Chapter IX

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

Southern Mahratta

3. Karnataka

Going east from Goa, back through Londa, one reached Hubli, where the main line turned south for Bangalore and the branch continued ahead towards the east coast 400 miles away. Hubli was therefore a major junction and workshops, originating all four daily passenger services towards points east. These trains, hauled by the standard YP Pacifics, lumbered along, stopping at all stations and with so much recovery time in their tables that they were usually on time, despite having to fit in with heavy goods traffic on a single line. The line also had a number of branches, some of which are also worth talking about. The first, Gadag – Sholapur, was 180 miles long, running north to connect with the ex-GIP broad gauge. The passenger services were hauled by YG Mikados, goods engines, for though the line crossed either black-soil downs or old residual hills with plenty of ways up and around, it took its gradients straight; it was worth sacrificing some speed on the flat for the sake of that fast, even beat up the hills.

The second junction, Hospet, was at the centre of an iron ore field from which ore was exported both westwards via Mormugao Harbour and south-eastwards through Madras. Indeed, Hospet was the western terminus of the broad gauge line which ran alongside the metre to Guntakal, enabling ore to be taken to Madras without transhipment.

At the same time a branch ran southwards, bifurcating 12 miles out; one line with a daily mixed running to Kottur, the other to a place called Samehalli. Notes such as ‘1135 Hospet – Samehalli Mixed III class only Will run on Mondays and Thursdays only’ are not common in Indian timetables, where few trains are mixed and nearly all run daily. I saw this notice and started to think about branches with little traffic, perhaps an elderly engine and short, jogging train. It was with some anticipation that I left my stuffy lodging-house cell, trudging the mile to the station and bought a ticket to Samehalli. But at 6 a.m., with the dawn already well-advanced, there was no train waiting at the one and only platform. Somewhere I caught the phrase ‘leaving from No. 2 road’, where, sure enough, there was a long string of rust red vans with a brake van at one end and two passenger carriages at the other. And there, closing down on the carriages, was the locomotive, not my hoped-for steam antique but one of the thousands of YG’s. This was the daily goods, with a couple of passenger carriages added twice a week just in case anybody wanted to go to Samehalli.

Running south-east from Hospet was a ridge of iron ore, which formed a convenient abutment for Tungabhadra Dam, a major irrigation work started by the British and completed after Independence. Dodging the dam, the Samehalli line climbed over the ridge through a saddle, then paralleled its southern edge to the terminus. Not far beyond the saddle the Kottur line diverged at a junction so simple as to have no more than a pair of points with appropriate signals, yet it also had a stationmaster to exchange tokens and observe full ritual. From here we headed into the bush, the empty ore waggons rattling behind and the YG just ahead, working in short, loud bursts alternating with a satisfied hissing progress, and taking but little notice of the short, sharp grades either uphill or down. The driver seemed to have but two regulator settings – ‘off’ and ‘on’. So could Big Power behave when it took a load of empties down the branch. Yet it was the right engine for the job; it fitted this hilly line to the iron quarries. In this rough country a small, gutless relic would have been out of place.

At the sidings ore loading was in progress – mostly by brightly-clothed women coolies with pans on their heads. The last and the greatest of these was Samehalli itself, to which ore was brought by self-acting incline and by aerial ropeway, which latter was in a spot of bother owing to its empty hoppers falling with a great clatter from the skies en route. The incline, which was working with such dispatch that the empties bolted up the hill like frightened rabbits, gave rise to quite a collection of temporary sidings which were shunted by a decrepit Simplex tractor.

As the coolies picked over the ore, sorting and loading it, and as the incline worked and the ropeway didn’t, the YG held its shunt without bothering to unhitch from the passenger cars, then turned on the triangle and shunted again, all so unhurriedly that No. 1163 down mixed left 1¼ hours late. Yet, with the country up and down and with the regulator up or down in sympathy we covered the ground and reached Hospet on time, even with stops en route to load (a) drably dressed peasant women with babies that crawled everywhere, and (b) scantily dressed men with bundles of grass and firewood that took up even more room than the crawling babies.

Two trundling hours east of Hospet lay Bellary, junction for Rayadurg, a little branch that lost money on a twice daily services of mixed (two cars and vans) and passenger (three carriages). Having reached Bellary before dawn, and with the passenger not due out for hours, I decided to go to Rayadrug by bus and see the Jain antiquities. But the bus was exceedingly wayward, taking 4 hours for a 45 mile long way round, including one stop for peeling a loose retread off one tyre.

However, at one O’clock I was waiting at the station across the town from the tumbled hill of rocks where the antiquities presumably were. Half an hour after the home signal had been lowered to welcome it, the passenger rounded the bend and eased into the station, hauled by a neat Henschel 2-6-0. The first grade out of Rayadrug made the engine work a little, but after that we simmered along beside the road, sharing its every curve and even its shade trees. Half a mile after crossing a dry river bed by bridge we stopped at a notice warning ‘Causeway – beware of Water.’ With the illogic of the showers of an oncoming monsoon, this creek alone was in flood. The fettlers were on the causeway, helping such stones as were in the flood to jump the rails. They waved when they had it clear and we felt our way across, then whistled gaily and accelerated – no bus could come this way today!

