Chapter VI

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The Indian Midlands

2. Gwalior

Gwalior was, first and foremost, a Rock, a defensible crag with the strongest fort for miles around. As such it became the seat of a local Prince, and so continued into British days. Therefore the name Gwalior attached secondly to a Native State, thirdly to its capital town and fourthly to a railway which, with a route mileage of 252, remains the third of India’s narrow gauge systems. This former Scindia State Railway, now the Gwalior narrow gauge of the Central, deserves all the more honour for being laid to the two foot gauge. Consisting of three branches, one arcing generally north-east, one west and one south south-west, the system serves most of the old Gwalior state. Gauge and former native-state ownership combine to give Scindia’s railway considerable individuality.

Compared with the Nagpur narrow gauge traffic here is light, being all local and subject to road competition. Indeed, the service on the line that parallels part of the Bombay – Agra main road has been reduced to one mixed train daily, the other pair of lines retaining two services. These trains were entrusted to a variety of locomotives – five kinds of Mikado and two kinds of passenger engine (a Pacific and a 4-6-4), not that the distinction had any operating significance when all traffic were mixed. The passenger engines and the three elder Mikado designs were British and much alike in appearance, but the newer 2-8-2’s were American and the newest Japanese. All the locomotives were painted either black or green, and all towed low bogie tenders with flared lips.

The narrow gauge platform at Gwalior station, a mile east of the Rock, saw departures twice a day. In the early morning trains left for all three destinations, while the afternoon trains to Bhind and Sabalgarh (an overnight stop half-way down the longest branch) set out in the heat of the day. Around midday when I arrived somewhat early to catch the 1455 Bhind mixed, Gwalior station, not very inspiring at the best of times, was at its dusty, fly-buzzing worst. The broad gauge facilities were those of a middle-sized industrial town rather than those of a junction or division point. There were through tracks between the two passenger platforms, while, though the station building had its full complement of high ceilinged refreshment and waiting rooms, they were individually small in area. The two foot gauge layout alongside was impressive only in the number of its parallel tracks, beyond which was a blank shed wall, though the carriage sidings to the left had such unusual inhabitants as a VIP saloon that looked four-wheeled till one saw tiny bogies underneath.

Shortly after my arrival the shunter extracted two sets of Gwalior-built carriages from the sidings, placing one on no. 2 road (6 cars for Sabalgarh) and the other at the platform (10 cars for Bhind, for the shortest and flattest of the branches had the heaviest traffic.) Passengers arrived walking in the sun, riding in horse-drawn tongas or in taxis. They bought their tickets at the small white-washed office on the broad gauge down platform, an office whose booking clerk has my compliments for efficiency, and especially for defending his queue against interlopers. Some rocked the Bhind carriages as they walked through to the Sabalgarh train, while others settled down on the part cross, part longitudinal seats. At 1415 a 4-6-4 backed on to the train on No. 2 road and took it away, leaving it to a 4-6-2 to collect some goods trucks from the yard and add itself and them to the last departure for the day.

In leaving Gwalior the Bhind train turned through three-quarters of a circle. Its first horseshoe bend resulted in its running northwards alongside a pleasantly shaded suburban street, with loco sheds on one side and an exotic mock-Mughal office on the other, built for the Maharajah’s railway and still the sub-divisional headquarters. An industrial siding continued ahead along this street as our track turned through a further right angle to pass under the main line and join the verge of a second suburban street. This was one of the most high-class parts of the town; the hedges which scratched any elbow carelessly left stretching out of an open carriage window concealed the houses of Indian Administrative Service officers and the like. Over the way was the Maharajah’s showground, presently in its off-season desolation but still a symbol of former Princely encouragement of industry.

Perhaps the relatively heavy traffic on the Bhind train was due to the way in which it forsook all roads and steered its own course, keeping the great Rock of Gwalior astern, like a string of dugout canoes paddling away after doing trade with an anchored liner. The low swell of the rock surface round Gwalior was followed by the calm of the Gangetic plain. With the Rock disappeared below the straight horizon of this sea of plain, we had neither beacon nor landmark, yet there were places all around; the greyness of the plain was one mosaic of little bunds, of ownerships and titles, of the lands of one villager or another. And there were railway places, little sidings with small whitewashed stone buildings low under their humped concrete roofs, and halts with but a corrugated iron hut for issuing tickets.

Among the stations Nonera was superior; it had a sweetmeat-cum-cuppa chai stall on its low earthen platform. Here the trains crossed both morning and evening, giving plenty of time for everybody with 15 paise to taste the tea, since the first train to arrive always had to wait for a long time and the second for a considerable time. Their waiting was guaranteed, because the loco water cranes were positioned in the days when engines were smaller, so a present day locomotive taking water fouled the points, and any other train had to wait.

