Chapter IV

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

From Bengal Towards Nagpur

4. Raurkela and the Eastern Ghats

Once a day a passenger train – three cars and a WG – rolled down the hill from Hatia to Raurkela, down a new railway built with high earthworks; a scenic way through bare hills that shed the monsoon rain in flash floods. At one or two of the frequent, fully-equipped crossing stations, it would cross a pair of grey diesels doubleheading on a long mineral train, then finally it would join the SER main line by flyover – for its branch was lavishly equipped – and terminate at this new steelworks city.

The SER is rather proud that all five Indian steelworks are connected to it, three of them lying on the Howrah – Nagpur main line. The two outer of these, Raurkela and Bhilai, are also connected southwards to the port of Vishakapatnam (Waltair) by lines which leave the east-west main at Jharsaguda and Raipur respectively, joining at Titlagarh. The Raipur route dates from the thirties when the BNR first developed Vizag harbour, the connection towards Raurkela being added in 1963. Both these lines carry heavy traffic in ore and coal and steel; great country for the chattering Alco diesels. The passenger services are less important – two trains daily from Waltair to Raipur, and one on the Raurkela – Titlagarh line, with an express bi-weekly.

Raurkela has quite a busy station – one that has come up from being a nowhere halt in the forties to need a new building in the fifties and another in the sixties. Accordingly, when I turned up to catch the Titlagarh Passenger one morning, the No.1 platform was piled with builders’ sand. The main line through was being electrified with the new standard of 25 kV, single phase 50 cycles AC, to a design by a consortium of the major European electrical companies. The locomotives provided were decidedly Swiss in appearance, but there were as yet few to replace steam, so the WG’s and the WP’s were around in plenty. One of the former appeared with the Titlagarh train set, docking after departure time and leaving half an hour late, which did not matter for this was allowed for in the recovery time. In addition, the schedule permitted a leisurely jaunt 62 miles west along the main line to the junction, Jharsaguda, specially since, with double track, there no danger of crossing delays. The line was ballasted with a light coloured stone that fitted well into the general colour scheme of the country, which was broken but not hilly, bleached but not grey; a land that looked its best, but felt its worst, under the hurried clouds of the monsoon.

Unlike Raurkela, Jharsaguda was an original BNR junction, for the first thirty miles of the line to Titlagarh was an old branch. In a way the branch remained, in the form of a local service hauled by a 2-6-0, on which the through services were superimposed, changing a minor line into a major through route – though the short lengths of the old rail were still there in places, with speed limits as the train clunked along.

But this was a special day on the line, for the President of India was coming to look at a dam thirty miles down the track, and people were going to look at him. Hence the festive atmosphere, expressed by frequent pullings of the alarm chain, sometimes to facilitate ticketless travel and sometimes just for fun. At the station before the dam the crush reached its maximum, with men scrambling through the windows till no more could be packed in. The train then freewheeled heavily across rough slopes to the Mahanadi bridge, the dhotis and shirts of the young men clinging to its outside streaming in the wind. Once across the river bed, which was as abrasive a bed of jagged rock as imaginable, the alarm chain caused a stop and the crowd set out to walk upstream to the dam.

For the rest of the day the people opposite in the compartment were a family of Bengalis, for such ran the administration and the railways in this tribal back-block country. With the coming of well irrigation and prosperity, scraggly concrete townships were accumulating round the stations, bridgeheads of modern commerce in a country that had not known it before.

Titlagarh, station for 35 years and junction for five, had grown a small railway colony on one side of the long loops of its marshalling yard, and a bazaar on the other, while red brick buildings straggled down the centre of the platform, just as they did at BNR stations thirty years older. My southbound connection from Raipur came at midnight, stirring the villagers who had been patiently squatting on the platform among their baskets, bound for their homes in the sparsely-inhabited hill country of the Eastern Ghats. Crossing these hills the line climbed a couple of thousand feet, so maybe it was as well to travel by night, when there was no scenery to distract one from the even bark of the WP up front. But the night was too cold to keep the window open, and in any case, even if sitting up, one should not stay awake all night.

By the time of dawn the train had descended from the hills and was not very far from the East Coast main line, which it was to join at Vizianagaram, near Waltair. About it sugar cane was growing on flats surrounded by sharp, steep hills. Some of this land had composed Bobbili, a native state famous for its cricketing maharajah, who had left his mark on his state – near Bobbili station there were arches over straggling white cart tracks and, now in the middle of a field of sugar-cane, a rectangular pillared palace topped with three meringue-dollop domes. But Bobbili station was also a junction, with a branch train that made the ten mile trip to Salur four times a day, connecting with all main line services. Three cars and a Consolidation, it didn’t fuss, but traversed its branch competently, terminating on the outskirts of the town, so that all the ticket collector could point out was ‘There is the road’.

But all this is taking me out of course, and so back to Bobbili and back to Titlagarh and on to Raipur, on the daylight train much used by villagers with great baskets of vegetables and sacks of grain. Fighting for position, these people (mainly women) would raise quite a dust in the compartment at each station, but they would settle on the floor if they did not get a seat, and pleasantness could continue till the next stop, except when we had a visit from the Travelling Ticket Examiner. He would snarl and perhaps accept little quantities of bakshish in lieu of tickets. In fact, he operated rather like the conductor on the New England trolley trains – a nickel every time he came round.

The climb back into the Eastern Ghats was in two stages with an intervening stretch on an elevated plain, which had much the same sugar cane and steep bordering hills as the plain of Bobbili. North of this, however, the track entered the forest, where there were so few villages that a whole string of stations resorted to names ending in ‘Road.’ Each had two signal boxes, both of them larger than the station office, and recently renamed ‘East’ and ‘West’ instead of the former compass-correct ‘South’ and ‘North’. It may be that friction between North and South India has become such that these loaded words were no longer suitable for signal box names, or may be just that the SER, being predominantly east-west, would like to think of itself as completely so.

This forest took the greater part of the day to cross, extending past Titlagarh and almost to the main line junction at Raipur. But just before this the train entered a new kind of country, the plain called Chhattisgarh, which was a grey plain marooned among the hills of Central India.