The Rayadrug train was supposed to reach Bellary bay platform with plenty of time to spare to make connections, but this day it ended up chasing the tail of the main line train into the station. This, YP and 11 carriages was a down service; I, of course, wanted the up and so had to wait. I therefore sat on one of the seats provided under the train shed, watching the people mill round the slightly uneven rake of brown carriages; watching the fans suspended on long vibrating rods from the dim Middlesborough girders of the roof, their green nodes spinning, their blades a blur.

But the down train left, most of the people went away and the fans were switched off; running down, still, stirring in the close little gusts of wind that sometimes blew the length of the train shed. It was late in the day and quite dark behind the 31 semicircular arches of the shed wall. Only the neon tube directly up in front of the stationmaster’s office was on. Like the fans, it was suspended from way above.

Yet not all the people had gone away. There was a singing madman who amused everyone on the platform except the railway police, who drove him away. And there were little groups of people, talking softly in a soft language; some of them eating from aluminium vessels which would occasionally chink together. Only the hubbub had gone; when somebody walked past, one could hear the glancing of his bare feet on the dusty concrete.

Outside the train shed there was silence. This was not as should have been; Bellary is an active town and I should have been able to hear it, or if not Bellary, at least some activity in the railway yard beyond those thirty one heavy arches. But the air dampened sound even though it itself moved, sultry air making small random movements, sifting through the leaves of the tree just outside the sixth arch, passing over we who waited with the breath of its humidity. In this dusk, with rain coming, I looked beyond through the arches at the Bellary hill-fort, and as a blue mistiness came into the air the hill seemed very close and overpoweringly similar to the granite hills of monsoon Queensland. Yet at that moment the spell was broken by the whistling and rattling of a doubleheaded ore train passing by on the broad gauge line over on the other side of the metre gauge yard.

Bellary was roughly the midpoint of the southern Mahratta’s cross-peninsula line. Continuing eastwards, it crossed the broad gauge Bombay – Madras line at Guntakal, which was also the junction for Bangalore via the metre gauge. Making connection with the southern end of the Nizam’s State Railway at Dronachellam, it crossed over the edge of the plateau onto the coastal plain to terminate at Guntur, on a branch of the east coast main line.

The metre gauge line south from Guntakal, which has remained with the Southern Railway, crossed plateau all the way, with one descent not far from Guntakal, and one corresponding ascending ghat half way to Bangalore. For the first couple of hours’ journey its trains were successively on black soil, among red rocks and then on yellow gritty sand, the product of weathering granite.

Dharmavaram, the line’s only intermediate junction, was built on this latter, a fairly open place with a town a mile from the station. I arrived there once at about ten O’clock at night, ready for a two hour wait. The YP-hauled passenger train by which I had come went away, leaving the still night to a Montreal-Alco diesel idling in No. 1 road. But they switched this off so that it knocked into silence, and the softer sounds emerged; the insects which, as in Indian music, provide a drone to existence, and the squelch of rubber sandals on the concrete of the platform.

But when a YG hissed in from Bangalore with a goods train the sandalsman wandered off into the yard, carrying hurricane lamps among the iron vans. More or less at this moment the branch train docked, ready to set out on the journey to Pakala, along a line more important for freight than for passengers. Between Dharmavaram and Pakala the corresponding day train wended its way past rocky hills of granite tinted pink with iron, constantly on the curve but never at grades of more than 1%, stopping to take water at small stations with shady gravel platforms and perhaps a coffee vendor or two; a train without crowd or hurry. The night train had much the same philosophy, but sensible travellers were asleep on its luggage racks and didn’t mind its taking 7½ hours for 130 miles. They would reach Pakala Junction at 7:00 a.m., take breakfast of steamed rice cakes in the rather dim and dusty RRR, and continue, perhaps south to the Madras- Bangalore main line; perhaps East, where, among the sandstone scarps of the Eastern Ghats, lay the great pilgrimage town of Tirupati, the goal of many parties of pilgrims often accompanied by a trumpeter and often singing sacred songs.

But to go from Dharmavaram to Bangalore at night; over moonlight downs in an old carriage with longitudinal seats and plenty of room till a cautious entry to some minor station and gentle stop and …… what’s this, a baby in my face? Put it aside. Parcels, legs and people coming in through the windows; peoples, legs, babies and parcels settling in; babblings of talk and a trainfull and more of villagers was on its way home. A girl of fourteen could find no niche save a few square inches of seat next to me; she hid her face and I looked out the window. So the moonlit hills went past as the Pacific up front climbed a 1/80 ghat towards the plateau. Soot fell into my hair; listening I heard not so much the distant beat of the engine as a continuous gentle rain of dead sparks onto the hard earth beside the track.