Chapter IV

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

From Bengal Towards Nagpur

1. The Katwa Railways

Burdwan, the outer terminus of multiple-unit working from Howrah, is also the southern terminus of a connecting pair of 2’ 6” railways, once privately owned and jointly operated by McLeod and Company but now taken over by the Eastern Railway, yet still known as the Burdwan-Katwa and Ahmadpur-Katwa. The two sections are similar as to length (32 miles) and train service (six daily), and are being modernised with five-car diesel trains, made on the Eastern’s workshops. A good sign.

Having reached Burdwan in the middle of the night, I felt plain bleary as I walked over the footbridge to the small brick booking office that served the narrow gauge. But the sight of the 0246 hours ex Katwa, just arrived at half-past five, revived me rapidly: What a train! The loco was a stocky Bagnall 0-6-2T painted green over black; the goods trucks were small and plain black while the coaches were roughly built four-wheelers. No fancy matchboarding, just palings screwed onto the frame; no fancy safety chains, just a combined buffer-drawhook; no fancy seating, just cross-bench compartments, four to a carriage. It says something for their loading gauge that these four-wheelers could hold about as many passengers as a Howrah Maidan bogie, losing two places to a WC that was accessible from only one compartment, though it could be reached from the others by scrambling over the backs of the seats. Though painted an ordinary brown, these carriages added to their individuality by large ownership letters, while inside they were grey instead of the usual Indian green or cream.

The train waited for less than an hour before it returned to Katwa. Engine BK1 made little puffs of steam as it shunted, while a beggar peered in at the open swinging carriage doors, alternately moaning his distress and slurping an icy pole. The broad gauge could be heard – electric toots and diesel growlings – but was hidden by sheds.

The land west of the Hooghly, though still alluvial and flat, is not as wet as riverine Bengal. Its fields, though usually covered with close-cropped green grass, bear but one crop a year and lie open, instead of being divided by watercourses and frequent villages. Altogether they do nothing to prevent the BK Railway from following a straight surveyed line, or to stop its trains from traveling at an even pace marked by the measured clunking of four-wheeled carriages on rail joints. My train from Burdwan stopped regularly, sometimes to shunt or to cross a southbound service. At each station the passenger load increased, so that after two stops the man opposite had to give up sleeping on the seat, and after several more there were fowls underfoot and small boys and women sitting on the floor and young men hanging on while standing on the footboards. So we rounded the curve into Katwa – doors open, dhotis flapping, all bound for Katwa market.

A secondary main line of the Eastern Railway also passes through Katwa, the headquarters of the two narrow gauge lines being alongside its station. Their loco shed had several more Bagnalls and, among others, a 0-6-0 Simplex or two. In company days each engine was owned by the BK or AK but used on either line – I dare say it all came out in the accounts. Another pleasing feature of McLeod’s accountancy was that the second class fare was only 20% above the third and the first that much again, instead of the 1:2 ratio preferred by the government. This meant that I could afford second class to Ahmadpur – the seedy red cushion on the seat was not worth it, but the lessened crowd was. This train left from No. 2 road of McLeod’s station (never mind that it had no platform) and wasted no time in making arrangements to run third-rail along the East Indian broad gauge for the first few miles out from Katwa, in order to share a bridge over one of the sluggish anabranches that meandered over the plain. Once AK was on its independent way, the regular jolting of the carriages combined with the monotonous scenery to induce sleepiness in all the passengers and perhaps the train itself. Matters were not helped by the Bengal midday, with the sunlight diffused by a high mist and yet stifling us with heat.

After several hours the country changed and the engine had to work – not that grades of 1/150 were beyond its capacity. These were caused by the low sandy swellings of the edge of Bengal; dry country with enough slope for soil erosion but not enough greenery to prevent it. And at Ahmadpur the AK ended, its dry cindery yard respectfully distinct from the East Indian station, from which it was scarce visible. After all, this station was a pleasant composition in itself, with its curving tracks appearing under a brick arch bridge, running between brick platforms and disappearing by embankment; it had no need for further embellishments. From it one could travel back to Burdwan by main line, or north, perhaps eventually to Darjeeling. Here therefore I make a ritual obeisance to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, as being the best known line in India, and also to the unknown railways of Assam, before turning aside to the Damodar coalfields.