Chapter X

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969


4. Bangalore - Salem

Indian railway accountants may occasionally talk of closing lines, but there is also talk, in at least equal proportions, about building new ones, and sometimes the talk becomes reality. Some of the new lines opened in the decade after Independence were just branches, but there was also a new main line to Assam, where the system had been disorganised by the creation of Pakistan. More recently building has concentrated on cross-country links that were somehow left out of the British scheme, along with lines associated with mineral development and a few with military strategy. Gauge conversion has also resulted in a number of lines built as new. Altogether there has been enough activity to supply the patrons of India’s numerous cinemas with several railway opening newsreels a year, in appearance the same newsreel, with decorated locomotive breaking ribbon, some speeches and a couple of fill-in shots of moving coupling rods.

One such occasion, early in 1969, commemorated the opening of the 145-mile metre gauge line from Bangalore to Salem via Hosur and Dharmapuri, so connecting the Mysore/Southern Mahratta metre gauge with the South Indian Railway system. This line admittedly had a partial antecedent – the South Indian’s former Morappur – Dharmapuri – Hosur narrow gauge, which was scrapped during the second world war along with the two other South Indian narrow gauge lines. Though the memory of this line might have contributed to the building of its replacement, the Bangalore – Salem link would scarce have been built had it not been useful for through freight traffic. Its timetable now provides for diesel haulage on the through goods trains, along with a daily through passenger train and locals at each end of the track. As is characteristic of published Indian timetables, this one, if taken seriously by all concerned, would result in as many cornfield meets as there are train crossings; but this is only a result of liberal recovery time allowance. Even on such a new line there is no need for extreme punctuality.

The daily through passenger train left Bangalore City at 7.35 a.m., consisting of that inevitable YP and four carriages. Two such train sets were required to work the services: it was appropriate that both had two relatively new steel-sheathed carriages and two old wooden ones, the latter being drawn in one case from South Indian stock with its curved matchboard sides and in the other from the straight-sides carriages of Mysore. This morning it was the set with the South Indian carriages that waited at the main metre gauge platform at Bangalore City, attracting rather few passengers. The new railway was evidently not competing very strongly with the older busses, perhaps because of its time-wasting method of leaving Bangalore by way of a semi-circle round the city’s northern suburbs. Waiting to leave for the south-east, our YP was pointed north. Ahead two tracks fell away between the black, corrugated iron metre-gauge loco shed and the dirty whitewashed parcels shed; they looked like wayward shunting necks but a pair of colour light departure homes gave them away as the mainline, or rather, two parallel token-worked single tracks. Of the two we took the eastern, which from a point half a mile out ran third-rail on top of the Kolar District narrow gauge, and so climbed to Yesvantpur, the windy hilltop site of the new metre gauge marshalling yards.

Before the third rail was installed to make a second metre gauge line to City, trains often used to be left out in the cold at Yesvantpur for half an hour at a time – and I can testify that the sight of a single YD 2-8-2 shunting backwards and forwards begins to pall after just ten minutes. Such waits are no longer usual whilst going towards Bangalore, but we still had to pause and feel the chill of the Yesvantpur crosswind, for our line onwards was not yet clear. Only after a pair of YD’s coupled tender to tender had arrived, doubleheading a shunt from the broad gauge transfer sidings a few miles down the Salem line, could we proceed.

Continuing the process of leaving Bangalore, we diverged from the Guntakal line with its superimposed Kolar District third rail and picked our way round the eastern outskirts of the city. After crossing over the broad gauge to Madras we set our course over the Mysore downs, here undulating at a little less than 3000' above sea level. A low thorny heath grew among the grey rocks that littered this countryside, though there were little patches of cultivation between the rocks and larger patches where alluvium had accumulated in some hollow, there to be irrigated with red-muddy water saved up in a small tank. But none of the hollows were deep enough to give shelter from the wind, and there were few trees to break its progress, so that while we were stationary it murmured in the undergear of the carriages, and while we were moving it blew the YP’s smoke away at right angles to the track. Though there had been rain within the last day or so (the sky was still overcast) the wind had dried the country enough for our passage to raise swirls of dust, for the track had yet to be properly ballasted in most places. Instead its long even stretches of 1/100 were bedded in the same gravely earth as formed the roadbed and the platforms of the stations.

The eastern edge of the Mysore plateau is not sharply defined; instead it slopes away to the plains of Tamil Nadu two thousand feet below. If the beginning of this descent were to be placed anywhere that would be at Hosur, just inside the Tamil Nadu border (with the concomitant change in the second language on the station notice boards) and the terminus of the old South Indian narrow gauge line. Hosur township lay on one side of a low ridge, its whitewashed buildings nestling among trees. At one end the ridge rose to a bare granite knoll capped by a temple, while at the other it was occupied by the railway station, from which the country fell away unevenly to the south-east. The long-gone narrow gauge was perhaps reflected in the modern station layout, for the turning triangle was away on a little ridge-top branch. Again the signalling was SIR, being worked by wires – double wires for the more distant signals – each wound onto a drum on the signal platform, and changed by moving the signal lever through 180º. Points were moved by adjacent hand levers, but detectors worked by wire interlocked them into the main system.

From Hosur to Dharmapuri the metre gauge approximated to the old narrow gauge route, though only for the last fifteen miles, where it crossed a plain, did it use the old formation. Otherwise the line has been built as new, with steady 1/100 gradients involving considerable earthworks in places, including one long doubly-curved embankment down which we glided as if on air, and another occasion where we free-wheeled round a pair of wide-radius reverse curves. Even though our way had thus been made easy the country remained rough, its summits tall bare magmatic lumps, its slopes rock-broken and confused. Watching the old narrow gauge formation with its sharp curves and steep grades one could imagine small engines climbing with great labour; and then think more generally: how rare such abandoned formations are in India. Very few lines have been closed, while for the most part the British built so soundly that deviations have been few except in cases of gauge conversion.

At the foot of the ghat we found paddy fields and villages sheltering among coconut palms, the characteristic scenery of Tamil Nadu. To complete the Tamil feeling only one thing more was required: that a girl with jasmine in her hair should board the train and travel with us, and presently she did. Yet this was not part of the coastal plain of South India; it was a good five hundred feet above, dammed back by a range of hills. After leaving Dharmapuri (whence the old narrow gauge took a different route) we had a second ghat section; this time almost straight down a gorge with a creek among rocks below and thorny bush among rocks on the hilltops above. One of the rock faces beside the creek bore a fierce god in bas-relief. As we passed by, a priest was dinning a tinny gong in front of her, perhaps to point out to her that her privacy was now being invaded by several trains daily; trains that did not stop to worship.

So the line came down the hill to Salem, running its last few miles alongside the broad gauge Mettur Dam branch, before, in a last display of independence, curving round into Salem Junction deep in a cutting all of its own. And now we were finally and definitely in the territory of the South Indian Railway company, with its broad gauge main line alongside and the metre gauge continuing ahead to connect with the railways of the coastal plain. This was one of the last haunts of the SIR 4-6-0 passenger engine, while on broad gauge the last of the large British 2-8-2’s survived years after the coming of the diesels. Their main line ran through to the west coast, but before reaching that it threw off a branch which, terminating at Mettupalaiyam at the foot of the hills, connected end-on with the Nilgiri Railway.