Chapter VIII

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

The North West

2. Simla

Kalka station – all change for Simla - was arranged as an end-on junction, with spacious refreshment rooms and first class waiting rooms that presupposed that a lot of sahibs would be travelling. The pirate busses waited outside the station yard while the narrow gauge trains waited at their platform and a blue and yellow Jung diesel-mechanical loco of the mid-fifties shunted the 2’ 6” yard.

As the broad gauge main trains arrived their passengers mostly made for the small trains, stopping perhaps at the counter where they were meant to park heavy items of luggage. (By and large Indian passengers are not inclined to trust their junk to the van, but on the narrow gauge there isn’t much room.) The two Simla trains were pulled up on either side of a platform, while at a stub near the station building waited the piece de resistance of the line, the luxury rail motor. Not content with chargeable kilometers three times actual, the Rail Motor charged a supplement to the first class fare, yet it gave value.

In general outline it resembled the old converted busses of Australia, and dated from the same era – 1932, with the same split windscreen and a split metal thermometer as a radiator cap. Yet it was a true rail design, and a good one, proving that when the British set out to design a railcar they could do it – it is only a pity they didn’t try more often. The 110 hp motor was mounted on the front four wheels, which were coupled, while the body was articulated onto this and carried at the back by a second bogie, with a device for making the single headlight swivel to look round curves.

The body was heavily built charabanc style, with plenty of varnished wood and seats for 14 (four across and two beside the driver) and a mail compartment across the back. The engine being very low geared – maximum speed 20 mph – she could go just about anywhere in top, except perhaps for starting on the 3% grades. The rail motor came with an altogether superior driver, dressed as a compromise between railwayman and chauffeur; uphill he drove the motor so that it purred gently (there was no vibration in the body, an achievement for a railcar not far off 40 years old) while downhill he operated a very sensitive handbrake the size and position of a steering wheel.

The rail motor left first, followed by the two ‘express’ passenger trains, each six cream and turquoise carriages hauled by a red ZIM2, a diesel as at Nagpur, though a fitter told me that these had ‘electrical safetys’ – and certainly they did whine down the hills like diesel electrics on regenerative brake. There were enough of them at Kalka to haul the three daily passenger trips and most of the goods, though a few of the line’s former mainstay, the K class 2-6-2 tank, were still used.

I eventually left on the last train of the day, the 0815. Even the third class passengers were obviously city people, snoozing after their overnight run on the mail train. In the first class we had an Important Military Gentleman, who was piped off the train when it reached Dharampore. We hit the 1/33.33 just out of Kalka yard and met our first hairpin bend while still among the mud walls of the township. But this line was well-engineered, with the 3% constant for miles, quite a few tunnels and nothing show-off like the Darjeeling line’s loops. Sidings came about every four miles, and at each a token was exchanged, keeping the trains about ¼ hour apart, climbing steadily up a dry rocky hillside with gnarled little trees.

About a third of the way to Simla the continuous climb ended. Instead the line travelled along a ridge, first one side then the other, crossing over at saddles; crossing gullies by arch upon arch rubble bridges. By midday we found ourselves on the hillside opposite but below our destination, and settled down to some final 3% to gain the necessary 600’. The line curved round the back of the ridge and took Simla by tunnel, ending up at a station whose platform and tracks were built out from the hillside on arches – but the platform did have arrival and departure ends, and a scissors crossover. The line continued for half a mile to the goods yard.

As for Simla, this might be a place for a reverie about the idiosyncracies of the departed British raj. But the place was pasted with notices reading ‘You too can make Simla QUEEN OF HILLS as it once was’ (by keeping it tidy and not spitting) – that just about summed it up.