Chapter X

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969


1. The Ex-Mysore State Metre Gauge Lines

The Maharajah of Mysore originally went into the railway business by building lines for the Southern Mahratta company to operate. Upon the amalgamation of this company with the Madras Railway, he decided to work the majority of his own lines himself. So began the Mysore State Railway, consisting of the narrow gauge Kolar District railway and, on metre gauge, a main line from Bangalore to Mysore, two other lines out of Mysore and a couple of isolated branches from the Bangalore – Poona main line. The longer of these two, the Birur – Talguppa, ran a hundred miles north west from its junction with the Madras and Southern Mahratta to its terminus just back of the Western Ghats. It was here that I first encountered the Mysore Railway.

This Talguppa branch had a curiously syncopated train service – two trains leaving the junction two hours apart in the very early morning, and only one train for the rest of the day. The reason for this was that the trains had to fit in with main line connections, which in turn were irregularly spaced. The result was that no train covered the entire branch in daylight. The best bet was the 0445 from Talguppa. But the bus I had taken from the rail-less coast dropped me at a town, Sagar-Jambagaru, ten miles short of the terminus. I therefore went to its station to catch the late evening passenger out to Talguppa. When I arrived, No. 299 up Birur passenger, containing mainly of through carriages for Bangalore and Mysore, was standing half-unlit beside the half-empty concrete platform, its smallish 4-6-0 hissing in the dark beyond the furthest neon platform light. At departure time it slid away with minimal formalities – one stroke of the gong, one blast of the whistle – so as not to disturb the several people sleeping on the platform.

After half an hour a goods arrived from Talguppa, whistling full-bloodedly but its headlight no more than a soft red glow, as of a will o’ the wisp of a train: the loco was running tender first, without any light on its tender but with the headlight on its smokebox shining strongly against the red back wall of the first goods van. This engine – an ex-Mysore state 4-8-0 again – shunted out in the dark of the station yard with its headlight still on, and was being turned when my train arrived from Birur. Its engine was also turned, and so set out tender first, without headlight but seeming not to notice the handicap. It sped across moonlit paddy fields glinting with fireflies to such effect that we reached Talguppa 35 minutes early. This is quite a lot of time to make up in ten miles, and says something for the size of Indian recovery allowances.

The train spent the night on Talguppa platform; a few hardy passengers came to board it but it was still mostly empty when, in the full darkness between moonset and dawn, it slipped away. Only the sleepy ASM and a pointsman with flag seemed to notice. It was in charge of a 4-6-0 for the sixty miles to Shimoga Town; an engine which coughed its ragged beat up the fluctuating gentle grades and hissed round the frequent curves, past paddy fields and contrasting rough hills of bush. The dark was followed by a grey clouded dawn, and this by blue sky and cumulus; dark and light country, dark and light weather, up and down grades, left and right curves – and little stations whose lack of insistence on any more than a pair of lower quadrant home signals was almost Australian.

Traffic was heavier east of Shimoga Town, so this was a sensible place to put the locomotive depot. Its rather small shed was decorated with a cutout of a YP, but there were no YP’s visible; instead, the depot had YB Pacifics and YD Mikados, the immediate predecessors of the post-war standard classes, as well as 4-6-0’s of two wheel sizes and a 2-6-2T for shunting. Soon a YB was at the front of the train and a lot more people were inside it – and even more well-wishers remained on the platform, restrained by pompous looking policemen and waved over by strings of paper political flags. The YB pulled away at the second gong, hissing as YB’s do. It visited two other sorts of Shimoga, Shimoga unqualified which was a mere halt and Shimoga Bidare, which was on top of a swelling hill terraced into paddy fields. Bhadravati, which followed, was the site of the Mysore State Charcoal Ironworks, an enterprise built up under the Maharajahs and boasting a considerable internal railway, worked partly by castoff engines from the Maharajah’s public railway.

