Chapter IX

Ian Manning on the Indian Railways: 1965-1969

Southern Mahratta

1. Matheran, A Digression

The time has come now for a rapid change of scene, from the Punjab to Bombay – perhaps best accomplished by the Frontier Mail itself, for this is the train with a tradition. Nowadays it also has a diesel engine, which means a modicum of speed and also a heavy train load, which is as well when one wants space and cannot book way ahead. The Frontier Mail runs mainly on the Northern and Western Railways – overnight on the former from Amritsar to Delhi, and then a day and a night on the latter to Bombay. And while traversing the dry country of Rajasthan one can ponder on the metre gauge territory to the west, where some of the larger of the former native-state railways ran, and where Pacifics and Mikados still venture out into the dust storms of the Thar desert.

Later on, in the night, as the train passes through Baroda, one can think again of the west – of the extensive former native state lines of Saurashtra – and close at hand of the extensive 2’ 6” system built by the ruler of Baroda, and still running little black 0-6-2 tender engines across the black soil plains and up into the hills where the forests lose their leaves in summer and look dead. An 0-6-2 with straight-sided smokebox, shunting a terminus amid piles of logs, reminds me strongly of nineteenth-century prints of extensions to the Victorian Railways built when the forests had just been ring-barked, for the loco has the same profile, the trees again look dead – but in Victoria the gauge was Irish.

Then Bombay, that big city, for long the centre of the largest electrified area in India, but now lagging behind Calcutta. Bombay’s electrification is at 1500 volts DC, which is no longer standard; troubles about converting the existing lines have held up any extensions. Still, the whole suburban area is covered, and a mixture of old stock and new Integral trains runs the services, while the trains on the two Central Railway (GIP) main lines running to and up the 2,000’ scarp of the Western Ghats are electrically hauled.

To catch them, one must transfer from the Western Railway terminal (Bombay Central, a very 1925 concrete station which mostly contrives to look quite spacious and empty) to the Central Railway’s Victoria Terminus, a great pile of a building which always looks and is congested, and which defies architectural analysis.

Here one has the choice of long distance expresses, passenger trains and the wide, sausage-like suburban trains that go out along the main lines as far as the foot of the Ghats. Just before it reaches the main line Bhor Ghat, the multiple unit that runs towards Poona connects with the former Matheran Steam Light Railway which climbs a detached outlier of the main scarp to reach a hill resort on top. Even in the timetable this looks an intriguing line – mileage twelve and chargeable mileage varying with the season, but up to six times actual (the resulting fare can be nearly 4/-), and a note that trains run neither in the dark nor during the monsoon. Add to this that the gauge is two foot, and that the line climbs 2,300 feet, and one has interesting ingredients.

A large illuminated sign indicated the next train up the hill and larger black-and-white notices prohibited one from taking anything larger than an umbrella into the carriages – all else had to be consigned to the brakevan. And there the train waited, under a suitably small train shed. Its wee blue bogie coaches seated four across in narrow compartments, though the first class saloon was a little roomier. These carriages, with their simple link and pin couplers, were without through brakes; instead, each had a pair of brake levers weighted with a big red disc at its downhill end. Since one lever was operable from either side the brakeman could stand on either footboard. Each train thus required a brakeman for each carriage, plus loco crew and guard – quite an expensive way of operating a railway. But the pick of the rolling stock, used in times of rush of traffic, was even less economic: its little four wheelers required a brakeman for every 16 passengers.

Perhaps it was sad that the ‘Steam’ in the title of the original Light Railway Company no longer applied; instead there were three NIM2 diesels. These engines were of a special design intended for the sharp curves: two four-wheel bogies, each with a motor sitting on top of it, and with a cab articulated between the two. In spite of this design the NIM’s were said to wear out their flanges faster than the line’s former long-wheelbase Orenstein and Koppel 0-6-0 tanks, whose axles had a device, in appearance like the differential of a motor car, which allowed the wheels to follow the curves.

No. 601 passenger started away from Neral Junction with a blast from the air horn and jolt as the links and pins took up, and began climbing almost straight away, a little deep-blue train on a beached dun hillside under a dust-hazy sky. Soon the fierce curves began, cut into the niches and gullies of the hillside on a grade that varied around an average of 1/25. Having ascended a spur that buttressed the main plateau of Matheran, the line paused for a station and a change of token, then tackled the main scarp. It picked its way over the black basalt face of the cliff, hairpin bending among the dry forest that grew on the steep shelves between the rock faces. On one such shelf, where one could look over the edge and count several sweeps of the track, the train paused at its second crossing loop – Waterpipe. A couple of hairpin bends later it came out on a narrow sidling on the lip of a cliff that fell vertical for several hundred feet, with more views of narrow gauge rails doubling back and up way below and of a long broad gauge train crawling through Neral station, but with the yellowish haze too thick to see any further.

Once on the plateau the railway ran through an open forest – firewood rather than mill timber, for the trees weren’t very straight. Soon there were houses among the trees and well-made paths of red earth; soon we were drawing into the station, pulling up in front of a building that seemed to be mostly café, a continental-European tradition; but no, there were British barriers between us and it, and an extra refinement, a municipal Capitation tax to be paid before we could get through. So I sat on the platform and looked at the layout; the tight radius of the terminal loop and the recent ash in the loco pit. This should have prepared me to hear a whistle of the same pitch as an NIM air horn but of a fuller timbre echoing through the trees. The daily freight was approaching, its 0-6-0 hissing along in the dappled sunlight of this open forest. But its wagons! – a van of one ton capacity, a tiny four-wheel open truck and a bogie loaded lengthways with sticks of sugar cane; a total load of less than 10 tons. All the same the engine seemed tired and deserted its load at the entrance to the yard, retiring to the loco siding while all further shunting was carried out by hand.

The train back to Neral – three coaches and an NIM – gave a pleasant ride back down the hill, enlivened by the callings of the brakemen as they sat on their levers, applying more or less brake. A suburban train turned up at Neral and carried me on a couple of stops to the foot of the Bhor Ghat, an electric station where they keep banking engines and manoeuvred with them, but where steam intruded on the passenger services of a little ghat-foot branch. The electric engines: mainly Chittaranjan (i.e., Indian) machines built post-war, but also the previous generation, Metropolitan Vickers 1AAA2’s and crocodile C-C’s. A semi-express turned up with one of the former engines, another was added, and silently we climbed the ghat. It was dark and the saloon carriage was grey painted inside and grey with cigarette smoke. So to Poona.