Jayant Sriram travels on the Satpura narrow gauge line between Nagpur and Jabalpur, once the longest in Asia, before it is closed to make way for faster trains
small road, just off the highway from Nagpur to Bhopal, takes you towards the village of Kukrakhapa in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhindwara district. The road is narrow and winding, lined with crop fields and occasional square patches of flaming orange marigold. It brings you to a small railway ‘crossing’, something you guess because there’s no way any vehicle can negotiate the dirt track ahead.
A narrow railway track curves away into the distance and we follow it in search of the legendary Kukrakhapa station. A farmer, battling to keep his cows in check, genially points ahead but the area seems deserted except for a small boy, about five, sitting pensively on the tracks. “Is the train coming?” we ask. In response, he crouches down, puts his ear close to the metal and listens. “Not far now,” he says.
A short trek brings us to a small stream. Beyond it, in the distance, acres of tall, waving bamboo grass, gleaming yellow in the sunshine, lead into densely forested hills, creating a rich contrast of colours. In between stands a single dilapidated shed that serves as the station.
There is not a soul in sight when we reach, but soon villagers trek up from the surrounding fields, some carrying packets of vegetables, others foodstuff. A group of women in colourful saris carry baskets on their heads with sitafal (custard apple) and singada (water chestnut). A red engine is now visible in the distance, moving slowly as it hauls nine blue coaches, each seating about 30 people.
The stop in Kukrakhapa is brief but significant. As the train winds its way south towards Nagpur it suddenly passes a waterfall with a dramatic drop of about 60 ft and a canopy of rich green forests stretches from the valley into the surrounding hills. From habitation into the wild, we are now in the area known in these parts as Mowgli land .
The 600-km narrow gauge line between Nagpur and Jabalpur, stretching across the Satpura range, was once the longest of its kind in Asia. It was built between 1903 and 1910 and, in several segments, runs around the margins of Pench and Kanha National Parks and the forested hills of Seoni in Madhya Pradesh. It is said that the British loved hunting in these parts and some years before the train, Rudyard Kipling travelled through these forests and imagined his iconic story of a young boy who grew up with animals, Jungle Book .
But two days after our visit, on October 31, the narrow gauge train took its last journey through Kipling’s India. A large segment — about 500 km — running from Nagpur to Nainpur in Madhya Pradesh will now be converted to broad gauge to accommodate bigger trains and cut down travel time — trains on the narrow gauge travel at a maximum speed of 40 kmph while this can double or triple with broad gauge.
The change means that some stations like Kukrakhapa, located on challenging terrain, will never reopen. “Too much curvature,” explains Rajneesh Bhagel, the station’s lone pointsman, which means the track has to be shifted elsewhere. For the same reason, the broad gauge line will be no mean feat and will require tunnels and a large cable bridge to negotiate some parts of the forest.
As the train continues past the waterfall, we pass through a dramatic forest landscape, with teak and mahua trees arching over the track on either side. In the fading light, a handful of people alight at smaller stations and simply walk off into the forest. The undeniable romance of taking a slow train through this terrain will now be lost, but the narrow gauge’s closure will also have a major impact on the socio-economic life of these areas.
The original idea behind the Satpura narrow gauge line was to construct a low-cost railway link to serve the area which was home to numerous tribes like the Ghonds, Bhils, and so on. Though travel time is long (the stretch from Nagpur to Chhindwara, for instance, can take about seven to eight hours), the train is the cheapest way to travel. A bus trip on the same route would take over two hours but cost about Rs.150-200 compared to Rs. 35 on the train. For large stretches of forest, like the area between Kukrakhapa and Ramakona on the Nagpur-Chhindwara line and the Seoni district that falls between Chhindwara and Nainpur, the train is also effectively the only means of transport since these areas have no road access.
“For those of us who live in the jungle, the train shutting down is going to be very hard,” says Chakaraban Sahare, 43, a daily wage labourer who travels everyday from Bhima Gondi to the nearby town of Umra Nalla. “We are not sure if the government is going to provide an alternative.”
The train is also frequently used by students, and a group of girls in blue school uniforms tells us that the closing of the train means that they will have to walk an extra seven or eight kilometres before they can take the bus home.
In the larger context, however, it is the demand for faster travel time between the region’s bigger cities and towns that has finally driven the change. On the route from Nainpur to Chhindwara, Jiten Deshmukh, 21, a college student, says he takes the train once a week to visit his parents. Standing by the open coach door for almost the entire journey, he says he never misses the chance to take in the spectacular scenery — wave-like plains of variegated wild grass offset by dark green forest, interrupted occasionally by a jungle stream or rivulet. He concedes, however, that a faster train would make life easier. “It will only be difficult for two or three years. I have been travelling on this train for a long time and a majority of people are actually travelling for medical purposes — either to visit hospitals or to visit relatives who have been admitted there. For them it will be better,” he explains.
The conversion of the Satpura track is also dictated by the growing financial pressure on the South Central Railway under which the line falls. According to Tanmay Mukherjee, Additional Divisional Commercial Manager for South Central Railway, about 30,000 people travel by the narrow gauge lines everyday from which the railway makes about Rs. 7 lakh a day.
“Right now, the salaries alone for employees on this line come to about Rs. 6 crore, so we are running at a loss,” he explains. “The fares will not increase, since railway fares are distance based and have nothing to do with narrow or broad gauge but we hope that a lot more revenue will come in.” The roughly 20-hour journey from Nagpur to Jabalpur will take about seven on the broad gauge.
Laying a broad gauge will also have strategic value in future and serve to decongest crucial stations such as Nagpur. Currently trains running north to south, say from Delhi to Chennai, have to take a circuitous route west towards Itarsi from where they are then routed through Nagpur. Installing broad gauge from Jabalpur onwards will mean a straighter travelling line north to south and a greater turnover of trains.
For the people living in these parts, it is hard to estimate exactly how a broad gauge line could change things. There is the possibility that like Kukrakhapa, other stations may be closed or relocated and that bigger trains may not stop in the heavily forested areas. This worries some, but there is also the acceptance among others that change makes economic sense. “If some of these stations become major junctions, then we may get more work in future,” says Ramji Desai, a teashop owner in Ramakona.
In the two days that we travelled along the Satpura narrow gauge, first from Nagpur to Chhindwara and then from there on to Nainpur, people commented that the trains had been packed for weeks, filled with families taking one last trip on the slow train. For many, these last rides are bittersweet moments.
“I have taken this train for 70 years,” says Omkar Prasad Khandelwal, 80, as he spreads out his paan kit over a seat in the second class coach from Nainpur to Seoni. “There was once a time when this was the largest narrow gauge line in Asia, and Nainpur was the No. 1 railway junction. There will be development now and we will progress but we will never be No. 1 again,” he says.
A river flows on the right, and he eagerly scurries across the compartment to point out its course, before looking wistfully into the distance. There will come a time when this landscape will race by in a blur but now, for all too brief a moment, time is just another bend in the river.
The conversion to broad gauge means that some stations, like Kukrakhapa, located on challenging terrain, will never reopen