Chapter VII

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

Rohilkhand and Kumaon

2. The Rohilkhand and Kumaon

The main line of North India was built by the East Indian Railway Company from Calcutta to Delhi along the southern border of the North Indian Plain. This was supplemented for the upper couple of hundred miles by a concern which, organised as the Indian Branch Railway Company, subsequently became known as the Oudh and Rohilkhand, under which name it was absorbed by the East Indian Railway Company, and under which name it is still known as part of the Northern.

This secondary main line ran to the north and east of the East Indian proper, eventually making an end-on connection with the North Western main line close to the Himalayan foothills north of Delhi. Between them these two main lines delimited the rough area that was to be served by a network of broad gauge branches, but left unserved a considerable belt of plain lying between them and the Himalayas. This belt, from Bengal to Moradabad, was supplied with metre gauge railways since grouped together as the North Eastern Railway. Of the contributors to the NER, the Rohilkhand and Kumaon Railway Company was westernmost and perhaps least, for the new amalgamated Trunk Line did not include any part of it. Rather, the R & K consisted of a collection of branches more or less connecting the foothills of the mountains to the Oudh and Rohilkhand main line, strung together by the 200 mile Lucknow – Bareilly metre-gauge loop. (The distance from Lucknow to Bareilly by the O & R is 150 miles).

The subsidiary character of the R & K section can be seen in its traffic. It has a couple of expresses running to Kathgodam, the railhead for a whole series of hill stations, but apart from these each line has but two or three local trains daily, with an overnight passenger train to supplement the express from Lucknow to Bareilly. Its goods traffic is also light, consisting of timber, stones and agricultural produce from the belt of country near the hills. Altogether the R & K is fulfilling pretty well the secondary functions envisaged for the metre gauge by those who introduced it to India.

The Western outpost of the R & K was a bay platform at Moradabad second gauge station. Having been built by the old O & R, this station was less impressive than those on the real main line further south; it had no train shed, just platforms, of which No. 1 did some duty as a concourse. The metre gauge had a window in the octagonal third-class booking office, and a train waiting, a typical mixture of curve-sided integral stock and straight-sided steel carriages of the immediately preceding generation, plus one elderly car with R & K builder plates. This one was narrower than standard, with curved sides, a corrugated iron roof and narrow windows reflecting the narrowness of compartments so cramped that all backbones were kept compulsorily straight. Some of these cars had been rebuilt around 20 years ago with aisles cut through the low backs of their seats and with standard inward-swinging doors instead of outward, but a few elderly coaches like ours remained. The locomotive provided was again typical – a YB Pacific, a member of the standard passenger class of the later British years, since superceded by the Indian-built YP Pacifics. Its brown tender matched the carriages; otherwise it was black.

Getting away from the bay platform, the midday train for Ramnagar passed a small transfer yard and continued along the broad gauge to the Kathgar bridge, on which the gauges were gauntletted along with paving for road traffic. Only when on the further bank did the train set its course across the plain for the hills. As elsewhere the plain was grey fallow and completely flat, and often treeless for miles. The grey river stones that ballasted the track merged with the colour of fallow, though there might be a close cropped grass verge. Deliberate and slow, the train progressed from small hot halt to small hot halt, and one felt the lack of fans in its carriages, though under the last coach a generator belt was slipping in a constant thread of noise.

The hazy atmosphere delayed sight of the Himalayan Front ranges till they were already well above the horizon, a vague blue presence overshadowing the plains. Beyond Kashipur Junction the ground sloped up to meet them, becoming rougher with rises of sand and stones. Some parts bore jungle, but others recently cleared were divided up into large, prosperous farms which continued to the rocky first scarp of the mountains. For all that the plain rose up a little towards it, the break of slope between alluvium and the rocky hillside was sharp, and a very suitable place for the railway to stop. Hence Ramnagar terminus, which was mainly a place for loading ballast stones.

The train that left Moradabad at midday became the 1620 from Ramnagar to Lalkua, where it connected with the rest of the R & K. Accordingly the YB freewheeled back to Kashipur, where it returned to the loco shed, being replaced by a Henschel 2-6-2, class YL, a smaller engine that was still quite capable of hauling the seven cars 36 flat miles in rather less time than the 2½ hours allowed. Half of this journey was through country that had been cleared, mainly for intensive cultivation of sugar cane. The train must have looked good as it hurried out of the sun, with the red light of the evening glancing mellow against its brown sides and sidelighting the fields, which remained green even late in the season. But the last 13 miles had no intermediate station. The train waited till all light had gone from the sky and we could no longer see the mountains before setting out purposefully, keeping an even speed through what could have been a haunted forest. It was not to be frightened and reached Lalkua early.