Not that Gwalior timekeeping was so accurate that a few minutes at the home signal mattered. The timetable and telegraph safe working system had no means of changing the crossing place in time of holdup, so the first train to arrive sometimes waited an hour or two before its opposite number appeared. This was more than sufficient time to take water, back clear, rake out ashes and watch the two railway buffaloes walking back and forth to draw water from the railway well and replenish the loco supply. But eventually the stationmaster would stop listening to the Hindi hits on his transistor, emerge from his office, unpadlock the little black handwheel and wind in the wire till the other home signal was off. (These Gwalior wheels were much smaller than their BNR counterparts, and without their projecting spokes, while the chain was wound continuously round the drum with three positions: up home off, neutral and down home off.) He would then send his pointsman to stand waving a green flag besides the Guest Keen and Williams Self-Reversing Point Lever with Still Handle.

And in the end the train to be crossed would appear, its forward motion seemingly no more than incidental to the production of a steady stream of smoke to be caught in the cross wind and blown across the plain. Yet it would trundle towards and past the pointsman steadying the vibration of the doubly-bent Still Handle, its locomotive perchance one of the heavy American Mikados with boiler bent low to the ground. These machines travelled like bloodhounds sniffing the sleepers.

There were a few more than thirty miles between Nonera and Bhind, that many miles flat and on the greyness of the Ganges plain. But a little colour came to it at sunset, when the Bhind train was scurrying away from the sun to the safety of its terminus. Here the carriages could be parked at the platform, the goods waggons shunted round and the loco given a rest in front of the shed, only to be working again before dawn, preparing for the 0525 departure.

The Shivpuri branch was once the most important of the three, for it climbed to the summer capital of Gwalior state. But its mixed train is slow and runs alongside a bitumen road with unrestricted bus and lorry services; the line now has the least traffic of the three. But with the grades ahead of its daily train this is perhaps as well.

The early morning docking order at Gwalior was different from the afternoon. This time the ten coaches for Bhind were on No. 2 road, while the Sheopur Kalan train (bound for the terminus beyond Sabalgarh) which left first at 6 a.m. stood at the platform ahead of the meagre four carriages for Shivpuri. But after these two had gone the railway sent its best and newest engine to take charge of the No. 655 mixed, a Mikado, built by Nippon Sharyo in 1959, with that ramshackle appearance that only an American design for the narrowest of gauges can effect. The counterweights of its driving wheels had no solid walls of frame behind them, its boiler apparently sagged into the gap while the front platform was slightly askew, with two re-railing jacks guarding it like firedogs. But the engine performed mightily.

The Shivpuri made its tardy departure at 7 a.m. Following the Sheopur Kalan train it turned through a right angle to head west, straight for Gwalior Rock. Upon reaching the lower screes the train climbed a bit to skirt through the fringe of Gwalior town, properly called Lashkar, or ‘Camp’. Here on the hillside the line passed between mud walls so close to the track that the urchins watching from the doors of the huts could almost have touched the engine’s revolving counterweights. While the bullock carts were held at bay by level crossing gates, we continued by steaming through a reverse-curved rail-road cutting, leaning from the superelevation, the cylinder cocks up front stirring the grey, gunpowdery dirt of the road. Even after this the line wasn’t done with Gwalior and its ridge. After the sidings of Ghosipura where the Sheopur line diverged northwards to seek an easy way out onto the plain, the Shivpuri track once again summoned its courage, curved into the ridge, passed under it in one of those stone-lined holes that are debateably tunnels or bridges, then coasted down to one of its very few falling grades. In due course it issued from the back of a bazaar to find the Agra-Bombay Road, and then began a game.

The relationship between the two permanent ways connecting Gwalior and Shivpuri was one of hide and seek. Sometimes the train was meekly puffing on one verge of the road or the other, sometimes it was a few yards away and sometimes it took itself coquettishly off into the wilderness, only to reappear with a curve that swept across a culvert in company with the road and headed away again – such cheek: For though the Gwalior engines were not the fierce monsters drawn from level crossing signs (these were freelance WP’s with shark’s teeth), their habit of suddenly drawing close, going so far as to appear from a concealed cutting to cross the road on to its opposite verge, must have been disconcerting to unwary road traffic. I saw one flush stationwaggon full of American Peace Corpsmen looking partly puzzled, partly just irritated. But other motorists were more friendly than that: the truck drivers were quite capable of drawing alongside the passenger coaches so that their passengers and the train’s could chat. And so the two would jog along side by side, the train swaying a little sideways with the narrowness of its gauge and the truck bucking on the bumps of foundationless Indian bitumen.

In general the railway left the road where the former’s gradients became worse than 1/60, withdrawing just a little when the transgression was small but wandering off into the trackless bush when there was a big hill to be climbed. The first and heaviest such ghat section came after fifteen miles of easy running through flat interstices of a belt of residual ranges. After all Shivpuri was a thousand feet above Gwalior, and that meant climbing, and climbing there was – rock cuttings, stone arch bridges over dry gullies, sidlings across screes fixed by the roots of small xerophytic herbs and dead-looking trees. And then the grades steepened to 1/40 for a mile or two, conquered on the ascent by working the little Americo-Japanese loco all out, but requiring downhill trains to stop at the summit and pin down brakes.

