Chapter VI

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The Indian Midlands

1. Along The First Routes

The Central Railway is largely the successor to the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, inheriting a system based on Bombay and made up chiefly of long tentacular main lines. The Company’s first line had been from Bombay north-eastwards to strike the Calcutta –Delhi track of the East Indian Railway midway between the two – an arrangement that maintained equity between its Bombay – Calcutta and Bombay – Delhi passengers by enforcing an equal roundaboutness on both. But soon cutoff lines were built for both these routes. The GIP’s Nagpur branch connected with the BNR to become the shortest line from Bombay to Calcutta, while a south-north route was built direct to Delhi from the nearest point on the GIP. The Indian Midland Railway Company, which built this line, was very soon amalgamated with the GIP.

With reasonably direct services operating between Bombay and Delhi, the problem service became the Madras – Delhi, which was at that time obliged to deviate so as almost to touch Bombay. In building a shorter route, use was made of the first 186 miles of the Madras – Calcutta track, which ran due north from Madras, and of the whole of the Indian Midland coming south from Delhi. By 1929 two new connections had been built, one from the southern end of the Indian Midland to Nagpur, and the other linking two existing branches to provide a through route from Nagpur to Madras. Only then did Nagpur, the city at the geographical centre of the country, came to be also at the centre of the north-south, east-west cross of its main lines. Standing there, I propose to proceed north, towards the Indian Midland section.

It was not a good idea to try and travel on a Central Railway main line by local passenger train. Perhaps it was not the railway’s fault, for it was trying to carry heavy traffic on main lines that were all too often single track, but still its locals gave the worst service of any in India: infrequent, crowded and so normally late that even the timetables gave up any idea of trying to provide branch connections. Travelling on such a train corroded one’s soul till the tombstone shapes of the surveyor’s stones along the railway boundary became the imagined memorials of travellers died of impatience. Appropriately, they were painted the bright orange-red of martyrdom. All in all, when leaving Nagpur for north, it was better to take an express – one of the three daily on the Madras – Delhi run. Even then, ignoring minor halts and keeping time, the journey to Delhi took 24 hours.

Having crossed the last few miles of Deccan downs out from Nagpur, the expresses encountered rough hills; the same scarp that the narrow gauge climbed up to Chhindwara, though not so high here and less impressive. But the broad gauge did not fit intimately into the folds of the country; it cut and embanked. Around Amla (junction for Parasia) there was a plateau section, but soon the expresses descended into the Narbada valley, through country rough because its basalt had been faulted about with.

Itarsi, at the southern end of the Indian Midland and on the old GIP main line north-east from Bombay, should have been a grand junction but wasn’t, since all its trains were long-distance and worked straight through with no more than a brief halt. It was a junction that had happened when two lines, coming from afar and keeping their eyes on distant goals, had crossed; an incident in the far interior. And the Indian Midland’s distant goal was Delhi, to be reached by climbing the scarp on the northern bank of the Narbada, then rolling down a series of plateaus to its destination. But climbing this first scarp was a formidable proposition, for it was an unbroken line of gullied basalt cliffs with a fearful thorny scrub on its screes, a narrow band of country so impenetrable that it has formed the most persistent internal boundary in India. There are now two tracks, that for climbing trains being the newer, with the easier grade. In search of gentleness it wanders well away from its comrade, being up on embankments or deep down in cuttings with vertical walls of black rock.

Once on top of this ghat, the IMR wandered over the plateau, dodging residual hills and meandering a little on undulations. Falling slowly it reached Jhansi, beyond which the way was all single track, instead of patchily doubled. Northwards the residual hills became even more residual, and by Gwalior the trains were very close to the Ganges plain – with one more river to cross, the Chambal, which despite its off-season sluggishness has excavated a deep ditch through the unprotected layers of dust that form the plain of North India. I traversed this section by local train (only about an hour late), and among the hummocks and gullies of the badlands on the far bank we found a crossing loop. It was of a kind quite common in India – a long siding, being two dead ends connected to the main line by a central scissors crossover. We felt the urge to investigate, went in forwards, backed to the other dead end and then left the place without having met any other train, rather in the spirit of those ‘every inch of track’ tours that occurred in the last days of the Glasgow tramways.