The Kathgodam branch, which because it carried expresses had some claim to be called a main line, was almost a straight south-north connection from the broad gauge at Barelly via Lalkua to the edge of the hills. It actually branched off from the Bareilly – Lucknow track a few miles out of Bareilly, at a junction where the Lucknow – Kathgodam express reversed and exchanged carriages with a midnight shuttle to and from Bareilly itself.

Running northwards, Kathgodam trains crossed a plain that steepened gradually till the last three miles were at 1/65. At first they sauntered over country that had been cultivated for centuries but which was better watered and better looking than much of Uttar Pradesh. The line was not far from the road, but kept its distance apart from a road-rail bridge whose girders enclosed the train up to its windows.

The way north was marked off by gatekeepers’ cottages – small, square but double storeyed in brick – and regular stations, each with loop, a small building of dark red brick and a row of signal levers set on a brick platform. This sort of signaling, with wires to the signals and a complicated system of locks, release keys and hand levers to work the points, was found throughout the R & K, along with the tribe of pointsmen dressed in rough blue drill that made it work. All the same, one felt it a little strange that a station might have three home signals in each direction, and distants and starters, yet not one point lever on the signal platform. Apart from the pointsmen, the stations required officers, who dressed in white but who could never be as resplendent as a NER guard. Parading along his train at a station, a guard wore a white cotton suit, braided peaked cap and, best of all, a leather sash. In order from with the top, this was decorated with a star, the initials of the NER or (with pride) one of its antecedents, a leather wallet and a triangular pocket for the pea-whistle at the end of a silver chain.

As the loess of the plain gave way to the stones and swampy hollows of its margin – country that in places looked as though it had been done with a gold dredge – the grade became perceptible, and bankers were already required for the heaviest expresses. However the 1/80 didn’t start till after Lalkua, a place surrounded by miller’s yards and open forest and, as already mentioned, junction for Moradabad. Because of the flies and lack of shelter, Lalkua was not a very pleasant place by day – even the 7 a.m. sun was so hot that it absorbed all the whiteness out of the steam of any engines shunting about. Still in the early part of the night the place was agreeable. There was a gap between the arrival of the train from Moradabad and the crossing of the evening passenger up the hill with the down Naini Tal express, during which lull the carriages from the branch would be shunted on to a siding to leave both faces of the island platform ready. Then one could wait, sitting perhaps on a pile of rails because of the lack of platform seats, listening to shunting somewhere out beyond the nearest row of carriages – bursts of activity to a drone background of turbo-generating.

Looking about: dull red goods vans, dull brown carriages, nondescript buildings, fierce overhead lamps; an old van labeled ‘Cotton Waste Soaking Cabin’ and decorated with some doggerel about making maintenance men and customers glad by attending axle boxes. But about 9.30 p.m., a sequence started, normally with the arrival of the express from Kathgodam and its detention at the home signal. It was usual for the loco crew to alight and idly chuck ballast at the nearest telegraph pole, being rewarded by an occasional ching and a spark struck from iron.

Meanwhile the up passenger would drag itself noisily into the loop platform, there to take water and wait while its banker closed on behind – be it 4-6-2 or 2-6-2 or even a 4-6-0 left over from the days before the All-India classes. This left the way clear for the express to ease its 14 carriages down the straight, unhook the returning banker from its rear and continue. Lalkua would regain its peace as the passenger put itself into climbing gear and set out for Kathgodam, climbing straight like an arrow with barbs of light sweeping back into the forest from the open firebox doors of its engines front and back; but laboring with an insistent rhythm – or two if the wheel diameters of the engines were different – that never missed a beat till the line turned sharply aside from the edge of a stony river into Haldwani station.

Things were not normal at Haldwani when first I saw it, because some military hay had caught fire by spontaneous combustion in the goods yard. The army was there in force, carrying the unaffected hay away, dropping it all over the passenger platform, impatient that their way was blocked by my train and altogether causing such commotion that I failed to check that this was my destination. Accordingly the train whistled and steamed on, and I was left to a night on Haldwani platform. But I visited Kathgodam the following morning – it was only three miles further on, lying on the entrance to a Himalayan valley. It was a narrow, curved station with a large new building and a mere two signal levers on its platform, along with people camping among their tin trunks. Out in the yard there would always be activity – shunting, if nothing else, by a P class 4-6-0 with a piercing whistle.

The Rohilkhand and Kumaon main line began beside the Oudh and Rohilkhand at Bareilly. In some ways it was a pleasant station – platform one was wide and had comfortable wooden seats and a polished brass bell cast ‘BB & CI’ and engraved ‘EIR’, while there were shunting 0-6-0’s on broad gauge, exceeding British engines heavily balanced on their three axles, and with next-to-no buffer beam.

Yet I saw Bareilly in the hot season; a sultry humid time when the sunlight becomes diffuse without losing any of its heat. I participated in the jostling scramble round the third class booking office, and joined the crowd on the outermost platform to wait for my metre gauge train. Thankfully most of these people were waiting for the train to Kasganj (a former BB&CI line continuing south-west).

