Chapter II

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The East Coast

1. Along The Coast

For a trip from Royapuram to Villivakkam on an uncrowded local train third class was the obvious choice. Indeed, on most Indian short-distance trains third class is fully satisfactory, especially for the railfan, for it is the only class without any bars on its windows, so allowing him to lean out and fill his hair with soot. Its tickets are cheap and easily bought – though sometimes there are long queues at the booking windows, in which case on can resort to buying from the Travelling Ticket Examiner on the train, charge 50 paise extra. Even at night third class is sometimes acceptable, for its luggage racks are wide and suitable for sleeping on. (Often they are illegally “reserved” by porters at terminal stations and sold to passengers as berths.) Yet its seats are hard, and the interest of travelling along with the common man can pall if there are too many of him around. Then third class can be very uncomfortable, specially if one has to board an already crowded train at a wayside station. Often both nifty cunning and brute force are required just to get in, let alone make oneself comfortable. It takes practice to master these techniques; they are not for the casual visitor.

On all express trains and some long-distance ordinary passenger services, seats and sleeping berths can be reserved. Third class sleepers can be plain boards (three tier) or have a little padding (two tier – actually, a two-tier sleeper is the padded luggage rack of a carriage otherwise devoted to reserved seats.) A conductor travels in the reserved carriages and keeps out those who do not belong in them, so, even if one has no more than a reserved seat, there is usually room to stretch out and spend a comfortable night on the floor. The difficulty with the reservation is not their price, which is moderate, but the fact that they can be made only at a limited number of major stopping stations for each train – often only the station of origin. Getting one often involves a lot of queueing, while the available seats and berths are often sold out a week or so in advance, which is rather a nuisance when one is travelling continuously. However, the foreign tourist can often obtain a berth by applying at the local railway Divisional Office – a procedure which may take hours, specially since the offices are rarely adjacent to the stations where the booking is actually done.

If there is no room in third class, reserved or unreserved, it may be worthwhile to try second class. Officially the benefit for paying double third class fares is that one receives a padded seat. However, since second class tends to receive the overflow both from above (first class) and below (third class), it is notoriously either empty or overfull. It can be every bit as bad as third unreserved at times. In any case, it is not provided in all trains.

Indian first class compartments seem to have been designed mainly for sleeping; their seats are too wide for comfortable sitting. Still, first class places can be reserved on all trains, usually at short notice, and give a guarantee of roominess as well as rather upper class, often English-knowing, fellow passengers to talk to. The same applies to Air-conditioned class, only more so. This class, found only on the major expresses, is expensive (almost air-fare) but genuinely comfortable. On a few trains air-conditioned chair cars of a rather American kind are provided; this is known as third-AC, though its actual fare is more in line with second class.

Their rates being in any case low, the Indian Railways have little use for concession fares. There is one kind, called a round-trip ticket, which can be bought well in advance by foreign tourists; its considerable disadvantage is that, once booked, no change of route is allowed.

From all this, the verdict would seem to be: Air-conditioned for those who value comfort, first class for such as need lots of sleep and otherwise third class, reserved overnight and unreserved by day. And since the journey from Madras to Calcutta takes two nights and a day, my choice is third three-tier.

This still leaves a choice of trains. Though ordinary passenger is too slow to be worth considering (it takes four days and four nights for the trip), there are four through expresses. The oldest of these, also the heaviest and the fastest, is the diesel-hauled Howrah Mail, leaving Madras at 2110 and taking two nights and a day for the thousand miles. The newest is the Air-conditioned Express that leaves at 0635 on a Saturday morning and takes two days and a night. Then there are two relief expresses, the third-class-only Janatha (day, night, day, half a night) and finally a dilatory express called 90 Down (after noon, night, day, night, morning). Understandably, it is relatively easy to reserve tickets on 90 Down.

I bought my ticket for 90 Down two or three days in advance, and at 11 a.m. on the due date carried my bedroll across the forecourt of Madras Central station. It was hot and the car park was unshaded: better to make for the nearest corner of the station verandah and, once there, pick my way carefully past the porters, past an elegant Edwardian telephone booth, through a rather grubby hall and a silver-frosted barrier and so into the train shed. As is the habit of habitually unreserved travelers in India, for I held a sleeping-berth ticket in my hand, and assuredly my name, or some approximation to it, would be found pasted by the door of the three-tier sleeper already waiting at one of the four middle platforms, part of a seven-car set made up from all-steel integral carriages.

Though it was not the original Madras terminus, Central had grown so that now there were additional platforms on either side of the train shed, while even the four middle platforms were outside it than in. After finding my place, I wandered out to the end of platform 4. Back between the off-white, fibrous plaster facings of the platform awnings, the station clock tower rose over the train shed, French chateau in shape, though surely no hôtel-de-ville was ever built from such pink bricks. Ahead the platform roads amalgamated into running lines and tracks leading to the loco depot and carriage sidings, both out of sight.

