Chapter IX

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

Southern Mahratta

2. The Deccan

Poona, just over the top of the Western Ghats, is a good place to look east and take stock. North east, east and south east stretches the basalt Deccan plateau, with Nagpur and the South Eastern narrow gauge five hundred miles away on its further side. Closer, in an arc roughly 200 miles distant, runs the former Nizam’s State Railway, a system on both broad and metre gauge which to some extent retains its pre-independence reputation for casualness. Closer again, the Barsi Light Railway, 235 miles of energetically functioning 2' 6" that owes its international fame to the long-moribund eight miles of the English Leek and Manifold, on the strength of its having similar locomotives. (When I turned up at Kurduwadi Junction I thought I had seen something in a photo rather like the 4-8-4T that was shunting in the yard. But I had not previously seen photos of the large tender engines that were preparing to haul the day’s passenger trains, nor the longitudinal-seat end-platform coaches; altogether a line that felt like the metre gauge scaled down, and that like the broad gauge scaled down, very businesslike.).

Closer, just three hours distant by a passenger train that usually ran late, was Dhond, junction for a broad gauge cross-country line north to Manmad and also for the Great Indian Peninsula narrow-gauge branch to Baramati, a line which, though short and affording no more than uncertain broad gauge connections at Dhond, was busy enough to run three mixed trains daily, each six carriages and perhaps as many vans of freight. The presence of the narrow gauge was not obvious from the broad gauge island platform at Dhond, for this had marshalling yards on both sides as well as a central row of buildings including a refreshment room with the initials GIPR worked into a fantastic art nouveau fretwork in its fanlights. Yet the small trains were there squeezed between the broad gauge yard and the railway boundary, with just enough room for their shunting and transferring and for a shed for the two serviceable ZE Mikados. Though members of the All-India class, this pair was a little different; they had front ends which heat and lack of oil had to an almost graphite-grey and had been built in Japan.

Running south from Dhond the Baramati line encountered a scarp, the same that gave the metre gauge line that ran directly out from Poona a lot of trouble. Here the climb was much diminished, being worth only a few miles of 1/100. This little ghat section was mostly built on embankments that stood out from the screes of the slope. It climbed to a last view of the smoke-smudges of Dhond and out on to the undulating Deccan, treeless country crossed here and there by subsidiary lines of scarp; by steepenings of the land that culminated in outcrops of stones that looked dark brown even though they were grey inside. The railway crossed its land by sustained open curves, each an echo of the nature of this plateau. But after 28 miles it reached the hot, windy outskirts of the little basalt town of Baramati, and stopped. Since the train never stayed long enough at the terminus the passengers arriving would get mixed up with those waiting to leave; all Marathi people, which meant so many men in white caps and women with their saris done up like breechers.

South-east from Poona lies metre gauge territory – at least till the metre gauge up to Miraj is replaced by broad. This was the Southern Mahratta Railway, a line started without hope of profit and with the avowed purpose of alleviating famine. The first Southern Mahratta line built was southwards from the GIP main line from Hotgi; when the main line south from Poona was completed this became a branch. This new main line meandered through several right-angle bends, innumerable other curves and 600 miles to connect with the Madras Railway at Bangalore. From the time of its building in the 1880’s till after independence it was quite lightly trafficked, and being hilly was expensive to work. On the principle that the strong should carry the weak it was amalgamated with the greater part of the Madras railway to form the Madras and Southern Mahratta, whence it passed to the Southern railway. With the formation of the South Central zone in 1966 the old Southern Mahratta was split between Madras and Hyderabad – the division coming at Hubli. But with the indecision of the South Central about adopting any distinctiveness of its own the line still looks pretty much part of the Southern.

Other things have changed, too. Bangalore, the Southern Mahratta’s southern terminus, has become a major industrial city and the source of a lot of traffic, enough to sustain three expresses daily to Poona, though admittedly this is not much more than a courtesy title for two of them. More, the northern part of the line turned out to serve pockets of quite good country lying just behind the Western Ghats; once irrigated this land started to dispatch a considerable agricultural surplus towards Bombay, and accounted for a lot of transfer work at Poona. Though there cannot but be politics in the decision to convert the line to broad gauge – the traffic is still within its capacity, given a few diesels – there is some reason.

And so, having looked east and south, I could take stock of Poona; of its large station building set opposite a row of small individualistic shops and lodges, the façade of an uncertain bit of the town that was neither Camp nor city. In fact, the station had two buildings; the British, late classical revival but massive and spacious, and the new Indian, being mostly waiting hall for third class. Each building had its separate forecourt, but they were connected inside by the length of No.1 platform. Here, morning and evening waited the dark blue Deccan Queen carriages, including reserved lay back seats for season ticket holders; here also the major expresses to the Beyond paused while steam engines took over from electricity. All the same the catenary was obvious; the call of Bombay so much stronger than that of the dusty east. Steam seemed out of place; electricity, whether a big black Chittaranjan loco bound for Bombay or Metroplitan Vickers engine on a local, was at home. And the least belonging: the metre gauge.

The contrast between the gauges at Poona was deliberately demeaning to the metre, for its platforms were low-level, curved, narrow and with but rudimentary shelter. The train would emerge from a choked little passenger yard to wait at the platform, for, being trapped on the wrong side of the broad gauge lines, the metric trains had to wait the pleasure of the broad gauge signalman at Ghosipura before being allowed to cross his line, or even to receive an engine from the shed. Yet once clear of Poona the line gained confidence, making to the foot of a thousand-foot scarp with intent to climb. Because of this ghat section the expresses were hauled by YC’s rather than the common YP, and goods trains by YD’s rather than the YG; in each case the older, British, loco had smaller drivers and hence more staying power than its Indian-built successor. This made a welcome change from bar-framed, elephant-eared standardisation.