I want to return to this part of the Indian Midland, for it gives access (connections would be too strong a word) to the narrow gauge systems of Gwalior and Dholpur. But the IMR had a couple of branches of its own running out from Jhansi, one north-east to Kanpur and the other east to a place called Manikpur on the old GIP main line. Because of these branches Jhansi was a major junction, with a large workshop, plenty of shunting in the yard and platforms that numbered up to eight, though three of these numbers were due to scissors crossovers. This would seem adequate to a total of 30 passenger services a day, but in fact Jhansi liked to hold trains up in its home signals. This was a measure of its general congestion, which was so bad that an engine might easily take an hour or two for the half-mile journey between loco depot and train. But maybe I still bear a grudge against Jhansi, for once I missed a connection there and had to wait from 0700 hours to 1800 hours, and Jhansi in May is hot. They even go to the length of putting brush screens in front of the refreshment room doors and keeping them wet, which produces a little coolness, but one couldn’t stay in the refreshment room all the time.

Local trains around Jhansi were mostly hauled by light Pacifics, the old variety (class XA) or the new kind, made in India, the WL. The XA looked just a little too short for its wheel arrangement and usually seemed to be leaking steam from the joints of the pipes under its boiler, thus adding to the white calcine deposits on its loose boiler lagging. Altogether the XA’s did not look robust, but they had strength beyond their appearance, proving fully equal to a timetable demanding them to haul 8 carriages down the 195 mile Manikpur branch in 9 hours twice a day. This country being sparsely populated, the train usually had plenty of room for passengers offering, be they villagers, artisans with their goods (including scooped-out wooden drum shells) or the men of the small towns (including one pair of youth singing ‘He is my everything, he is my all ……’ Christian missionaries have something to answer for.)

Though the middle section of the Manikpur line crossed a dry fringe of the Ganges plain, the two outer ends ran through hills, so that both up and down day trains would spend the evening among rock surfaces and water-collecting, cultivated hollows. Maybe a wind would stir the fine surface dust till the XA reduced speed for lack of visibility, yet such a storm would also bring a welcome coolness, even if the dampness in it was no more than a few spicules of rain tossing in the gusts of wind.

The Jhansi – Kanpur line was more straightforward. It struck out to the north-east, very soon passed the last steep-sided, residual ridges and reached the plains and so continued for 140 miles to the bank of the Ganges. This involved crossing the Jamuna, a perennial river which in dry season meandered on a wide flat between banks so deeply gullied that they extended to be a belt of castellated grey badlands several miles wide. Otherwise there was just the plain, monotonous miles of it; all left fallow in May. The fields were uniformly grey, while dust from the plain had turned the sky to grey till the horizon scarce marked any difference. Grey reflected to grey is an intensity of light almost like an Arctic white-out. And since the CR was the junior partner to the Northern at Kanpur Central, and because that station was congested, trains from Jhansi were liable to be left out in the grey indefinitely before being admitted.

Not quite half way from Jhansi to Kanpur lay Ait Junction, its site determined with a surveyor’s set square so as to make the Konch branch as short as possible. The shuttle train met all main line services, or rather ran to a timetable of its own that would have met all main line trains had they run to time, which they never did because of Jhansi and Kanpur Central. Thus, having reached Ait, the prospective Konch passenger waited as best as he could till one of the six daily trains, each consisting of a D/4 4-6-0, perhaps a goods van or two (in fact, I suspect they kept a van at Ait for the purpose of adding it to the train whenever they wanted it to look mixed) and three third class carriages. And so to Konch, the way dead flat and dead straight apart from a 90° curve at the beginning and a lesser one at the end. The speed limit was 30 kmph, and the trains were expected to cover the 14 km in exactly half an hour, which would call for fine judgement if the driver took all the figures seriously at once. In fact he didn’t; the D/4 jogged along, its smoke blowing steadily away at an angle, its cylinders hissing gently, till at Konch the brakes came on and the loco ran round to return tender first. Konch D/4’s had tender lights – or at least a big head-light casing with an incongruous naked bulb suspended underneath – and on a night trip back the screaming of the turbo-generator would be the loudest noise the train made.