Their train didn’t play fair – it pulled up short of the scissors crossover that divided the platform, so the brighter people ran for it and had soon filled it. But my train took the scissors slowly and deliberately, it YB chime whistling against anyone who would rush it. It proved to have room enough, which was a mercy, for we waited for forty minutes at Bareilly Junction and a further half hour at City (for changing engines) and a further twenty at the junction for Kathgodam (to keep the connection) and all this time the sun was coming in the left hand windows, making us sweat without evaporating it. By the time we had set out eastwards the sky had turned hot and grey like the earth. The dark grey smoke of the train drifted and diffused in the oppressive grey calm. At stations the passengers congregated around the water faucet, pumping its loose mechanism while others cupped their hands and drank, or filled brass containers to take back to their women in the carriages.

To the north the cloud was thicker, and in the stillness when the train stopped we could hear its low, boiling thunder. When we were moving we could put out our hands and feel the tiny droplets of water hitting them like pins and needles. But pulling away from Lalauri Khera we noticed a faint vertical division in the sky, grey on our side, yellow-grey ahead. We entered the yellow-grey. The carriage was hit from the left and leant over on its side. This was more than a wind; it was a mass of air, neither swirling nor eddying but travelling south, solid. It was thick with dust; there was no more any colour save yellow-grey. Our vision of dark tossing trees and moving ground cut out beyond fifty yards. As the wind buffeted and the dust permeated we thought of trains that had been blown off the rails, and estimated the height of the embankment we were on. And the dry grit turned to mud hitting hard against us, and this to heavy rain which rebounded from the earth in a scudding ground-haze. Still there was no colour – the rails of Pilibhit yard, where we took refuge, and the trees beside it, were all in different densities of the all-grey.

But the storm passed, and the bedraggled men who boarded the train at Pilibhit took off their clothes to shiver, cadging dry cigarettes and matches, wringing out clothes till the compartment smelt like a football changing room after a hard match. It was pleasant and now cool to walk on the platform, looking at the yard as it glistened with water; at the shiny engines that puffed white steam and best at the delicate pale blue that appeared, edged with white cloud, in the western sky. This turned to red and darkness, but the telegraph line was down on the Tanakpur branch, the tablet instruments would not work, so a pilot engine had to be sent. We were held up at Pilibhit half the night but no worry; there was a luggage rack to sleep on.

Tanakpur lay 40 miles north of its main line junction, nestling against the Himalayan foothills and also against the Nepal border, which came down onto the flat a few miles east. On a clear morning, with the sharp green summit line of the first scarp defined against the sky, it was a pleasant place. The sidings of its long, frayed station layout were for loading timber and water-worn stones, the former onto bogie flats whose platform was thriftily made out of steel ribbons from which a pattern of discs had already been stamped – despite all the holes there was still enough metal to hold logs – and the latter into hoppers, of which the older six wheelers were rather low with a light channel superstructure presumably meant to keep the thing square. Tanakpur was also distinguished by having the slowest booking clerk in a hundred miles, while on the platform was a tombstone-like pink monument to a man from the nearby hills who had distinguished himself in the fighting against Pakistan in 1965. it was at once a tribute to the xenophobia of Uttar Pradesh and to the importance of the railway – what other country would put its civic monuments on the station platform?

The train was of eleven coaches, and the YB had hauled it to Tanakpur without difficulty, which meant that the downhill grade returning to Pilibhit was gentle. After a while the thick, broad-leafed forest of the first few miles gave way to capitalist farms with tractors, which in turn gave way to bullock cultivation and traditional Uttar Pradesh.

The north-south of the line from Tanakpur was continued south of Pilibhit for 55 miles or so till the R&K crossed over the O&R to terminate at Karuganj, with a spur (now used by all trains) to a platform alongside the broad gauge station at Shahjahanpur. Again the train had a YB Pacific and again it crossed the hot plains tinged with dead grass apart from irrigated plots and groves of dark green trees.

The train that came up from Pilibhit in the heat of the day first visited Shahjahanpur and then, after retracing its step for three miles, visited the alternative terminus of Karuganj from which it returned to Pilibhit in the evening. The spur to Shahjahanpur left the straight line as that was climbing its embankment towards the O & R bridge, and ran alongside the broad gauge – with the psychological satisfaction of a higher embankment – to a separate metre gauge station. Here the YB Pacific ran round and picked up a goods van or two while tickets were sold quite efficiently in the small red brick building. Many were for places well up the line though the diversion to Karuganj meant that it would be hours before the train was more than three miles north.