To one side lay the short siding where diesel locos were serviced, but it had no occupant; all the engines in sight were steam. Together they provided continuous sound effects: the deep grunting combined with loose, resonant clanking of a WP shunting carriages backwards towards the carriage sidings; the breathy note of a WG waiting with its blower turned on; the more gentlemanly murmurs and hisses of the XB shunters and WT tanks; the loud chord whistle and great hissing noise of a WG 2-8-2 leaving Madras with a local passenger having more four-wheel vans attached than passenger carriages. There was continuous movement, too: trains coming and going and being shunted, with blower-smoke drifting round during the pauses, caught in the sun between the awnings. But the breeze also caught the dry dust on the platforms and blew it along and up; caught the blades of the fans suspended under each awning, turning them a little. And it caught under the wings of the crows and made them wheel around, cawing to one another.

Back under the black underside of the train shed, with its intricate network of thin supporting girders and brownish plastic skylights, there were fewer crows and no fans, though neon lights and bi-directional loudspeakers were suspended along the platform. When an announcement was made, English then Tamil, it would start on the loud speakers of platform one and then crawl across the station, platform by platform, till its final echo came back from platform ten. Yet most of the noise outside my three-tier sleeper came from people; the talking of people waiting, the occasional clink of soft drink bottles as a vendor moved his trolley, the continuous rattle of luggage trolleys. The back part of the platform was covered with basket-packages of fruit arrived early in the morning by parcel passenger. There were people among them, and bits of straw, and a few sparrows among the ground-level flies. The smell of hessian and of packing material gone a little mouldy reached me in occasional drifts, for the air was solid and still and indefinably astringent.

The arrival of our WP was signaled by a back jerk of the carriages; the five-minutes-to-go signal was a long clanging of a loud bell; while the second bell at midday came as two clangs twice. A whistle from the guard, a whistle from the platform supervisor, three green flags from three guards in white along the train; a whistle from the WP and, with quite rapid acceleration, No. 90 Down set out for Howrah.

I have heard the run from Madras to Calcutta described as the most boring journey in a country of slow and boring railways. So in fact it may be, for it runs throughout on the East coastal plain, getting in among the hills only once or twice in a thousand miles, though the Eastern Ghats are often visible inland. Perhaps this lack of variation is for the best; it helps one to get the feel of long distance and of long time; gets one used to that steady pace which is a mark of the Indian express. Looking through the barred windows, one tends to count the telegraph poles (they come numbered 14 or 15 to a kilometer, which is useful to know when estimating speeds) or may be just feels dazed by so much flat, frowzy country. Then it is time to take the berth – that wooden board two feet wide and six feet long – and lie on one’s back, and listen to the wheels rattling a drum rhythm ….. ta tuckey Dim Dim, ta tuckey Dim Dim …., and then one becomes conscious of a sound reaching one as much through the woodwork as through the air; a low murmur, diffuse as to pitch, translated and blurred out of the jarring of the king pins and rubbing plates. And here, the rhythm counting time and the drone constant, is sufficient Indian music to leave one asleep, travelling somewhere between time and infinite time.

It could not last. Though the East coast line was being duplicated, there were still stretches just out of Madras which were single track, and No. 90 must certainly get held up somewhere or other. The rhythm slows and the murmur dies: if the place was anywhere, there would be the cries of platform vendors. To the West there were blue, distant hills; round about, poor soil with small, tough bushes and occasional palms – the foliage a green that was just one shade too dark for what is right for such country.

After 85 miles came the first junction – Gudur, which was also the handing-over point to the South Central Railway. A clerk walked rapidly along the train, noting carriage numbers. At the same time new passengers boarded; pilgrims with their heads newly shaved, having offered their hair to Lord Venkateswara, who lived atop one of those blue, distant hills. The branch line from here went towards the temple, and was also part of a useful route for goods trains avoiding Madras.

North of Gudur the track was double. Characteristically for the Indian duplications of the last ten years, the two lines were generally 20 yards apart, so that at minor stations they could enclose a refuge siding without bending, and at major stops an island platform. One of these places – Bitragunta – was a change of engine point for goods trains; despite the diesels, its roundhouse was still alive with WG Mikados, living up to the legend on its wall – ‘Home of Steel Horses.’ There was a time here to take tiffin, either from the vendors who had set up tables on the platform or from the counter in the station building. This being South India, tiffin was mainly rice-based – little rice flour cakes of various sorts, with chillied sauces to give them taste and concluded with coffee. Tiffin for the engine was water; the sign of a departing express was the swinging of the jib of the water-crane back away from the tender, followed by a beating of the station gong, an unhurried return of wandering passengers to their carriages, a chime whistle and the hiss of a WP easing away, soon to attain its running speed. Then, if close enough to it, one again heard the sound of a cruising Indian Pacific: the basic cylinder beat and, through and above this, elusive snatches of a much faster, deeper rhythm from the smokestack.

Seven hours out of Madras it was evening and time for a meal. The railways think of such things; they usually provide a stop long enough to visit the refreshment room and take a full meal, or at least long enough to go and buy things to eat. Meals can also be taken on the train: they come ready on stainless steel trays with compartments for various courses. Generally they are vegetarian, which is not to be despised, for in India vegetarian food is cheaper and more wholesome than other kinds, it being sold in such quantities that it is usually fresh. Because of this I usually head straight for the vegetarian refreshment room, and keep well away from the ‘Restaurant’, with its dirty travesty of the European Indian diet.

