Chapter V

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The Nagpur Narrow Gauge

Just as the Indian and African railway systems are eye-openers for those Europeans who insist on classifying metre gauge as narrow, so the Nagpur Division of the SER is designed to impress anybody who thinks the 2’ 6” gauge incorrigibly incapable, local and light. To begin with, it forms an interconnected system of 666 route miles taking a week to see in daylight. The main line passenger trains – on each line one during the day and one overnight – make journeys of up to 150 miles with seated loads of 400 passengers. Its busiest freight service hauls roughly 2,000 tons of coal down to Nagpur daily. The locomotive stock includes eight-axle diesel hydraulics, used mainly on main-line passenger work, Pacifics both BNR and post-independence, and a family of goods 2-8-2’s. Truly a system to be reckoned with.

1. Gondia to Jabalpur

The nearest point on this system to Raipur was Gondia, 175 miles away west along the main line, a distance conveniently covered in half a night, say by the Nagpur Parcel Passenger. This train, consisting of WG, vans and two passenger carriages, skipped most stops but waited for long time when it did – an hour for late dinner, for example. But it reached Gondia well in time for dawn, which gave a pink tint to air slightly cool and otherwise tinged with a bluish haze, the product of hot sunlight and smoke. Here the small trains waited on tracks laid a little higher than the broad gauge, as though to compensate for their lack of stature. On one side of the platform a compact maroon and grey MAK diesel had arrived with the overnight passenger from Jabalpur in the north; opposite a CC had backed onto the day train for Chanda Fort in the south. Its ten carriages were already crowded, with a further long queue in the booking office over the road. At the third platform the carriages of the Katangi mixed were placed by the shunting CC, which continued to shuffle about the passenger yard, supervised by a signalman in the rough, corrugated-iron box built on the end of the island platform.

At 7 a.m., with the best two hours of the day already gone, with the Chanda Fort train gone south and the diesel back to the depot, a black Mikado joined a string of goods trucks on to the seven carriages of the Katangi mixed. It waited for half an hour, then eased under the road overbridge and climbed the flyover embankment – transfer sidings to the left and dual-loco depot to the right. For a brief moment we passengers looked into the sun from the bridge. (The broad gauge down track had steel sleepers that glistened between the shining rails.) But now we were pointing north over the outermost corner of the Deccan plateau – 140 miles to Jabalpur, 25 to Katangi.

This fringe of lava-flow land was very pleasant. Its grey soil was divided into small plots by tall bunds whose height was periodically increased by piling them with clods. Looked at into the sun, the bunds made a pattern of shadows; the other way they seemed flat, but the shade trees, which in April were losing their leaves because of the dry season, stood out nevertheless. In the 25 miles there were two halts and two stations, the former being no more than a shelter and some sodden earth besides the railway line relying on the TTE to issue tickets. At night, perhaps, somebody would bring a kerosene lantern down over the fields.

The station at Balaghat lay on the fringe of its town at the end of a hot bitumen road, with a long narrow yard and a long platform divided opposite the station building by a scissors crossover. The two ends of the platform each had a shelter and a tea stall, but the symmetry was broken by one stall calling itself vegetarian, the other non. The diesels of the Jabalpur – Gondia service came through one at a time, but twice a day both ends of the platform were occupied at once. In the mid-morning, with the cars of the mixed from Nainpur (the next junction north) already stabled in the yard and its engine shunting there, the two Katangi branch trains crossed, the outbound one mixed, but the inbound passenger, with a lively CC Pacific. As was fitting, the mixed paused longer. During the pause, a man dressed in white drill pushed a trolley to a free compartment, heaved some mail bags through the window, wired a sheet-metal postal pot to the window-sill and settled down to sleep on the seat inside. As the notice would have it, “This train carries dak.”

Diverging west, the branch to Katangi climbed a bit below the ridge of Balaghat town, then swung down to cross the Weinganga River, the shadow of the train falling on a posse of small boys swimming in a waterhole. On the far bank it entered country uneven with bare rock surfaces, elevated patches of laterite, low hills which the line just grazed against, patches of cultivation and occasionally tanks. Even in April such a tank might be wet, with grey cranes graceful as brolgas dancing on the grass of its bed.

The first stop out served a small town, had a tea stall and was a regular crossing station in the evening. It was a typical enough station in its arrangements, relying on pointsmen to change the points and greet the trains with the regulation green flag. For public information a length of old rail hanging from a davit near the station office would be hit with a dogspike when a train entered the section, when it approached the platform and when it was about to leave. Within a low brick enclosure was a red handwheel which wound a chain which would be attached to one or other of the wires going to the home signals, but not both, thus simply ensuring that only one could be off at a time.

The second station was a junction for a mineral spur – a cinder ballasted track leading off into the bush, with a Scotch block protecting the main line. I was talking to a geologist from the mine who said that traffic (manganese ore) was spasmodic. “When the railway is feeling pleased, it sends trucks. Sometimes it doesn’t for months.” Katangi yard was storing manganese ore also – dark reddish pebbles, hand-sorted and neatly piled. But the mixed had nothing to do with it – its vans were for general goods, its carriages for people.

