February 17, 2017

Punjab Mail 2

Punjab Mail From Bombay VT to Ferozepur

--- Post under construction ---

Punjab Mail 1

And so although this district is for more dismal  and devoid of cheer than the place where i live myself , I can turn a blind eye to the dreariness.

This post is under construction.

February 05, 2016

Crisscrossing Tracks at the Steam Shed

As the post following this one is devoted to a picture-essay on a defunct steam locomotive shed, I am including here a 'blueprint' here of an actual loco shed layout. There is just the slightest possibility I may be able to lay my hands on the memoirs of an Anglo Indian who back in the forties had explored several locomotive sheds here in India and has left behind a lovely account of what he found at these steam centres of his day. If I do succeed in getting hold of this memoir, this picture below may serve as an interesting prelude to the reminiscences of this adventurer who was as charmed by the working of steam then as we enthusiasts are today. 

January 08, 2016

Down by the Loco Shed

IN DAYS GONE BY rail enthusiasts, eager to explore the railways they loved, trekked along railway tracks, pottered about in yards, sipped coffee at stations while they watched trains come and go. They still do the same today. But the rail adventure today is devoid of a crucial element that made these trips ever so enjoyable—and that is the absence of steam locomotives and the sheds which homed them. The enthusiast had very little understanding of the mechanics of the locos he admired, yet he would find his feet carrying him along the shining steel rails to the remote, far-off establishment, the loco shed, where he found himself entranced by the magic of steam, fire and coal working its wonders on that most fascinating of all mechanical contrivances, the steam locomotive.

Those good old machines of old have nearly disappeared. But so what? There is still enough magic in a steam locoshed to beckon me at all times. And although I can’t expect to find those grand old machines with fire in their bellies around, I rejoice in the sight of an old shed. Stephenson’s invention is now relegated to heritage museums, but each time I visit a steam shed, there is something in it that welcomes me, something that takes my breath away. There is always something to remind me of that bygone age when the push and pull, the heave and sigh of the iron horse was as common on the rails as the motorcar is on the street today. 

I said there is always something exciting in a loco yard. Here is a narrow gauge steam locomotive tender atop a broad gauge wagon. The loco itself worked on the Central Railway, so I assume it was a Pulgaon-Arvi engine.

Can you ever imagine a locoshed without a turntable? Here’s one that has survived all these years. It carries the manufacturer’s plate on the side of the girder. I would love to read the information on the plate but this would mean I would need to step into the pit. Once inside how do I come out of it by myself ?!!

And here’s a heritage narrow gauge carriage. Not heritage to be exact, but old enough to be charming. Such are the treasures you will find lying around in loco yards...

Another view of the loco turntable...

And here’s a scan from an old Indian Railways manual telling about the maintenance of turntables and the adjustments to be carried out on them...

January 02, 2016

A Hundred Year old Railway Ticket...

I HAVE RECEIVED a note from Mrs. Tanya Castellas telling me of an old railway ticket which her mother Rosalind Simon has preserved all along.  This is a North Western Railway ticket dating back to 4 November 1915. The journey covered is from Pathankot to Lahore Cantonment East for which the fare was only Rs 3 – 00 at the time.

Mrs  Castellas has been kind enough to provide me a scan and says she would like to give away the ticket to anyone who is into collecting Indian Railways memorabilia.

Here’s a wonderful opportunity to own a heritage railway ticket that is over a hundred years old. Just imagine, a railway ticket dated 4 November 1915 !

Readers who are interested in acquiring this prized ticket may write to Mrs Castellas at the following email ID :


So hurry folks, the first person to contact Mrs Castellas gets the prize !!

December 17, 2015

Curtains Down: The Toy Train's Final Act

I MET KAPIL SAHARE at Nagpur's Narrow Gauge rail platform. Tall and lean, and with a clean shaven face, Kapil was seated on bench alongside an old lady. “That is my mother,” Kapil tells me, as we begin a conversation. I glance at the lady but she is in a world of her own. She hardly seems to be hear anything. And she's a bit sleepy too. “She was not well,” Kapil explains to me while his mother dozes. “Mother is now 85, and I had to get her here for an operation," he tells me. 

