Chapter V

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The Nagpur Narrow Gauge

3. North From Nagpur

At Nagpur the Bengal-Nagpur Railway was junior partner to a branch of the Great Indian Peninsular Company, so its narrow gauge was a junior partner twice removed. Thus, when the GIP built its imposing Nagpur station, it allowed the BNR to share the broad gauge platforms in front, but relegated the narrow gauge to an inconspicuous corner. It is the fate of narrow gauge lines to have uninspiring termini, with scarce a building to call their own; here the BNR lines had a small signalbox and two platform awnings.

Activity at Nagpur (n.g.) was fairly evenly spread through the day, which was as well, for the through trains shared the first mile of single track with empty stock and light engine workings to and from the yard. Things didn’t always go like clockwork either: I turned up early one morning and found that the overnight train from Nainpur had arrived an hour and a half late, thus delaying the empty stock working for the 0705 Khapa mixed. But the Khapa train set arrived in due course, drawn tender-first by its train engine, a post-Independence Pacific (ZP). The loco ran round, backed up, had its central meat-chopper coupler-screw rightened, and so away, curving under three separate lots of broad gauge, passing through the most noisome part of Nagpur at the cesspool time of morning.

Itwari, in the suburbs of Nagpur, had the unmistakeable gabled red brick station building of the BNR. Here lay the transfer sidings (including elevated transfer hoppers for manganese ores) and so here the ZP nosed off into the yard to pick up the goods part of its train. As it added the five empty ore hoppers it had selected, a broad gauge local paused at the platform on the other side of the station, half hidden by the vans on an intervening siding.

Once clear of the broad gauge, the train turned northwards passing one last outpost of Nagpur, the Khapri Kheda powerhouse, which was medium sized with four sheet metal chimneys. Half a dozen coal trains terminated here daily. Fifteen miles and five assorted halts north came Saoner Junction, where the ZP fastidiously remarshalled its train, reversing direction to traverse the Khapa branch. The result – engine (tender first), 7 carriages, 7 hoppers and van – hissed gently over the five miles of bunded fields of Khapa home signal. Here came a hot pause beside the earth cuttings and castlings of a traditional brickpits. As usual there were passengers for whom the home signal halt was more convenient than the platform; they set about walking away over the fields as the ZP moved on into the station and started shunting, exchanging empty hoppers for full. It left the shunt to the mine proper – a hill of magnesium ore half a mile beyond the station – till later, but made a trip round the triangle so as to return to Soaner tender first. Here it was to connect, with more or less time for grace, with diesel passenger trains going both north and south, so upon reaching the junction it stowed itself in the outermost siding.

A little knot of passengers was already waiting under the awning on the platform, sitting on boxes, trunks and the odd baggage trolley while gusts of superheated air blew dust and dirt off the tracks and on to them. The northbound train was due at 1300 hours, and there, indeed, the up home was off. We looked south, expecting the grey and red front of a diesel to appear between the sky and the earth – this hateful sky that was grey with haze and heat, this earth that had been burnt to an ashen, dusty fallow. But the home was not off to welcome our diesel: in the south we saw dark grey smoke teasing in the wind, and under the drift of smoke the black of a steam engine, and a bull’s eye on that black, the silver-frosted smokebox door of a BC Mikado. It had a payload of freight; occupied No. 2 road and took water.

Half an hour later the signal was again off, and we were hopefully looking south. But we saw black smoke such as came from no diesel. Instead a ZE simmered in with an empty coal train, stood on No. 1 road and took water. Obviously the passenger wasn’t coming for some time yet, so we waited and watched the two freights continue north, first the ZE and then the roadside goods.

It was nearly 1500 hours when the station gong assured us that the passenger train was indeed coming and that the lowered home signal was there to admit it. But was that not smoke drifting over the bleached dry grass? Aye, it was, and it was made by a ZE, but the train behind it was the long-expected passenger – a diesel had failed somewhere. We boarded the train thankfully, and soon were away, quitting the Nagpur plain for a land of rocky residual hills; the grey for the bleached reds and oranges.

Having a steam engine which needed to take water at intervals prolonged some of our station stops, but the calm of late afternoon that had succeeded the wind of midday was so pleasant that nobody complained. Instead we promenaded on the cinder platforms; ordinary passengers, mostly wiry little men in cloth caps, and official passengers, like the smiling policeman whose duty it was to watch out for sacks of grain being transported contrary to government order (he was a good sack-spotter; the ruffled villager whose sack had been spotted would curse and untie the purse corner of his dhoti, and O how happy the policeman smiled!) And there were extraordinary passengers, like Tiger Man. This one-man circus was dressed in brief shorts and greasepaint, his stripes marked out and dusted with flecks of silver. His entourage included a drummer or two, and a wife dressed in quite a good sari. When the train was held up at Chhindwara home signal, his group walked ahead and so when we mere passengers reached the station forecourt, he was already there, further disguised by a headdress, lurching and making sallies into the crowd as the drums beat faster and faster.

But that was several hours ahead. To reach Chhindwara we had to climb a ghat section, which started at 1/80, sidling across a hillside whose rockiness was softened neither by its intertwined bush-thickets nor by their draped leaves. But some of the timber amongst this was worth extracting; the line approached Bhimalgondi up a gully whose sandy bed was used as a track by bullock carts carrying logs to the siding. And under a tree below the home signal a small concrete platform and a stone anointed red reminded the traveller of his country and its gods.

Above Bhimalgondi the ghat continued along the shaded, eastern side of a ridge, sometimes with dark cliffs above and always with a wide, confused valley below where various streams had cut various gullies and left occasional shoulders of land flat enough for cultivation. The ZE climbed the sweeping turns of the railway sidling with unfaltering beat, its coupling rods circling rhythmically, its counterweights seeming almost to walk on the edge of the ballast. Mostly the train was in shade, but sometimes it was heading into a red sun setting over a saddle in the ridge, and sometimes out of it, always curving, always steady, summit-bound. A creek had cut a notch into the edge of the plateau above, and through this the train climbed, past a basalt cliff where there was a waterfall after rain and onto open uplands nearly 2000 feet above the sea and a thousand feet above Nagpur. The small basalt building of the summit station contrived to look bleak and highland despite the balmy air. For another two hours we crossed the plateau, curving on generally rising grades till the final curves into Chhindwara. A red light on a horizontal arm confirmed the rule that late trains were held up further at the home signals of junctions; it was not till 2000 hours that we were admitted. Operating on a diesel schedule, the ZE had gained time on the road that it had lost at stops.