Balaghat was again busy with steam in the evening. First a ZE, heaviest of the Mikados, came with a goods from Gondia and started shunting. Then a CC breezed through with the Katangi passenger. After it had gone, the ZE placed the cars of the Nainpur mixed at the northern end of the platform, waiting there itself after adding about an equal weight of goods. In the dusk the mixed came from Katangi – the Nainpur train was held up till it did – and then both left. And perhaps the mixed was the best way of getting to Nainpur despite the dark and the rattling of goods trucks which muffled the engine’s beat as it climbed the 1/100; despite the mixed not being banked up the last few miles as some of the freights were or indulging in bursts of speed like the diesel passengers. In the middle of the day when the diesel came by, the rocks that covered the hills cast little shade and the trees less, but in the warm of the evening the hills coalesced into blackness; the gaps in the ranges through which the line passed seemed all the more narrow and rugged; the pounding straights of the final grade into Nainpur, where the whole rough land surface sloped up at 1/100 with the line, became a grand climax. And the crowd of passengers aboard the mixed was cheerful, for the air coming in through the open windows was smooth and warm, and there was nothing more to the day but to sing and smoke; to talk and to sleep. In our compartment we had a blind man with a double drum who could sing quite well, rolling his head with a spasm of a smile as he beat the drum between the verses.

Narrow gauge junctions of the order of Nainpur are not very common – four lines coming in; four distant signals and three homes requiring four signal handwheels to work them all (the wheels were kept in a cabin, or more appropriately wheelhouse, on the platform); refreshment rooms, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, providing 24 hour service; overhead pipes at the platforms for watering carriages, a car siding with inspection pits; a marshalling yard with a Mikado shunting continuously and a loco depot capable of carrying out major repairs. Add a large island platform on which to scatter buildings of various ages and styles, make it busy with passengers and the transfer of parcels; attach a neat little railway town with a school stenciled in admonitory slogans, and Nainpur has grown painlessly on its grey plain.

There was activity at Nainpur in the wee small hours as the through north-south diesel trains paused and the passenger came in from the west, from Nagpur, and left again, a performance repeated in the heat of the day, with the added interest of a connection to the east, on the branch to Mandla. At dawn three trains made ready to leave – Mandla (east, passenger), Jabalpur (north, mixed) and Balaghat (south, mixed); these same three returned at night. But for all this the staff remained friendly. Over a midnight cup of chai in the non-veg. refreshment room, the Bengali goods clerk told me that a most convenient parcel had arrived in his office – a bed, bound for Mandla next morning. Would I care to occupy it in the meantime?

Of the morning departures, the Mandla Fort got the best engine, a ZE with a brown tender and the ‘NIR’ of its depot allocation carved in large red letters on to the silver-frosted disc of its smokebox door. Its branch left by running east, keeping its distance from a boss of hills, to a patch of good country on the far side. Its crops were still being harvested even in late April. The line running west, on the other hand, struck out over a plain featureless (apart from the Weinganga River) till the scarp below Seoni, which patch of roughness introduced the upland downs that continued till Chhindwara. The diesel passenger services passed through here when the sun was low in the sky and red; the train, brown coaches and maroon locomotive, would wind along the sinuously curving track, glancing against the sun’s ray first one side and then the other. At the stops it would transact little business – typically, a man and his small daughter would be met by their servant with a bullock cart piled high with mattresses to soften the ride.

It was more exciting to leave Nainpur for the north, again perforce by diesel, for here even a mixed might have a ZIM2. The day service left in the hottest part of the afternoon. Waiting for it, sitting rather limply under the station awning, I had the choice of watching a family of lean pigs, revolting but socially useful in their eating habits, or a family of people sitting on the concrete platform – the mother a hunchback, the children hardly clothed, the baby a child of more than twelve months and much less than twelve pounds, unable to walk but sitting up chewing the corners of a chappati. The arrival of the Jabalpur train was quite a relief. With a diesel in front, this train had 13 carriages, including a red travelling post office. One compartment was reserved for the waterman, who had a sign advertising free drinking water hanging from his window. He kept his water in dark red pots which sat on the seats of the compartment, sedate and contended like prosperous elderly passengers, and dispensed it by pouring it from a brass dipper into the hands his patrons cupped to their mouths.

The day was not only hot but sultry. As we left for Jabalpur clouds covered the sky, stratus overhead but nimbus over the hills to the east. This kind of atmosphere generated an expectant silence which the train did its best to dispel. Sitting in the last coach I couldn’t hear the engine for the rattling of the undergear, a high-pitched jangling of narrow-gauge bogies as though somebody had suspended a brace of tiny tambourines under the train. But this phrenetic noise failed to frighten the storm, which broke while we were stopped at Pindari, its heavy white drops falling fast and rolling the dust into little balls as they landed. There being no shelter, those villagers who alighted here simply got wet. Yet the rain did good also; as we climbed above Pindari village, we saw that its dust was laid, that it was slightly cleaned and that its roofs shone.

There followed a 13 mile ghat section up through hills which had been so dry that one shower of rain had made little difference. The diesel kept up the pace, rounding the curves of the sidings, hurtling across sudden bridges springing from abutments of rough basalt blocks. The ensuing descent was gentler, a careful course through country broken by valleys and various levels of basalt surface. The name of one station, Shikara, reminded us that this open forest was famous for its big game hunting. Towards Jabalpur the country opened out, though still with residual basalt hills, sometimes quite impressive in their dark mustard-grey way. Our entry into Jabalpur followed our crossing of the Narbada River by a bridge of main line dimensions; after this it was a come-down to find the narrow gauge making full use of its ability to curve sharply in order to enter the city by the cheap land on the bank of an old watercourse. And so eventually we were brought to a humble bay platform at the old Great India Peninsula station of this military town.