Chapter IV

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

From Bengal Towards Nagpur

2. The Damodar Coalfields

The traffic from the Damodar Basin coalfields was originally shared between the East Indian and that latecomer, the Bengal-Nagpur, the one north of the other, though with some interpenetration. Coming from Calcutta, the first nest of colliery branches on the EIR radiated from Andal and the second, shared with the BNR, from Dhanbad, 45 miles west.

Andal is a railway town, consisting mostly of railway housing – in Indian terminology, the ‘railway colony’. Its commercial parts consist of a couple of dusty streets linked under the tracks by a long tunnel which, being unlit, has to be walked through by faith at night. The railway installations extend to a marshalling yard and a loco depot, all for coal traffic, since the through main line is served by the depot and the yards of Asansol a few miles west. Andal was home to wartime North American Mikados and older British 2-8-0’s plus some powerful tank engines for local passenger work.

According to the timetables, passenger services on Andal branches were mostly ‘light trains’ – in actual fact quite substantial, running to five carriages hauled by a massive modern tank engine. But then the one daily ordinary passenger train on the branch to Sainthia was even more substantial – ten carriages and two tank engines. These trains were crowded. The line was in part single track and saturated, so passenger services were limited to five a day, fitting in between the coal trains; stopping at stations with inexplicably staggered platforms and then accelerating away quickly and noisily. At first they traversed undulating land newly industrialized, with poppet legs and acres of labour colony, all covered late of an afternoon with a soft grey haze which heightened the redness of sunset and welcomed the promise of rain in the evening thunderclouds. When they emerged later on to the dry margin of the Bengal plain, the distance between stops increased – distances of gentle, deliberate curves leading to the bay platform at Sainthia, which was just long enough for a ‘light train.’

Closer to Andal lay a mined-out coalfield, which I saw by travelling out to Gaurandi by the once-daily mixed. This was drawn up at the outermost platform at six in the morning; a few trucks, a carriage and a van, quite a contrast to the expresses with their AC electrics roaring past the inner platforms. Our engine turned out to be a 2-8-0, one of those O-so-British engines so obviously derived from the 0-6-0, yet taller and wider than any in their motherland. With a light load of passengers distributed along the seats of the carriage, the loco picked its way through a series of junctions onto the Barabani loop, which returned to the main line after about 25 miles. There were small but functioning collieries about, and American Mikados at the crossing loops, some of which had signal platforms each with a magnificent array of levers encased in cowlings and pointing at the sky, like guns in wartime. But then came mined-out country, whose undulating surface was in places scratched in hopeless dry cultivation, or bore scrub that could hardly be useful even as firewood. The chimneys and winding houses and workers’ quarters of the old mining properties had reduced to rubble among piles of slack coal and grey shale, while the scrub had encroached everywhere. Occasionally there was a clearing with a small, undercapitalised working; a hole in the ground without any headworks beyond a steam boiler squatting vertical, sending up its smudge of smoke. So the atmosphere was hazy as well as thick with the stationary fug of the approaching monsoon.

At Ikra Junction the points were set straight ahead while the Barabani loop curved left towards the main line. A heavy semaphore signal encouraged us to continue onto the margin of this moribund coalfield, an area where the bleached yellowness of the surface stones contrasted with the known blackness of coal underneath – a blackness that sometimes erupted to the surface to mark the site of a colliery. We paused to dribble water from our gin into a tank at the only intermediate station, and saved time by shunting our goods trucks round to behind the van, for easy placement on the dead-end sidings en route. We continued past these sidings – one serving a firebrick kiln, one a colliery which puffed steam from its ancient winding gear – to the curved terminal road at Gaurandi, where the tracks were tamped down with coal that had fallen from trains during the busy times. The station building was a blackened, corrugated iron shed, obviously thought suitable to a temporary mineral terminus – yet living on in its half-light, selling a dozen or so tickets before the daily mixed draws away up the hill.

