Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969
Sealdah is not an impressive station except in its traffic statistics. It has neither an impressive façade nor a courtyard from which to appreciate it: instead, an irregular triangle of bitumen slopes up to the unadorned ends of the three train sheds, one of which, the virtually separate station of Sealdah (south), is at right angles to the rest. Again, Sealdah does not seem crowded, for its crowd is a thing like quicksilver, appearing in sudden streams from particular platforms, in swaying masses on No. X platform, while others remain empty, in flash riots which are no less destructive for their speed. For Sealdah has only 168 arrivals and departures daily, each a long, full train and a sudden surge of crowd.
Sealdah was the headquarters of the East Bengal Railway once, but the greater part of that went to Pakistan on partition, leaving it with a network of outer suburban lines reaching, on the average, 60 miles out into the populous countryside of West Bengal. These were eventually electrified, but the timetables retain the characteristics of the steam service, the number of trains run to any individual terminus being small both in relation to the passengers offering and to the number of platforms at Sealdah. These carriages are the same as the standard multiple units working out of Howrah and in Bombay, and have moulded wooden seats 3-3 in their wide interiors.
I only sampled this section once, travelling northward past Ranaghat, where there were two steam-worked branches, one being the former main line out cut off by the East Pakistan border. From here a featureless electrified line was carried by embankment over flat, green paddy fields to a small station well washed by pre-monsoon rain. This, Shantipur, was the end-on junction for 17 miles of narrow-gauge running first north-east to graze the broad gauge at Krishnanagar city, then north-west to the Hooghly bank at Nabadwip Ghat. This was definitely a small railway, and not very profitable either, having a working ratio of over 200% and, on the testimony of the railway minister, traffic that could be handled by five busses. Traffic that actually paid for its ticket, that is.
But Shanti means peace, and away with financial thoughts: in the middle of this late April day even the insects which usually chirp and buzz were silenced by the heat and humidity, while the booking clerk was stripped to the waist as he sold tickets, mostly for Sealdah side but some for narrow gauge. The train for Nabadwip Ghat, one of the two train sets of its line, was waiting at the outermost of three platform faces. We sat in it, our sweat refusing to evaporate, waiting for an hour. The electric set was waiting, too. Instructed by remote control, the loco lowered its pantograph with a sharp electric crack, rested and then re-elevated it, so that once more its brake pump chattered while the fans in the carriages resumed their grinding. This ordinarily menacing sound reached us, waiting fanless, as an enviable murmur. But around midday our 2-4-0T backed down from the loco shed and coupled up to sit hissing, its driver and fireman standing by preferring the sun of the platform to the restricted cab. For the chief attribute of the Shantipur engine was its smallness. Its narrow cab, tanks and small boiler, all balancing on inside frames, made a whole that was a size or two smaller than anything on the Howrah narrow gauge lines, or in the Isle of Man.
The waterman came along the platform with his bucket and long-handled brass dipper and refreshed the engine crew, then fetched a pink safeworking form from the office. Both the station electric bell and the platform three handbell were rung in our honour. The tiny engine gave a peanut whistle – for once whistle and engine were well matched – and then surreptitiously changed from blowing off to blowing steam through its cylinders. The loose couplings of the unbraked coaches took up their slack and the engine’s hissings turned to the puffing of a small locomotive with small wheels accelerating a light train to cruise at 15 mph.
India is not, by and large, a green country, but Bengal is: a luxuriant place where each little group of trees attracts bamboos and creepers and builds up into a thicket of dark green made darker by the black stems of the palms. And the fields are brilliantly yellow-green with paddy. So this line – short distance, private right of way, scenery so green as to drip moisture and air so humid as to give the engine white steam – this was as near as India got to the Welsh narrow gauge. Despite five return trips being run daily, the trains were too light to keep the rails burnished. Though straight in general intent, these rails were kinked at the joints, and so induced a good deal of sideways lurch as well bounce and jar – though these latter were restricted by lack of springs. What with this, and the carriages being so close to ground level and occasionally also to branches meeting overhead, the train achieved an intimacy with both track and country such that one heard its progress as much by vibrations coming upwards through one’s seat as by ear.
The second half of the line was pleasantly roadside, running on a low embankment fringed with venerable trees and turning gently as it picked its way past the villages and their paddy fields. In the dappled shade of these trees the train was fussy but industrious, keeping its beat yet failing to go any faster than the little boys running alongside. The agile at all times could jump on or off – and leave the doors swinging open. Ticket checking at the halts was hopeless, but at the terminus the stationmaster knew his crowd: he stood on the off side of the train and collected tickets of people who walked over the yard, down a village street under the eyes of locals sipping tea at unpainted bunks, turned a right angle onto a footpath and so to the Hooghly bank, where they took the ferry for Nabadwip Dham. Meanwhile the engine visited the far end of the yard to commune with the dry water crane, then parked alongside the makeshift water gin while its tanks were filled by bucket brigade. And then to wait, sipping tea from a disposable earthenware cup; while a shed beside the station clacked with handloom weaving and the heat became less with the sinking of the sun. It was getting on into the afternoon by the time the fourth train of the day left Nabadwip Ghat and made its way energetically but slowly to the interchange at Krishnanagar and on to the depot at Shantipur.