontier. Though the double track continues through its wide train shed and on to the Pakistan border, the Frontier Mail goes no further, nor any other Express. After the cancellation of trains to and from Lahore in 1965, Pakistani Western carriages could still be seen at Amritsar; presumably there were equivalent hostages on the other side of the border. While descended from a common stock, the Pakistani carriages wore an exactly opposite livery of bottle green lined out in silver and red.

In other ways, though, Amritsar had little of the feel of a frontier, though perhaps because it was on the fringe of the system it was one of the last haunts of the British express engine. As late as 1966 services between Amritsar and Pathankot were entrusted to tall, inside-cylindered 4-4-0’s, elegant engines which hauled the trains with both style and dispatch. Half way from Amritsar to Pathankot, at a small town clanging and humming with machine shops making agricultural implements, the graceful 4-4-0’s connected with the Krupp 0-4-2T that fussed off down the Quadian branch – as great a contrast as could reasonably be arranged. As with the main line, the branch crossed typical Indian Punjab – a plain with light soil made productive by irrigation, ploughed by the largest bullocks in the land or even by tractor. But Qadian, where the train curved to a loop siding terminus, was a Muslim town before Partition and has not recovered since.

Pathankot, being the railhead for Kashmir and several other places (a branch has been inching into Kashmir for sometime, but so far it hasn’t made much difference) is a dusty trucking and military town, booming and rough. Its station grew by accumulation in length rather than in breadth, with some rather confused bay platforms at the Amritsar end. The contrasting tidy bay and loop at the far end were the passenger terminus of the Kangra Valley Railway, a 2’ 6” line which penetrated into the foothills of the Himalayas. Its 102 miles took eleven hours to traverse and no train travelled them throughout in daylight, yet since the first forty were pretty barren scenically, it was no great loss to cover them by the early morning train from Pathankot.

Having therefore suffered the loss of a rupee through short change when sleepily buying my ticket at midnight, I stumbled into a dark waiting carriage, found it full of sleeping bodies, and eventually persuaded one man to retract his legs enough to give me a seat. There I dozed. At 0130 we acquired an engine; at 0200 a down passenger romped in doubleheaded, its lead engine tooting playfully; at 0230 we left, turning eastwards towards the hills.

The rains of Northern India travel from east to west. To reach the western end of the Himalayas they have to travel a long way overland, and are almost exhausted by the time they reach the hills around Pathankot. Accordingly the greyness of the dawn revealed a dry land, its rock-ribbed surface bleached and but scantily dressed with a little dry grass and a few small herbs and bushes. We were entering the valley of the Benganga River, which flowed across the grain of the country; every so often its stony bed was dammed by a bar of rock, while at times it was temporarily diverted sideways by a specially tough outcrop. The stony gulches of flash-flooding hill torrents cut down to join it, disrupting the rocky hill slopes. The railway track threading this valley was a feat of engineering location, and well built too, with bridges and tunnels of broad gauge dimensions, and curves that only occasionally descended to 10 mph sharpness. Still, one was glad of the cautious driving as the train descended such things as a 1/40 sidling which ended on a sharply curved high bridge over a nullah, only to be followed by a 1/40 climb.

Beyond Kangra the train blended with the countryside in an almost Swiss fashion, for suddenly the hills above the Benganga opened out into a green upland, where turquoise and cream seemed the natural livery for trains. Certainly our train looked fine; only when one looked closely did one see that the carriages, otherwise similar to the Simla line, were grubbier and had a different clientele – symbolised by the difference between the typical Simla passenger, say, a plump, languid Delhi-wallah on holiday and the old man sitting opposite me, a lean old man with no compunction about revealing the ribbed chest below his beard, dressed loosely in the drab orange of holy men, and holding an iron trident whose spikes rattled loosely. He was bound for the land of the gods, for do they not dwell in the Himalayas, and were not the snow-covered mountains already overshadowing us, a high presence indistinct from the sky? But we were curving among neat little fields of barley and over the gurgling rills of local irrigation works, and then into the pine woods of some hills which, had they not been overshadowed by the presence to the north, would have been quite a range.

Baijnath Paprola lay 14 miles short of the end of the line at Joginder Nagar, yet it had a locomotive depot, for the last 14 miles, with their 1/25 ruling grades, were worked independently. At the shed the ZE’s that worked to and from Pathankot were turned and serviced alongside the eight 2-6-2T’s that worked onwards towards the terminus. These eight engines fell into three classes, the oldest now reserved for shunting, the next the classic ‘K’ of the Simla line and the newest, the massive Krupp ZF.

The three designs represented three stages in an effort to enclose as much steam machinery as possible in a closely-packed, powerful cube. In outline they were as rectangular as steam tram dummies, with boiler, dome and chimney completely enclosed between a pair of side tanks flush with cab sides and so tall as to merge with the level of the cab roof. What with the coal bunker being on top of the firebox, the only way to look forward from the cab was by leaning out, which was also the only way to get a little breeze. Their blank appearance wasn’t helped by a yellow diagonal stripe across each tank, dividing a red triangle from a black. A train with ZF in front and K behind (the standard combination) was allowed 65 tons on the 1/25 at 7 mph: this meant reducing the passenger train to three carriages, then adding a goods van to make up the load. Then, after three quarters of an hour of shunting, the train was ready to continue.

The first hundred yards out of Baijnath Paprola were downhill at 1/25, so, with brakes off, the train gathered speed to rock over a high bridge set on a checkrailed curve and began climbing. Soon it was reduced to 7 mph. With both engines working hard, straight up a pinewood gully for seven echoing miles to the summit on a wide, open saddle, where little yellow flowers grew among green grass. This sight would not be worth commenting on in Europe, but is rare in India, something to be drunk in just as the two engines were drinking deeply from the water cranes. Yet, of course, these were no European mountains; they were the highest in the world, and their foothills were worthy of them – hills where the wild, bouldery torrent beds rushed downhill at 1/25, and where, apart from a few saddles, everything else was steeper. Yet, dipping over the edge beyond the summit, the line managed to limit itself to 1/25 downhill, with a stop board at the foot to commemorate an early runaway. Here, near the bridge, was a small halt with a wooden hut and the characteristic Indian note on it – ‘Ticketless travel is a social evil.’ The guard would unlock the hut and open its booking window to remedy this while the train waited, engines hissing fore and aft.

Then a final mile’s climb, 4% again, to attain the spur on which Joginder Nagar lay. And was it worth it, this small town where the busses didn’t even connect with the train? One wondered, specially since a plaque on the station building recorded its reopening in 1954, to say the least a last date for 2’ 6”, 1/25 and 65 ton trainloads.