The escarpment to be climbed was partly black outcrop but mostly screes spreading thinly over the rock, sometimes with a little soil and dry grass and sometimes without, throughout dun tending to mustardy grey; a scarp that showed its grandeur only when a low sun slanted across it sideways to pick out and shadow its gullies and ravines. The railway ghat was a carefully-engineered grade, steady, with rock cuttings and tall embankments and even a couple of tunnels through subsidiary spurs, and without any really sharp curves. Altogether it was as cheap a climb as the British could have brought themselves to build, remembering that this line was not expected to carry heavy traffic; but any nineteenth century American or Australian engineer would have climbed that hill at double the grade in half the distance with a quarter the earthworks. He wouldn’t have allowed an unassisted Pacific the pleasure of clipping up such a range with ten carriages behind.

This scarp with its abrupt summit was just one of the many that interrupted the Deccan lava plain – unique country, for nowhere else is there a basalt plateau so large and so thick with so many layers.

It was thus a thing of the recent past geologically, the product of recent activity (or, to be accurate, cretaceous); yet it contrived to look old. The surface so painstakingly built up to a terraced flatness reminded one of the Australian aboriginal belief that in the beginning the world was dead flat, and that only afterwards did great beings come and make hollows and mountains. The Deccan, this result of a long evolution, would to an aborigine seem of all land surfaces least evolved.

Yet the flatness of the Deccan was not complete; rather, it was a flatness of levels, with scarps separating them. The strange thing was that for most of the day these scarps didn’t matter at all; they could hardly be seen, for the powerful energy of the sun fell down vertically, depriving them of shade and outline, reducing all things to a baked dun surface. In the evening, though, the sun sent the scarps into shadow. Indeed, if there was dust about one could see the slanting rays and the limits of the shaded air. Then after a day of sameness and overpowered quiet, the weather could become dramatic and violent, a matter of storms. With anvils of grey nimbus above, the small square-built townships would be absorbed insignificant into the sweep of light and shade. From having been dun all was now grey; the occasional small, brightly painted temple could remain standing out, a point of human security against a country which could be loved but never subdued nor understood.

The brown of the train was more red than that of the ground, but it fitted in, searching a way southwards among the levels and hills, compromising its express status with innumerable wayside stops. There was one place with a railway yard running to several tracks – Koregaon, goods engine changing point and the northward limit of the YG. South of this the country became more fertile, with an irrigated valley parallel to the line as far as Miraj Junction, reached half a day’s ride from Poona.

Though it was a big name on the railway maps, and had a modern metre gauge station, (the pleasantly rustic station of the Barsi Light being discreetly down the road), Miraj was nothing much as a town, such functions being discharged by Sangli, five miles away by a roadside branch. On the Sangli and Kolhapur branches the shuttle passenger trains were worked by small, high-boilered 2-6-0’s, class YK; while the main line to the south had the normal YP/YG combination. Somewhere not far south of Miraj, and not nearly as obvious as one would like, lay the geological boundary between the basalt Deccan and granite Karnataka. In this latter region the Western Ghats reached back in gullying and twisting valleys, and the line, curving as ever, entered hills so confused that one wondered how the surveyors knew where they were going. There were wooded hills with enclosed cultivated bottoms; hills among which the trains took purchase against one slope and then another like writhing snakes; crossed cuts and fills and curved continuously in all three dimensions – not the easiest of lines to run an express service on.

At Londa the north-south line of the Southern Mahratta intersected with the line the company built from West coast to East along latitude 15½º N, and, true to its wayward spirit, was deflected along for a while, getting carried inland and away from the confused ghat-hills. Going west towards the coast the line to formerly Portuguese Goa threaded its way through 15 miles of hills till it came to the top of the ghat, a descent of 1,900 feet in 17 miles, mostly at 1/40. The top of this descent, the former frontier station of Castle Rock, had a large marshalling yard in addition to its curved platform and disused customs offices, though the coming of through diesel freights, the remarshalling of trains has been reduced to brake-testing.

So on down the ghat, territory monopolised as far as steam engines went by the YD Mikados (including some built post-war by Skoda) and a class of Bagnall 4-8-0’s that had wheels so small that they seemed 2-6-0 till one looked carefully underneath. The descent was cautious, enough to make the most of the scenery or possibly, in due season, of the drizzling rain; the ascent of this grade, on the other hand, could be spectacular, with engines shouting high into the sky. The daily ‘express’ had a YD before and a 4-8-0 behind, and stopped at each of the four crossing loops on the ghat, places from which it was very difficult to start again. First one engine would get a grip then slip, then the other, giving the middle carriage up to five minutes of jolting before the train was once again climbing steadily.

At the foot of the ghat there was another marshalling yard, after which the line headed over the Goan coastal lowlands, this different world of muddy paddy fields and thorn-covered red laterite rises; of coconut palms, whitewashed villages and churches, and the rococo Halls of old Portuguese landowners. Here the evening local passenger might be hauled by one of the small-wheeled 4-8-0’s, almost tripping over itself in its scurry, rolling a sausage of spark-filled smoke away into the coconut groves till it reached the train shed at Vasco-da-Gama, the virtual passenger terminus of the line. A two mile extension beyond this small Portuguese town, now rapidly changing and prosperous, was shared with the black 4-8-0’s of the Mormugao Harbour Port Trust.