After all this heroic effort where did the railway find itself but on the verge of the road, the engine simmering along somewhat smugly into Renhat station. This was the crossing place, and a station typical of the line. The track bent away from the road to give room for a low level platform and a loop siding. A couple of trees shaded the waiting villagers and the little black signal handwheel. Noticeably the points did not give a straight run to either track; it wasn’t that they were equilateral, just that there was a kink in the straight road. And here, beside one another, the two wee trains, each four carriages, some vans and a Mikado, paused, communed and exchanged guards and policemen.

The ensuing stations were all roadside, some with stone buildings that the railway whitewashed, some with flap-windowed, corrugated iron sheds that the railway painted rust red; some with stonecutters’ yards nearby, some with small villages closeby and all with a couple of tea stalls serving the road users and convenient to railwaymen also. At one water stop (where the water crane was at the doorstep of a small temple, so one didn’t know what was railway and what was holy) the crew deputed the no. 2 fireman to go specially slow about the watering while they disappeared for chayya. There followed a second ghat which, though only 1/60, was impressive for the wilderness of its country – the inhospitability of the grey rocks, the impenetrability of the scratch forest. Leafless and grey, this jungle was coloured only by the intense highlights of trees in brilliant red flower or peacocks strutting in iridescent blue and green. Yet there came a summit, a station and a couple of road-verge miles to Shivpuri.

Now this place was wonder to itself. The Maharajah had built an English country house red stuccoed in the midst of the dry jungle, with a secretariat beside the polo ground. There was an old town and, along the main road, a new bazaar. The station, on a red swelling of land at one end of the cantonment, was best seen at early morning when the light itself was red, the government buildings round about were red, the station building was red and the waiting train red-brown. But the engine shunting back and forth, leaking a little white steam into the humid air of dawn, this was definitely green.

The longest branch, the Sheopur-Kalan, did not climb like Shivpuri but travelled for ten hours and 125 miles to penetrate a semi-deserted wilderness. Leaving Gwalior at dawn and picking up its passenger load at Ghosipura, the little fort-shaded junction, the train soon gravitated away from the ridge and on to a road verge. Its 4-6-4 took things easy, running roadside with a lethargy that saved its energies for later in the day. We passengers had plenty of time to read motel hoardings that were not meant for us. Yet these first few miles were the only real roadside section on the Sheopur line, though there was a road fairly closeby as far as Sabalgarh, the mid-point. We first left the verge to stop beside a small powerhouse to which coal was brought by local shunt. As the Sheopur train paused two rough men and a ragged girl were shovelling split coal into the pannier bags of a string of sick-looking donkeys and leading them away into the powerhouse yard.

Having left the edge of the road the line now turned away from the relatively fertile ground around Gwalior. The track ran narrow ahead of the train, with a dark strip of cinders and steel sleepers between its rails and two strips of whitish ballast outside, leading us away from the Ganges and onto a flat-rock shelf. Occasionally, at a creek crossing, it swung to the centre of the road to enclose the train briefly within the red steel of a truss bridge. It was of course single, so we suffered to wait while No. 664 Sabalgarh - Gwalior mixed steamed by with a British 2-8-2 in front and black 4-6-4 running tender first in the consist, apparently in disgrace. Then, in the later part of the morning, the sky clouded over and a wind blew dun dust over a dessicated land, swirling it into the open shop fronts of the settlements en route. The greatest of these was Sabalgarh, midday crossing station and overnight halt, a small town lying on the margin between dry-farming and semi-desert.

As a prelude to the wilderness we crossed a river which had cut itself into a deep badland gulch. After swinging down to the bridge we climbed back among the gullies and spurs, through brief cuttings and over embankments founded on seemingly insecure detritus. Onwards from this bank there stretched the forest grey without end, its trees with the merest dusting of green as a few prepared their twigs for a monsoon yet months away. And the train kept its pace, sounding the all-steel track in a continuous rattle that only changed key when we crossed a stone-pierced flood opening.

Though because of the desolation of the country there weren’t many passengers, there were halts and sidings, some of them truly equilateral. At one place small children were selling wild fruits, very cheaply for the supply exceeded the demand. (The fruits were small, orange and sour like unripe persimmons.) At another place a fence of thorns enclosed a couple of haystacks, something most unexpected in this dry jungle. There were a military farm depot, with a light tramway leading back into the bush. At a third siding the train crew assisted the solitary stationmaster with the crossing arrangements, but not so much as to look busy. The Travelling Ticket Examiner, a round-faced man in a white coat, told me he held an Agra B.A. and bade me look at ‘Our humourous guard; a great man who once worked for the Scindia State Railway.’ And truly there was a twinkle in the eyes of his gaunt, pockmarked face.

At the last loop the engine took some of the water that was being raised so busily by the railway bullocks, which allowed time for crew and passengers to take tea in the village across the station yard. Thus refreshed, we romped downhill to the terminus, the little town of Sheopur-Kalan. They said it was not long since the tigers had walked in the streets of Sheopur at night, but no more, so the small train could spend the night undisturbed at the platform and the small engine in its shed. And one passenger, thinking himself that night as he lay on his back in the courtyard of the local inn, decided that to be local and light was not necessarily the prerogative of trains that run in humid Europe, nor even of those that limit themselves to short distances.