The one daily passenger train that went right round the Barabani loop left Andal in the heat of the afternoon. Since it was a through service to a place on the main line beyond the end of the loop, it was made up to six carriages, but with some black 2-8-0 and the same derelict country to traverse; the same small adit and shaft collieries, each with a winding house its only building (sometimes not even that) and a vertical or near-vertical boiler brewing steam in the open air beside the slack dump. This was the country where mine skips were pushed by hand on kinky tramways; where miners lived in huddled cottages; where passengers stuffed the undergear of the carriages with sacks of coal.

The loop rejoined the main line at Sitarampur, a station with a split personality. Most obviously it was the junction between the East Indian main line to the north-west via Patna, and its Grand Chord, direct. But the loco depot and the large, humped marshalling yard that movement curved into the bend of the main line, had to do with the collieries. The platforms lay in the divergence of the junction. I waited on No. 1 in the evening, with a warm humid wind blowing a storm towards the place – a grey storm falling from grey cloud to grey dusk, in which the signal lights were mostly red; in which there were posts for verticals and catenary for horizontals; in which there was steam for movement, coming mostly from colliery shunters coupled tender to tender or perhaps smokebox to smokebox. A Japanese electric hummed past, heading up the Chord, dragging a bumping load. As a bonus, it had the storm at its heels; slanting rain that drove us waiting passengers into a huddle under the open verandah. But the evening local to Gomoh rescued us before the driving rain had wet us through.

Gomoh, a station on the East Indian’s Grand Chord, was twice a junction; once for a loop running to the south-west of the Chord, and secondly for a branch running south-west over the coalfields, this being part of the SER. Gomoh was not on these fields, but was between them and a low but steep range of hills; a railway place, with a marshalling yard, two island platforms and nothing impressive in the way of buildings. Electric engines purred on the through freights, but the ER local trains were still hauled by smoke-deflectored Pacifics, while the SER line had only two trains a day out of Gomoh, an infrequency typical of its timetables.

My South Eastern train left in the early morning, hauled by a WG with white tyres. By the time it had entered the coal country the light was full and the land was exhaling the wetness of a stormy night into the already humid air, fuelling the white cumulo-nimbus that was already gathering for another afternoon’s storm, This was a patch land: little patches of dark green scrub, little patches of clay, little plots of cultivation; patches of spoil-heap and generations of earthworks and rubble; a dark country, shadowed with diggings and holes and pockmarks, gaunt with black chimneys and cableway towers and electricity poles and wires; squalid in its hutments – their rows built like coke ovens without chimneys, their wet, mouldy brick, their view of smoke and rubbish. But yet did not the blue and towering white of the sky offset this, and the mine topworks delight such eyes as like the black and the geometric?

From a place called Mohuda the train from Gomoh took a loop line, considerably longer than the main, but visiting the coal townships and collieries and the junctions of branches towards the ER in the north before crossing the Damodar River and coming to Bhojudih. Here an island platform separated the down and up marshalling yards, which latter hid the locomotive depot from passing eyes – a pity, since it was the home of old, square-built Garatts (4-8-0 0-8-4) as well as WG’s and the BNR version of the 2-8-0. Though there were electric wires in the yard and across the Damodar for a few miles, few electric engines were about.

Late in the morning No. 422 Chakradharpur – Gomoh passenger – the usual long train with WG – arrived at Bhojudih. At the same time a light train – three carriages and a beautifully polished ex-BNR 4-6-0 – made ready to leave from the other side of the island platform. With all due courtesy it waited till the WG left, then romped joyously to Mohuda, taking the main line which kept to the south bank of the Damodar and so avoided the collieries. When that same WG dragged itself painfully round the sharp bend into Mohuda, the light train was there, patiently waiting at the island platform. After again allowing No. 422 to leave first, the light train curved left and, after a halt, joined an ER branch in time for a common bridge and a common traversing of the newest edge of the coalfield to the totally unsheltered bay platform at Chandrapura, reached in the middle of the afternoon downpour. This place of raw earthworks was scarce like its namesake in E. M. Forster; it was just a minor junction whose through passenger trains were hauled by the ubiquitous WG. One of these services led to Ranchi.