Approaching Birur the country rapidly deteriorated from the forest and paddy of land near the ghats to the sand and dry granite hills of interior Mysore. Birur station, on a plain open to a wind which was presently blowing cinders from the running shed across the platforms, echoed the change. There was a 30 mile gap between this junction and the recommencement of the Mysore State Railway at Arsikere, a gap that had to be covered on the Poona – Bangalore Express. This train, when it turned up an hour late, was hauled by a limping elephant of a YG; accordingly we paid express rates to be taken at sub-passenger speed and to reach Arsikere just after the Mysore connection had left. This condemned us to a night in Arsikere.

Being a hundred miles from Bangalore on the main line, Arsikere was a major engine-changing point as well as a junction and a good place for sitting watching the little shunting 0-6-0’s – such strangely balanced machines with so many external cranks and rods. In fact the wait was quite pleasant till, contrary to the reputation of Arsikere as a dry place, and in compensation for the lack of water in the taps, it started to rain heavily. Even under the awnings the platforms were wet and huddling with people waiting for the night express. I decided to spend the night in the upper class waiting room, but what with bugs in the woodwork, a leaking roof and a blocked toilet out the back it was a miserable place. I remember getting fed up and staggering out onto the platform, peering down the yard where the drumming rain confused and reflected the signal lamps till the eastern row of departure homes was blurred red along the horizon like a false dawn. And mercifully the train for Mysore was now drawn up at platform three, accumulating through coaches from Bangalore and Hubli and Talguppa. A little after 3 a.m. with a YP in front and Manning on a luggage rack, this train set out.

When it was light and I had descended from the rack we were steaming through bedraggled country dripping and misty from a night of downpour, yet country not grassy and sweet but lateritic and gravelly with a sheen of wetness over its bare surface. The line curved around and among the hills, stopping at small platforms but otherwise keeping the pace steady, up and down and mostly up as we approached the plateau town of Mysore. As entered by the railway this city didn’t have much outskirts, so suddenly we found ourselves among the sidings and then docked at platform two.

This Mysore station, though neatly built as befitted the capital of a middle-sized railway, must have been a fearful place to work, for it was restricted to a couple of square furlongs of land on a shoulder above the town. The dead-end sidings of the goods yard were embanked over the side of the hill; the shunting neck that served them, in trying to keep level, interfered with the main lines from Arsikere and Bangalore as they climbed into the yard. Here the collection of double slips and general junctioning pointwork was a signalman’s horror. But the stuccoed station building presiding over the short, clean platforms was above all this confusion, while they had tried to make the place look modern with electric signal lights.

The main line from Bangalore continued another 38 miles south to Chamarajanagar, a line run by YL class 2-6-2’s as already encountered in Kumaon. I selected an old carriage with longitudinal seats and later regretted it, for the rain started again, dropped on to my seat and made a pool which coursed up and down with acc- and decelerations.

This Chamarajanagar train, starting from a standstill, had to thread some sharp crossovers onto a 1/85 grade. In such circumstances a small 2-6-2 with six carriages could accomplish no more than walking pace and a lot of noise, but after a quarter of a mile, there came a downhill stretch past some old Mysore state offices with flamboyant art-nouveau iron roofs. Thus out onto the downs of the plateau, with a few hills around but generally gentler slopes than on the other side of the town. Near the terminus the hills were blocked from view by swirls of rain, each drop a liquid hammer pounding the bare earth and eroding it. Because of this rain I did not go in search of the temple that is supposed to be worth seeing at Chamarajanagar, but snoozed for three hours in the carriages till the train went back to Mysore, reaching there in time to connect with the overnight slow passenger to Bangalore but too late to buy anything more than leftovers for dinner.

The 88 miles from Mysore to Bangalore were the Mysore State Main line, now served by two expresses and five ordinary passengers daily, with the fastest express time of over four hours. As they marched within Mysore station yard and first drifted downgrade, the going was easy for the YL’s that hauled the less important passenger trains until after the line crossed river Cauvery and brached the island-fort of Srirangapatnam. On the ensuing sustained 1/70 the YL’s worked hard, their imperfect combustion producing continuous showers of black grit. So up into the granite hills round Bangalore, and so up past the textile mills into that ten-acre plot of railed congestion, Bangalore City station.