India’s Lesser known Narrow Gauge Lines

10 Oct

Seven of us have either flown in or railroaded to Nagpur from all over to bid adieu to the last holdout from Indian Railways’ great Narrow Gauge networks. Everyone knows the narrow gauge hill railways like the Kalka-Simla, the Neral- Matheran, the Darjeeling Himalayan and the Kangra Valley Railway, endearingly but mistakenly called “toy-trains”. But hardly anyone knows about the great NG systems of peninsular India that quietly went about the serious business of transporting goods and people, for over a hundred years. There was one extensive network built by the Gaekwads of Baroda centred on Dabhoi in Gujarat, another built by the Scindias around Gwalior, a third called the Barsi Light Railway that ran the length of Marathwada from Latur to Miraj and the most extensive of them all — the Bengal & Nagpur Railway’s Satpura System. Dabhoi & Barsi are history having been converted to Broad Gauge and Gwalior is all but abandoned. Now it’s the turn of the Satpura lines to exit stage right; starting October 1 all the branches of the Satpura network will close one by one for gauge conversion.

Leader of the Lesser Lines

By narrow gauge standards, the Satpura network is vast. At its peak it extended from Jabalpur in the north to Chandrapur (on the Maharashtra-Telengana border) in the south; from Chhindwara & Nagpur in the west and southwest to Mandla (on the Narmada, not far from its source) in the east. Over the years Broad Gauge has made some inroads from Gondia & Nagpur but the bulk of the system remains NG till now. Why did the Brits build these lines? To carry coal from Chhindwara, manganese ore from Katangi & Tirodi, teak from the extensive forests of the Pench-Kanha corridor and cotton, pulses & grain from all over the region. The Bengal & Nagpur Railway is long gone but its legacy remains — the chainage markers after every kilometre still show the distance from its old headquarters Howrah.

Rock & Rail

Narrow gauge travel is not for those in a hurry; top speed used to be 50 km/h ten years ago, it’s now 40 km/h. It takes seven hours to cover the 148 km from Nagpur to Chhindwara and the fastest train in the system (the Satpura Express) takes six and a half hours to cover the 187 km between Jabalpur and the end of the line at Balaghat. The rhythm and the gait are altogether different from BG; think of it as a ride on a Tonga rather than in a Volvo bus, the better to view the stunning scenery of the heart of India.

This semaphore’s vigil over the lines at Bhoma is soon coming to an end. The NG will give way to BG and the semaphore to a more modern color lamp signal – Photo by Shashanka Nanda

NG vs BG

As the Nagpur-Jabalpur passenger (half the day plus overnight) chugs up the teak bedecked hills leading up to the Chhindwara Plateau, the contrast between the narrow gauge and the under construction broad gauge alignment is stark. NG leaves a light touch on the environment, doing all it can to accommodate the terrain. So contours are hugged, cuttings are discreet, curves are a plenty and the forest reaches right up to the track. BG, on the other hand, destroys and desecrates with massive earthworks, canyon-like cuttings and expensive tunnels; a thick, straight line that cuts right through jungle and hill without discrimination or mercy. But only we rail buffs can romanticise NG as much as we want to, the reality is that everyone else on that train can’t wait for the comfort and speed of BG.

Relying on Reliance

It seems Reliance India’s overarching, Corporate Big Brother image is difficult to escape. My friends and I are all over the train with our cameras & smartphones, hanging out of doors and windows to capture everything for posterity. Even the briefest of halts at the tiniest of stations sees us marching up and down the earthen platform shooting this way and that. The rest of the passengers are all agog and soon a rumour gains currency that these strange folk are from Reliance and they are conducting a survey. What survey and why Reliance? They don’t tell.

Rudyard Land

The region between Chhindwara and Nainpur was made famous by Rudyard Kipling; Mowgli was a member of the Seonee wolf pack and the murderous Sher Khan lived near the Wainganga River. Ironically, Kipling himself never once set foot in the region; he wrote theJungle Book while living in Vermont, USA and used reference books and his friends’ experiences to describe the landscape

The Train Stops at…

If you want to know how an Indian railway station can inspire writers like R K Narayan, Ruskin Bond or even old Rudyard himself, just soak in the atmosphere at Nainpur Junction in the heart of Madhya Pradesh. India’s busiest narrow gauge junction alternates between frenetic activity and languorous torpor throughout the day and late into the night. Everything works like clockwork when a train (or two) arrives; announcements are made, crews & TTE’s change shifts, hawkers hawk and passengers hustle and bustle. At other times the station is taken over by the stock characters in a Bond or Narayan story — sleeping porters, yawning dogs, itinerant mendicants, a cow chewing cud and that lone woman in a faded sari who looks like she’s been waiting for someone for a long time…

Gone Girl

The Satpura Express is India’s lone workaday express on the narrow gauge. The Kalka-Simla line has a couple of expresses used by tourists and therefore quite unlike the old Satpura, heavily patronised by village folk and small townsmen. She even has a dishevelled First Class carriage (with padded sofas set awkwardly lengthwise along the windows) and a compartment for parcels. Like the other trains on this line, her top speed is restricted to 40 km/h but takes just two thirds of the time because she runs primly through many stations without stopping. We say goodbye to this doughty old lady with heavy hearts, knowing she will be retired soon and replaced by a charmless BG version, probably with an air conditioned chair car, an extended route and God forbid — a different name.

BG vs Wildlife

The highlight of the route between Nainpur & Balaghat is the multiple stretches of forest that are used by a variety of animals as corridors between Kanha and Pench and all the reserved forests in between. While the nearby NH-7 is mired in controversy with much talk of elevating the road or constructing underpasses, nobody seems to have said anything about how the ongoing gauge conversion will affect wildlife. Animals crossing the railway line are going to be in for a nasty surprise when 40 km/h Narrow Gauge is replaced by 100 km/h Broad Gauge.

Rain, rain — come again every day

That we city-slickers have no comprehension whatsoever of rural distress is reinforced after we re-join the Broad Gauge at Balaghat for a quick run to Gondia. I am sharing the carriage door with a man from Katangi and drinking in the verdant landscape; there are pools of water from recent rain and transplanting of rice is on in full swing. I remark that the rains seem to have been good in Vidarbha this year and my companion gives me that look ordinarily reserved for the village idiot. He says the rains have been poor, no downpour has lasted longer than 15 minutes and all this new rice may not make it to harvest. “Those who have tube wells may survive, those who don’t are finished,” he says rather matter-of-factly.

Praful, the Persevering

The Vidarbha Express that runs daily to Mumbai will take us from Praful Patel’s hometown Gondia to Nagpur where we all have flights to catch. Apparently Patel and his fellow MP’s from the area waged a long battle over many years to have this train extended a mere 130 km eastwards to Gondia from its original terminus Nagpur. Gondia is also in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region just as Nagpur is so it should have been logical and fairly simple to start this eponymous train from here, right? Wrong! Gondia is in an entirely different railway zone from Nagpur so a great many wheels must have been made to turn within the railway bureaucracy before Patel & co met with success.

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Posted by on October 10, 2015 in Uncategorized


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