Chapter V

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The Nagpur Narrow Gauge

4. The Chhindwara Coalfields

Chhindwara had an active bazaar until late in the evening, but was quiet at night and still in the dawn. Before 5 a.m., one could sit on the station platform – a long wide one with scissors crossover and a low building – and look down the railway yard, perhaps at a shunting engine sending its mustardy smoke vertically into air misty but not cold. And if the overnight service from Nagpur was a little late it would arrive with the dawn, in that uncertain time when red signal lamps are still shining but there is greater redness behind them to the east. The diesel would douse its headlight as it curved into the yard and up to the platform, and would run round as its sleepy passengers tumbled out of the carriages. This train continued to Nainpur and so had to reverse; the way straight ahead was the branch to the coalfields and a busy line too, worked by ex-BNR engines, CC for the twice-daily passenger and Mikados, sometimes doubleheading, on the coal shunts.

At 0600 hours the morning coalfields passenger charged out of Chhindwara into rough hills where the strong, horizontal, early-morning sunlight struck just one side of each stick-figure tree, giving the forest a starkness greater even than that of midday. On a track well maintained and embanked, the energetic Pacific leant into the curves, accelerating to touch speeds of a kilometer a minute; exhilarating, but not to last, for it was only seventeen miles to Khirsadoh Junction. The light mist of Chhindwara thickened into the smog of the coalfields – a Los Angeles kind of smog, compounded of smoke, stillness and sun. The train sensed it and became cautious, stopping a mile beyond Khirsadoh for admission to the Parasia branch, and stopping again to pick up the safeworking officer. This branch was less than a mile long, a spur embanked across a valley of yellowed grass and scattered miner’s huts, bifurcating, one line to a colliery and the other to a loop to the forecourt of the GIP station – for Parasia was an end-on junction.

The Central Railway’s broad gauge Amla-Parasia branch train was already at its platform with a D/5 4-6-0 about to couple on. As the SER train crew raked red clinker out of their CC’s ashpan, one could compare engines, the one small, long, low and black, the other big, stumpy upright and green. And afterwards one could follow the CC as it returned to Khirsadoh, visited Barkuhi (the other branch) and returned to Chhindwara, or one could travel with the D/5 as it freewheeled its four cars downhill past innumerable small collieries where handpushed skips were being tripped into 55 tonne capacity bogie hoppers; as it paused beside the big marshalling yard where the 2-8-0’s that shunted the mines put together long trains for diesel- or WG-haulage to the cities west; and finally as it crossed the plateau to the mainline junction at Amla, with just one glimpse over the edge at the dissected valleys and scarps to the north.

All this in the morning, but it was twice a day that the CR train came up its broad way to meet the narrow gauge of the South Eastern. The second train made its connection at Parasia in the evening. Hauled by a WG specially tricked out in blue and black just for such passenger duties, the CR train arrived first. Its passengers bound for points east waited round the small stone station building, where a stall selling tea and aniseed puffs opened on to a stone flagged hall. Dusk came to the colliery valley, darkening the bald hills that overlooked it, thickening the mistiness of the dry air as the smoke from the mine boilers settled and the smoke of miners’ free coal seeped through the roofs of huts or rose from open cooking fires. Daylight disappeared in a yellow after-glow; the tube lights of the bazaar popped on and incandescent bulbs marked the scattering of the town. Still to wait.

But then, a light crossing the valley in its darkest part … the SER train making its tentative way towards its broad brother. The light hesitated, then all of a rush the CC behind the light assaulted the grade of the final curve, whistling in its deep, hoarse way. So was connection made; now when their locos had run round both trains could leave, both engines tender first.

The return journey from Parasia to Chhindwara took twice as long as the trip out, for the train had to visit Barkuhi. Accordingly it waited at Khirsidoh while the engine was watered and turned to go to Barkuhi tender first. It was equipped for such running – a headlight flowered like a lily from a bracket on the back of the tender, its loose wires connected to a plug in the cab. The train made its excursion down valley to a dark little platform where one could hear loud wedding nadaswarams and drums, then climbed back to Chhindwara in time to connect with the overnight train to Nagpur.

If one had a night to spare, one could lie down on the platform. The reward for staying was that a Mikado would park itself by and by, and one could listen to the myriad hums of a steam engine that it just standing still; the high whine of its turbo-generator, the hisses of steam escaping at various pitches and, below it all, a deep crackling murmur that would become loud and insistent, then suddenly die away. And this would be a suitable note on which to leave the BNR, but it cannot be arranged, for the only way to leave Chhindwara is by BNR train. So back to Nagpur as swiftly as possible, there to make the better acquaintance of the GIP.