So back round the bend to Shahjahanpur Junction where the railway yard with its couple of loops and a triangle was laid on a rise of ground, among shade trees. It was pleasant enough but I’d rather not have spent a whole hour there. The loco was turned and switched the two vans to the other end of the train before it hauled us up and over the double track broad gauge, through a decrepit Muslim fringe of the town and to a cutved platform lying on the bank of a river of white sand. Here another hour was allowed, during which the YB switched its vans again. The brick-paved platform had some melon vendors on it, and the brick office had a booking clerk in it, kept busy by arriving passengers. These included one mild-faced old man whose card proclaimed him as an “English palmist and astrologer”. He enquired into astrological business prospects in Australia, then settled down to telling Hindi anecdotes that were quietly very humourous.

Since the train left Karuganj in the evening its run north was enjoyable – even the villagers found it so as they chatted away. Gradually their number was depleted, for at each station, people would stream away down the white cart roads, the dust of their passage remaining suspended in the still air. The astrologer alighted at the major intermediate stop of Bisalpur by which time it was dark. The electricity had failed also, so the chayya stall was making do with a weak kerosene flare and the melon seller squatting on the platform with half a candle. As we waited for the No. 139 up the electricity blinked on uncertainly. But there was no uncertainty about the headlight of the approaching train, the well-focussed headlight of a YB still miles away. The crew of our waiting train cut their turbo generator, and the decline of its whine was matched by the dimming of the cab and headlights it fed. The coming light grew slowly in intensity till it completely outshone the incandescent platform bulbs, turning everything it did not strike into deep shadow an everything it struck into intense headlight. Briefly it silhouetted the home signal that was lowered to greet it; then the climax of intensity, with the smokebox and cylinders of the stationary northbound YB outlined in backlight; then it all passed by along No. 2 road.

Travelling further north there was plenty of room for passengers to lie down, which was as well for the train was held up at all stations. It seemed that Pilibhit, already disorganised because its point-lock and walking-peon signalling system was being replaced by electricity and coloured lights, had not recovered from recent storms. However, when eventually it did admit our train there was one rewarding sight – that of a workman, sleeping like so many others in India on a square of cloth spread out under the platform awning, but its corner weighted down with a plastic telephone, all neatly wired up to the adjacent pole. Could an American businessman on tour have hoped for more?

A few hours west of Pilibhit lay Mailani Junction, a difficult place when the electricity failed in the middle of the night and the expresses called to discharge passengers bound for the early morning branch trains. All the platforms were covered with people, waiting. With neither light nor moon it was difficult to move about without kicking people, though they didn’t seem to mind very much, being half-stupid with night travel. Dawn showed them to be a rough lot, with a tendency to black waistcoats and guns. They took their places in the Gauri Phanta train, which set away eastwards towards Nepal with a 2-6-2 in charge.

In between came stony country with forest (the track ran down a wide swathe out straight); an expanse of white sand with an important river (the train crossed by a guarded road/rail bridge at a convenient constriction); an alluvial plain with large new farms, and the beginning of the Nepal border forest. This was country once famous for fever and big game. It had no roads, only forest tracks; no villages, only trading posts where few people lived. The first such was Dudwa Junction, where the branch trifurcated into three separate points of entry to Nepal. The station occupied a clearing with its long sidings, steam pumphouse, brick platform and small brick building. Its dung-covered forecourt was used as a cow yard and was churned by bullock carts bringing in timber. Opposite, in a temple enclosure, a brightly painted god leant back against a tree, the bird droppings were kept off him but not off his surroundings. Yet at the adjacent rough stalls of unpainted wood they served food of surprising goodness.

I only saw one of the branches – the Gauri Phanta – because of the attentions of the border guards, who saw fit to travel with me, pawing my passport. Yet it did not alter the fact that it was a beautiful run, a level track through a forest of tall, broad-leafed trees. At the intermediate stations the straight through track was used for timber loading and the train passed on the loop, at a grassy low-level platform. Apart from this the station clearing would be piled with logs. This was almost true even of Gauri Phanta, though the clearing was large enough for us to see the Himalayas blue to the north-east. The station was in the centre of the clearing with a row of stalls on one side – a tea and a tiffin bunk, a general store with all manner of goods on its back-wall shelves, including Gwalior biscuits.

The border inspector had a hut with low brick walls, a thatch roof and a view of the cart track that, wandering away through the tall grass, somewhere within the next mile entered Nepal. When I called to be inspected he was listening to the broadcast of Zakir Hussain take the Indian presidential oath in impeccable English. Somehow the transient nature of the place gave it the feel of frontier, of a country petering out into something else. And the man in front of me at the booking office was trying to buy an Indian ticket with heavy Nepali coins.

The morning train from Gauri Phanta – indeed its one daily train – connected at Dudwa for Mailani, and that train connected at Mailani for the end of the R & K at Bareilly, and that train connected at Bareilly for the north-west.