Chapter VII

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

Rohilkhand and Kumaon

1. Towards Rohilkhand and Kumaon: Agra, Tundla, Etah and Aligarh

Something like 30% of the railway mileage of India lies on the northern plains, and something like 40% is metre gauge. So far I have neglected both, but propose to make amends by turning up Moradabad, and starting out over the former Rohilkhand and Kumaon Railway. From Sirmuttra to Moradabad is some step, and involves troublesome cross-country travel, with change of trains at Dholpur, Agra Cantonment, Tundla, Aligarh and Chandausi. Here are a couple of incidental notes to ease the way.

Firstly, Agra. The city of the Taj Mahal has always had complicated railway arrangements, in that the three old companies serving Delhi also looked in here, a complexity preserved in that the GIP had been succeeded by the Central, the Bombay, Baroda and Central India by the Western Railway, and the East Indian by the Northern. The Northern branch divides on the east bank of the Jamuna River, crossing the river by two separate bridges, one connected to the Central and the other to the Western. In addition, a Western Railway metre gauge line starts with transfer sidings on the east bank, crosses the river dual gauge and leaves towards Jaipur, with a junction a few miles out for the North-Eastern. All this confusion is reflected in Agra’s largest, oldest station, Fort, where separate timetable boards are posted for NR, WR (bg), WR (mg), NER and even CR, for a couple of miles down the track a curve gives access to the CR station of Agra (Cantonment.).

The layout at Fort was constructed to a series of cramped loops burgeoning between the Jama Masjid and the single track Jamuna bridge. The broad gauge lines ran through the old train shed, while the metre gauge kept itself separate round the back. Under the sheds there was shade, despite the gaps in the roof, and in that darkness the eye could wander among the patterns of the silver girders overhead, and along the footbridge that was reached by worn sandstone steps. The trains were best watched from the west end of the shed, for during lulls in activity one could look at Jama Masjid, wondering whether its diagonally striped onion domes and the tenpin skittles that marched above its side walls really were Too Much. In the morning, not too early, there would be the WR broad gauge departure to watch – WP or WG hauled, but with inimitable compartment coaches and a 4-6-0 attached tender first to its van, returning to the loco depot one stop down the line. There would be Pacifics on metre gauge, representing both the lines of the Ganges valley and of the desert of Rajasthan. And there would be the NR train for Kanpur on the old EIR main line, arriving from Cantonment behind a Canadian Mikado, waiting half an hour, then leaving to cross the river some miles of plain, joining the main line at Tundla.

So, secondly, Tundla. With its one platform under a dark train shed, its additional island under a double cantilever shelter, its deep, dim-ceilinged offices whose back wall was windowless, being the side of the loco shed, this was a junction in the old British style. I rather expected to see 0-6-0’s waddling round with rakes of four wheel trucks, but no longer. While crows perched on soot-encrusted wires and brackets below the station roof and monkeys did gymnastics on the carriage-watering pipes, the expresses came through (WP or red GM diesel) and the auto-coupled freights (WG or red diesel). But when the passenger train arrived from Etah, it was drawn by a 2-8-0 which was at least middling elderly. For the afternoon trip another 2-8-0 was supplied, a black engine with the neat hour-glass front end of British India outlined in silver. Hauling five cars, she set out along the main line, diverged at Barhan and continued to Etah while the plain shimmered with heat and a cruel wind blew dust into the carriages.

The peculiar fact about the Etah branch was its recent construction – to pioneer standards. Its light, unballasted track ran on a low embankment already deteriorating by tunnel erosion; its sidings had switchstands rather than orthodox British points; its stations had neat square buildings and stands for kerosene platform lamps that tried to look modern; its single telegraph wire was strung between white insulators each capping a galvanised pipe pole. And the traffic was light: not much goods and not many people. The long white roads leading from the stations were little used; the villages kept to themselves, each built on a mound of past generation of itself and hidden by trees. One wondered why the line was built.

For all the cross winds and monotonous scenery, travelling back from Etah in the evening was to be enjoyed. Listening to the 2-8-0 running tender first – the insistent, alternate hissing of it cylinders, the background of hisses and murmurs and the chatter of exhaust, muted as of something deep down within. The light, second hand rails protested at being passed over even at this 20 mph. After sunset, the light on the tender proved to be no searchlight, but the whistle atop the firebox proved that it could warn amply; it had a pulsating screech, a single note with a pea in it.

Thirdly, Aligarh at midnight. No. 355 passenger, wretched train that it was, spent well over one hour at Aligarh, sitting at one face of the island platform. Even at 2300 hours the platform was lit with neon tubes and noisy with vendors, though the passengers took little notice. Yawning, they stretched themselves along the seats, leaving latecomers to attack where they could. But just once something happened, all inside ten minutes. A Canadian Mikado backed into the carriage set that was waiting across the island platform, and paused while the carriage lights were turned on, its own turbo generator working so that light streamed from its headlight and acted sideways against the vendors further up the platform. But, shielding one’s eye against this, one saw a small oil lamp of about one candlepower glittering on the buffer beam, while in the cab there was a faint green glow – the crew had their lamp ready to reply to the right of way from the guard. This came; the driver pulled the cord of the loud chord whistle and changed the valve gear with a pop before easing on steam; the fireman leant from the red brown cab, his red shirt lit by the fire his offsider was tending, wobbling the green lamp for the guard to see. That train was due in Delhi; No. 355 was due at Bareilly at 0545, and set out after midnight, crossing the Ganges in the wee small hours – but still there were passengers awake to mumble greetings to the gods and, like one young man, sheepishly to throw some small change into the darkness.