Chapter VIII

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The North West

1. Saharanpur – Ambala

There is a railway equivalent of that Grand Trunk Road that ran in Kipling’s time, and still runs, from Calcutta to the Frontier. It can be recognised as the East Indian main line leaving Calcutta for Delhi, and again in the former North Western main line as it runs east-west through the Punjab within sight of the Himalayas. The only trouble with these identifications is that the old NW main line is a straight-on continuation of the Oudh and Rohilkhand route through Uttar Pradesh, and is connected to Delhi by a series of chords. The changeover from O & R to NWR was at Saharanpur, a junction for Delhi. West from here the main line extends, beautifully double-tracked, till just beyond Amritsar it is rudely cut off by the Pakistan frontier – for Pakistan inherited the greater part of the former British NWR, leaving a rump to be incorporated in the Northern Railway of India.

Saharanpur station was built by the NWR, and was typical of its major stations – they had something of the Grand Trunk quality also found on the East Indian. The train shed, long heavily arched and stuccoed, had a central portal where the notices were in English for First Class people, while the open extension at one side had multiple booking windows and notices in Hindi for Third Class. The platforms extended out of the train shed, with tea stalls and piles of fruit baskets and people. Over the old yard lay the ex-NWR loco shed, steaming with all manner of good things, like old 0-6-0’s for shunting and perhaps a WG with two old longitudinal-seat third class bogies on the workmen’s local services to the new yard at the O & R loco shed a mile west. And there was one other good thing – abutting at right angles onto the further side wall of the loco shed was the northern terminal of the Delhi Shahdara – Saharanpur Light Railway.

The SSLR was a Martin Burn line like the Howrah Maidan system, but laid to 2’ 6” gauge. Like the Howrah lines it had Upper and Lower class bogie coaches, some of them capable of either designation by sliding a panel, and again as at Howrah, the true upper class was the carriage roof – though one friend of mine, caught up there by a 40 mph dust storm, was hard put to hold on. The trains were hauled at their steady 17 mph by 0-6-2, 0-6-4 and 2-6-4 tank engines, mostly Hunslets and black like the goods waggons, which in their turn had impressive Metropolitan Carriage and Waggon Builder’s plates, and were used mainly for sugar cane. There was also a little bogie railcar with an underfloor engine that strained and spouted blue smoke as it drew a couple of ordinary carriages as trailers. The other peculiarities of the SSLR were in its tickets (half-Edmondson or double-Ultimate) and its Shahdara terminus, which looked like a cinema from the outside. The sedate monotony of it can be illustrated from its habit of numbering everything of importance en route: just out of Saharanpur the trains passed kilometer post no. 149, station no. 26, curve no. 20 and culvert no. 400. There wasn’t any necessity to number gradients for there weren’t any.

After visiting the SSLR it was a delight to encounter the main line west of Saharanpur, and to find the evening Ambala local hauled by a 4-4-2, a magnificent machine if ever there was. Nearly all the platforms were on refuge loops but this loco, with her Anglo-Indian driver, would blast away and over the turnout onto the main line without slackening her acceleration. And gradually the Himalayas slipped from blue-brown haziness into darkness and the roadside sugar mills and townships put on a decoration of blue mercury lights.

Ambala Cantonment was a station very similar to Saharanpur - the old train shed was still there, surrounded by platform extensions and bays. Counting originations and terminations, Ambala had 34 trains each way daily, yet generally things seemed to be done on time, a much better performance than at, say, Jhansi or Kanpur, even though these latter looked less confused. Ambala had a line south to Delhi and north to the foot of the Himalayas at Kalka, and also originated the branch trains to Nangal Dam and Bhatinda. Because of its importance to the British the Kalka line was classified as Main; but because its last few miles climbed at 1/40 it also had chargeable kilometers rather shorter than actual. Every morning three expresses from different parts of North India left Ambala for Kalka, pausing at the bleak, windy platform that is such an insult to le Corbusier’s Chandigarh before storming the grade with at least two Mikados. Before diesels took over the Kalka Mail, there would be three 2-8-2’s on a 14-coach train – a brave sight; black engines, brown train and dun hills with a fair chance of a dust storm blowing.