Chapter IV

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

From Bengal Towards Nagpur

5. Raipur and Dhamtari

Once a very sleepy place, Raipur now has pretensions, advertising itself as the Heart of the Ruhr of India. This is not true – this Ruhr would have to be defined in a pretty liberal sense to put Raipur anywhere but on the edge. Yet by the rule that, whenever a model town is built in India it develops an un-model alter ego down the road, Raipur has become an unregulated city that partners the cleanliness and pastel-shaded concrete of the company town at the new Bhilai steelworks twenty miles away. It is dusty and has wooden bazaars and mud hut slums – the usual features of North Indian town, especially one what has growed.

The Bhilai steelworks have brought increase to the railway installations at Raipur, too. All the way from Raipur to the steelworks gate there are new yards and duplicate tracks, a general tasseling of railway serving this large, Russian-aided works. I know, because one night I was travelling to Bhilai by a train whose first marked stop was Bhilai itself. I clambered out at the first stop alright, only to find that it was a railway workers’ halt several miles short of my destination. Trudging to Bhilai along the track, which a decade ago could have been no more than an unadorned main line over an unadorned red plain, I passed a loco depot and marshalling yard, then a flyover which began the second yard feeding into the steelworks. At the end of this, opposite the works gate, lay Bhilai Junction station, retaining its small stone building.

Across the yard was a further passenger platform, that for the Dalli Rajhara branch, which curved away round the left side of the steelworks, as against the main line’s going right. These two platforms were tied together across the gaggle of steelworks sidings by a footbridge , which was only used when there were trains blocking the direct way across the flat. In fact, trains seemed to be out of the way most of the time, for, considering their size, the installations at Bhilai were fairly quiet. The procession of trains past was discontinuous – maroon full-cab Alco diesels, grey long-hooded Alcos of the type now made in India, WG’s, WP’s on the expresses. Desultory shunting was carried on by demoted black WG’s and some remaining 2-8-0’s while a little Hitachi diesel occasionally darted out from its lair in the steelworks to capture a 55 ton capacity Indian Railway Standard coal hopper.

Built recently to bring ore to Bhilai from the nearby hills, the Dalli Rajhara branch operated more or less independently of the rest of the SER apart from its daily mixed. Leaving in the morning behind an altogether superior WG, polished in red-brown like a passenger engine, this train free-wheeled left and then right to dodge between the steelworks and the slag dump, which, with the works yet young, was spreading wide and black over a red lateritic waste. The ore exchange sidings at the other end of the works were within sight of the model town, so this was the main place for passenger traffic - brightly, roughly dressed tribespeople who could scarce be at home among the pastel pill-box houses visible over the plain.

There were no obstacles between Bhilai and Dalli Rajhara, and correspondingly no great scenery either. The line was measured by its crossing loops, each with an impressive array of semaphore signals all interlocked via a pair of cream stucco signal boxes. The shuttling ore trains were Garratt hauled, using machines displaced from the coalfields. These were blunt and rather old, yet, seeing one apply itself to starting a load of empties away up the grade towards the quarries stirred my mind to thinking of the Garratts that were the largest and newest steam engines of Australia.

Raipur station, what with the parcels piled on its platforms and the extra confusion of rebuilding, seemed uncomfortably inadequate, but one aspect of it had not been affected by the development of its town – its narrow gauge branch, which remained obscure and dustily wayward to the extent of an average train speed of nine mph and a maximum of around fifteen. Narrow gauge facilities at Raipur were minimal. A siding ran down the centre of a dirt road towards the broad gauge interchange, while the passenger station consisted of a platform, loop and engine spur, so that when one train was loading to leave and another arrived, this latter had perforce decant its passengers into the slush and worse that surrounded the loop.

Just before dawn the sky was colourless and more grey than orange. The crowd of dark, sturdy people waiting in front of the booking office had no wish to waste time by queueing, but as the window opened a constable came and enforced order. While these Dhamtari passengers were buying their tickets the sun rose in the eastern haze and shone flat into one side of the brown narrow gauge train waiting at its shelterless platform. The tribal people came to fill their train; people whose rough, dirty clothes of red, white and other colours primary were festooned with old coins; people whose little girls had fearless eyes. The railways were providing the largest engine on this line for this morning departure: in view of the fine performance by the class elsewhere, I am ashamed to admit it was one of my favourite CC Pacifics.

More or less at 6 a.m. the train left its platform, which pointed north-east, and made a right hand turn to run due east into the sun, thus exhausting a quarter of the total curvature of the line, for in 45 miles the curves amounted to about 180〫and always to the right at that. In the seamiest suburbs of Raipur, crossing a foetid creek, the engine still seemed undecided whether to give up or struggle on, and reached stalling speed before it jerked up its mind and set out on its unwilling way. There must indeed have been faster and more comfortable ways to Dhamtari, but the carriages were full, with some people standing and some sitting on the floor and with the doors swinging open, outwards.

This open plain of Chhattisgarh was compartmented into little fields for dry cultivation, and at the moment was lying fallow and grey apart from occasional isolated trees, each a twisted black trunk and a frizzled thicket of tiny blue-green leaves. There were low rises which sometimes made the CC snort out a clot of smoke in a sudden brief spasm of work. For the most part the progress of the train was as inexorable as that of the sun across the sky; as inevitable as the way the patch of hot, direct sunlight, admitted by the left-hand windows, withdrew across the passengers’ laps. One could imagine a bystander, standing back, looking at the train and thinking it still, then looking again and finding it had moved.

After an hour and a half the train had reached Abhanpur Junction, where there was a ten mile branch, and whose loop enclosed a platform of sorts. When it drew in the Dhamtari – Raipur train was already there, while a third train with an older 2-6-2 was stowed on the branch. Crowds surrounded the ricketty tables of vendors of sweetmeats and savoury mixtures, and dogs ate the crumbs that fell.

In the middle of this April day the sun was vertical over Dhamtari. There had been no rain for months; nothing to lay the dust in its long, narrow bazaar of cloth merchants and trinket shops; nothing to wash the facades of its moneylenders’ palaces. Around its station some acres of loose grit were rolling with logs brought in from distant forests. Having arrived at eleven, the small train at the platform was asleep while its crew sipped water in the low stone station buildings. Yet, in due course, the engine revived and, ignoring the triangle, crept back to Raipur tender first, hauling its train.