There followed ten or twelve hours of night, during which the train traversed rich rice-growing country irrigated from the sacred rivers, Krishna and Godavari, both of which merited long bridges. The viaduct over the wide sandy bed of Godavari was not only over one-and-a-half miles long, but high into the bargain, with no side railings, for such might spoil one’s sense of danger. There were junctions too, like Vijayawada, where the line to Hyderabad and Delhi diverged (this was once part of Nizam’s State Railway). Here also, No. 90 Down, being a second-rate express, took a long way round, for north of Vijayawada, a series of connecting branch lines formed a loop that relieved the single track main line. But the wise traveller did not bother with all this: he was sleeping in a compartment dark except for the purplish safety light. Or, at least, he was trying to sleep, for it sometimes takes several nights to get used to the peculiar comfort of sleeping without change of clothes or need of a blanket on a hard wooden board.

The Indian Railway regulations state that the time of sleeping is between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. Passengers can vary this by agreement, but still after 6 a.m. one is entitled to demand that he who is sleeping on the lowest bunk – the seats – do sit up and he who is in the middle bunk – the backrest – do allow it to be lowered from its chains. In any case, by six it is light, and who wants to waste the coolest and pleasantest part of the day? Accordingly, the compartment stirred at dawn; people sat up, women combed their long hair and re-plaited it and men stood in the doorway for up to ten minutes each, rubbing their teeth with tooth powder and their right index finger. There they stood, watching the last of the well-watered country that this train had been traversing all night; its palms and paddy fields all bluish with faint mist. And there were station stops where one took exercise, rice cakes and bananas (mangoes in season) and perhaps sighted one of India’s few broad gauge rail cars, which are doubly rare in that they are Australia’s only contribution to the Indian Railways. Coupled in three-car sets and with motors gurgling underneath, they provide local services over several hundred miles of track.

About half way from Madras to Calcutta, the dry, red hills of the Eastern Ghats come down and, jutting into the sea, form the only natural harbour in the whole east coast. It was here, or rather, just a little inland, at Waltair, that the East Coast Railway was divided between the Madras Railway and the Bengal-Nagpur, and here the division remains between the South Central and the South-Eastern.

This South-Eastern Railway is the only Zonal Railway that is the direct successor to one of the former British companies. The result is that many people have not bothered to change the name; South-Eastern it may be officially, but its sporting teams proudly keep the BNR initials alive. This is poetic justice, for if ever a railway was born a Cinderella it was the Bengal-Nagpur. It began late – in 1882 – and then on metre gauge, as a tributary to the Great Indian Peninsular Railway at Nagpur. Even after its conversion to broad gauge and the completion of its two main lines – Nagpur to Howrah and the East Coast Line – the BNR dealt in the shadow of the Original Guaranteed Companies. At its Bengal end it crept into Howrah station alongside the East Indian Railway itself; the very station at Nagpur was the property of the G.I.P., while between the two the country was sparsely populated and traffic was thin. In those years of BNR’s inferiority complex, it must have been a comfort to it that at its encounter with the MSM, at Waltair, it had charge of the station. But now the BNR rather overshows its neighbours, partly because they have been cut down to size (the Eastern is but a rump of the East Indian), and partly because its own traffic is booming, brought on by the industrial development of its formerly backward domains. It is now the BNR that is at times so distractedly busy with freight that it forgets its passengers, leaving them to infrequency, crowds and withal lateness. But for all that, Cinderella is by definition attractive.

It is characteristic of the BNR that, faced with congestion at Waltair, it should first turn to ungumming the goods side of the business. The passenger station, away from the new flyovers and marshalling yards that were being built to handle the increasing through traffic to and from the port which the BNR itself developed, remained a relic of the days when Waltair was no more than a point midway between two metropolises; the simultaneous outer terminus of two tentacles rather than a through station. But now, with goods traffic flowing freely and the removal of quota restrictions on routing of goods via Waltair, it has set about providing a fine new station. One may miss the long, low verandah of the old, and its disarray of buildings, but it will be good to avoid the interminable delays at the old home signal.

Nowadays change of railway in India does not mean change in the kind of rolling stock encountered – though there are here and there survivals from more individualistic days. Rather, the change is recorded, most obviously, by one’s ticket (tickets into another Zone still bear a red wiggly stripe and the word ‘Foreign’), and perhaps by a change in the steam locomotive livery. One such occurred here – the WP that backed into the erstwhile rear end of 90 Down had the silver smokebox door of the SER – and this looked quite a bull’s eye when applied to a bullet-headed locomotive. The sight may have been altered, but not the sound or the performance as the express drew away inland, passing first the divergence if an iron-ore line opened without passenger service in 1967, yet by all accounts highly scenic, and then Vizianagaram, junction for an important cross-country line running inland. And I have drawn into Vizianagaram once in the company of a gentleman, who remembered his Sanscrit well enough to murmur a translation to himself – ‘The Successful City.’ But having been traveling for 24 hours now, was it not time to cease from the intellectual and have another snooze?