Chapter XI

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The Far South

2. Kerala

From Ooty one could return south-east to Mettupaliyam by train (nearing Mettupalaiyam in the dusk one realized that one was not to be left in the dark: there, guttering in the inverted fishbowl above, would be a weak kerosene lamp) or one could travel on north-west by bus. This bus road descended the other side of the Nilagiris, reaching a subsidiary plateau rather lower down at 3000' above MSL. Here, straggling along a ridge among the tea bushes, was the township of Gudalur. Railway tickets could be bought here, valid by out-agency bus to the terminus of the broad gauge branch at Nilambur Road, thence by rail. The bus would descend a second ghat, and when nearly at sea level, drop one off onto a patch of dust beside Nilambur Road goods yard.

I reached this station early one torrid afternoon, just after the arrival of the twice-daily mixed. Apart from passengers, the business of the branch seemed to be firewood, and in no small way, for it was carried in the big bogie waggons more commonly reserved for grain and minerals. The train just arrived had two such waggons , three Indian standard carriages and an XB, one of a class of not-very-successful Pacifics dating from the 1930’s. The firewood came from the open forests of broad-leafed trees round about; the XB looked fine shunting in the dappled sunlight of their shade, though all the while one couldn’t but look forward to the afternoon’s storms which would clear and cool the air.

This Nilambur Road line was the only branch railway in all Kerala, which is not surprising, since Kerala is a land where railways just don’t fit. Of all the landscapes of India only Kerala is truly intimate and detailed. Its red lateritic ridges are small, abrupt and confused; its flat valley-bottoms of paddy field wind sinuously; its luxuriant vegetation shelters small compounds and houses, for the population density is high. Altogether it is country made on too small a scale for railways. Either they are up on embankments over paddy fields or down in straight-walled cuttings through the red ridges, always looking for a flat straight and rarely finding it, yet never achieving the hugging-the-land affinity of the mountain narrow-gauge. Thus the Nilambur Road line was uncomfortable, unconforming in this way, yet it was engineered so that quite high speeds were possible. The XB showed its paces in such a manner that we were stopped in stations waiting time for as long as we were running. But for all this it was good country to look at, with its bright green paddy, its palms and its dark bushes half-covering the red of the ironstone ridges… Still, beguiling, this the most Indonesian part of India.

The Nilambur train ran to Shoranur Junction which derived most of its importance as the place where the West Coast main line divided after coming from Madras through a gap in the hills. One branch, officially the main line, ran north to Mangalore. Its relatively light traffic was, as often as not, hauled by non-standard engines that wafted along under the palms of the sandy flat behind the beach. The other line ran south to Cochin, though admittedly the through Madras – Cochin expresses avoided Shoranur via the third leg of a triangle. The evening Cochin local had an XB and made the run mostly after dark (but the Kerala dusk is very pleasant); with halts on sidings to let expresses through and wanderings through lateritic rises and a glimpse of the Ocean after sunset, a little bit red in the monsoon grey.

The chief port of south-west India, Cochin was quite a complicated city, for Cochin proper lay on a low-lying sandspit behind the beach, separated from Ernakulam and Alwaye by a backwater which was the beginning of a series of connected backwaters that were one of the glories of Kerala. Ernakulam had been a junction since around 1960 when the metre gauge line was opened from Quilon, thus completing the coastal railway for the length of the state, admittedly on two gauges. Here the layout was spacious with a single long yellow gravel platform for the broad gauge and a shorter island with a longer awning for the metre. A mixed gauge line continued for five miles (ten chargeable) to Cochin Harbour Terminus, crossing the backwater on a long low bridge. Once in Cochin the tracks bifurcated, trifurcated and generally multifurcated into a rusty mess, with the occasional stumpy boilered American 2-8-0 or an ex-SIR shunting, not to mention a 4-6-0 or two on metre gauge. Cochin Harbour Terminus itself was a long finger of platform and a few mouldy buildings within sight of the ocean ships and well away from the old town of Cochin.

The metre gauge continuing south was another misfit railway. Only the convinced railfan tourist would hop in behind its YP in preference to boarding the Kerala State Inland Water Transport Service and going lapping gently down the backwaters in kerosene-engined passenger barge with a tin toilet perched over the screw. A ride behind the YP, on the other hand, reduced the 138 miles between Ernakulam and Trivandrum to a matter of just nine hours, nine hours travel through the palm trees of country almost continuously built up with small compounds, where one could never tell where the towns ended and the country began. Trivandrum, as far south as one could go by rail, was the capital of Kerala, but a railway dead end with a grand stone building trying to cover up a rather provincial service of nine trains in and out daily.

The metre gauge route to Madras left the coastal line at Quilon, a third of the way back towards Ernakulam. Its fastest train was the evening express, introduced in 1965 to cover the 516 miles in 23 hours, but this being a new train people seemed by habit to prefer the mail, with its morning departure. Turning inland at Quilon a single YP sufficed while the Mail wound its way into the confusion of slopes and valleys which formed the southernmost portion of the Western Ghats. The summit of the Shencottah gap, for which it was heading, was little more than 800' above M.S.L., but what with a couple of steep pinches and the general rugged wetness of the country – and the slowness of the train, with a YG banking at the back for the last few miles – the ghat section gave the impression of being hard work. Climbing out of the low red hill country, the line followed a grey granite ridge to the tunnel by which it left Kerala. It was usual for the west portal to be dripping moisture, a fitting farewell to a wet coast.