Chapter IV

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

From Bengal Towards Nagpur

3. Ranchi

Once upon a time Ranchi was a quiet summer resort; an intermediate station on a narrow gauge line 120 miles long, running from Purulia on the plains, westwards up the hill to Ranchi and then on to Lohardaga. This railway first became busy when an aluminium smelter was built at Muri, at the foot of the ranges; it was used to bring bauxite down from Lohardaga. Then industry came to Ranchi, and this overloaded the narrow gauge, so two broad gauge lines were built, one by a new route from Rourkela in the south and the other from Gomoh. This latter replaced the middle part of the narrow gauge, leaving it to operate as two remnants, Purulia - Kotshila in the plains and Ranchi - Lohardaga in the uplands. Since Kotshila was no more than the point at which the broad gauge line, swinging in from the north, encountered and replaced the old narrow gauge route, it was a junction without town, village or other source of traffic. It was not even much use as a junction, for the 2’ 6” trains did not connect with the broad gauge; altogether life on the Purulia – Kotshila section must have been rather quiet.

I saw the country around Kotshila just as its annual draught was breaking, during which brief interval its gravelly surface was soaking wet but had not had the time to clothe itself in plants, so that the plains were bare like the sugar-loaf mountains above them, and all shone with reflected light. The alumina works at Muri itself was disappointingly like a cement works in appearance, but the climb to Ranchi, built on a new location with even grades and heavy earthworks, was impressive enough, leading as it did into bold granite hills whose scrub was pleasingly green, with an undertone of brown. Such a sustained climb is in India called a ghat section – something more than a mere bank or gradient. The only similar term I can recall in anybody else’s railway vocabulary is the Queensland use of the word ‘range’.

Ranchi is a split town. Its undulating site is shared by the old hill resort and the new industrial satellite of pink, pill-box flats. The split is reflected in its having two stations, Ranchi, with its public goods yard and the terminus of the narrow-gauge extension, and Hatia, round the corner, the terminus for b.g. passenger services. The two stations looked and felt different. Ranchi had, like its town, been there in the years before broad gauge, and so its unplanned buildings were low and small, while Hatia, the upstart, had a long, wide marshalling yard laid in heavy rail and an island platform whose shelters were no protection against the upland wind when it came horizontally and brought rain with it.

The 2’ 6” gauge extension ran for 43 miles east of Ranchi and a busy line it was, for, in addition to the two daily passengers, two or three doubleheaders brought bauxite from the arial ropeway terminus at Lohardaga to the transfer bins at Ranchi. Yet, despite the loads hauled, the line was worked with the older generation of BNR motive power – say two Pacific and nine Mikados. Leaving Ranchi after the night services from Lohardaga and Howrah had arrived, the morning narrow-gauge passenger was a neat train whose CC 4-6-2 wore low and rather rakish smoke deflectors. She deserved them; the CC’s are the speedsters of the narrow gauge and, rollicking down the grade towards Ranchi, regularly reached their 60 km.p.h., safe-guarded by vacuum brakes. Climbing this 1/100 was a different matter, though; it required sustained effort, and resulted in a long station halt at Piska. I might as well inflict such a stop also, especially since Piska was typical of the stations on the line and its adornments of all India.

Consider, then, Piska; location ten miles from Ranchi; crossing loop and passenger station for a village a mile or two away. The low level platform was of red ironstone pebbles cleaned and raked by overnight storms. A low cutting behind it receded to accommodate the Greek cross of the station building, whose brick walls, duly colour-washed red, were sheltered by a verandah held up by old rail posts painted maroon, and topped with a tile roof. The round-bottomed fire buckets hanging in a row beside the buildings were also red, while the ‘No Admission’ and ‘Nearest Medical Aid ….’ notices by the door, in English repeated in Hindi, were painted red on white. There were also blue and white notices – “Complaint book available with the A.S.M. on duty.’ and the list of train arrivals and departures. Then grey – two wooden benches, the window frames and the door. And black and white paper – the timetable pasted by the medical notice. And black – two multiple-lens lamps turned towards the wall by the door, and a couple of spare burners besides. And unpainted – a spare wire hoop for holding tokens hanging from a nail, and the bit of old rail that served as the station gong hanging from the verandah. There was of course a man clothed in rough blue drill who controlled the platform, waving red or green flags, and hitting the gong. He stood ready by the signal-lever stand, which had been built out of old rails and painted red. And the Guard and the Travelling Ticket Examiner and the Assistant Station Master stood round in their white uniforms, chatting. Asked the reason for the delay, the guard, a short, round Sikh with grey whiskers, replied, “Making steam, making steam!”

But though the train made long station stops, it cooked enough steam to speed between them. The line was suitable for such treatment; its well-fettled track crossed an undulating plateau, easy as to curves and grades. Here the terraced fields cascaded from the summits of little hills, summits sometimes of granite and sometime a mound of fossil ironstone; like the nests built by the Australian bull ant, though to keep the scale the ants would have had to be the size of rabbits. The fields depended on the rain for their irrigation, though sometimes the upper fields were watered from shallow wells, in which case the forest of lifting poles reminded one of the ricketty derricks of an early American oilfield. Can one speak of a waterfield?

Midway, at a water stop, the passenger crossed a loaded bauxite train – two Mikados, 19 bogie hoppers and a couple of other waggons, a train load not far short of 500 tons. Many more hoppers awaited loading at Lohardaga terminus. Here, during a wait of an hour, the train lost its passengers only to replace them – tribal people mostly – though there was a couple of young gentlemen who giggled and made love to one another for the whole of the ride back to Ranchi.