Like hundreds of other folks from nearby villages, Kapil travels to Nagpur by the Chhindwara Passenger train regularly. Lodhikhera where he stays is but a sleepy village along the line. And there are other names he reels off when you ask him: Ramakona, Devi, Sausar, Umranalla... 

This is only a sampling of tiny stations among more than a hundred that were connected by narrow gauge railway back in 1913 making the Satpura Lines the largest narrow gauge railway network in the country. 

Narrow gauge was introduced in the Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra area mainly with a view to transport agricultural produce, but the train soon proved to be a boon for those staying in rural areas. With its arrival, both Nagpur and Jabalpur were connected with the district of Chhindwara, with additional links going all the way down to Nagbhir and Chanda Fort.

Train services on the Satpura Lines have been progressively phased out, with the railways keen on introducing broad gauge throughout. Among the last to be struck off the roll was the Nagpur—Chhindwara Passenger which saw its very last service on 30 November this year. The only service yet in operation is between Nagpur and Nagbhir, a tiny remnant of a complex rail network that was powered entirely by steam locomotives in its heydays.

With narrow gauge now practically off the rail map, how will it affect the simple folks who travelled on the line?

Reactions to this question vary. Two college youths I met on the platform were nonchalant. “We'll travel by bus,” they said easily, toying all the while with a Micromax mobile phone.

Kapil Sahare is not pleased however. “There are hundreds of tiny villages, some on the line, others in the interior, and people there rely entirely on this train,” he tells me. Shopkeepers and merchants from these villages made weekly trips to Nagpur to re-order their stocks, so it can well be imagined that the railway was much more than a mode of transport—it was the lifeline of these folks. “There are school children from my village who travel to Saoner by train to attend high school,” Kapil tells me. “And a large number of men employed as labour made use of the train each week to get to Nagpur.”

Dodging a herd of cows that had strayed onto the platform, I moved out of the station and trudged along the tracks. There is a charming little hut with a gabled roof you will come across if you but take the trouble to stroll along the line leading out of the station. In actual fact, this tiny thing is the ASM’s office which controls toy trains leaving Nagpur. The cabin is manned by Station Master Mr. Bhaje and others of his rank working in shifts. And there is always a good sprinkling of cheerful pointsmen around to attend to the train, uncouple the engine, and set the signals.

I nearly envied Mr. Bhaje and his colleagues. They are lucky folks who get to work in a pretty hut that clearly belongs to Raj days. But no one at the signal cabin had any idea how old the structure actually is. Although the line to Chhindwara was built in 1913, the present main station building came up only in 1925. On a rough guess we may therefore surmise that the cabin could be around ninety years old. Or maybe a little less.

That pretty little signal cabin where Bhaje works can’t be expected to last forever. Like the train it serves, it will move into obscurity one day, not far off. Ask anyone at the station and they will say the toy train to Nagbhir will be off the tracks in just a few months time. And when that happens, folks like Kapil Sahare and others will find themselves ditched and stranded as it were. Perhaps no one put this more poignantly than Station Master Bhaje himself. "This train was mostly for poor people," Bhaje tells me. "These folks will now be seen waiting at the highway looking for a bus. And a journey which cost them 10 - 15 rupees will now cost 40 - 50 rupees by a bus that is already full when it arrives at the village bus stop..."

It was a simple train for simple folks.
Ravindra Bhalerao

This charming village family knows their train is late in the evening and so decide to cook their food on the platform itself.

The C Cabin is manned by ASM Mr. Bhaje and others of his rank. You will also find levermen and pointsmen here and these men get busy as soon as the tiny trains trundle in. Leverman Mr Veer Priya is amongst the most cheerful pointsmen I have ever come upon. He loves to talk about his beloved railways. Narrow Gauge trains here belong to the SEC Railway, but the operating staff are all from the Central Railway he tells me. Even the land on which the railway is built belongs to the Central Railway. SEC Railway only looks after the maintenance of signals, locomotives, carriages and the track. The C Cabin employed quite a few pointsmen earlier, but with the closure of several train services, only a handful of them are on duty now. 

What will happen to the staff of C Cabin once narrow gauge is shut down? Station Master Bhaje says he will be employed in the Route Relay Interlocking Cabin of Nagpur. Pointsman Veer Priya too isn't worried. With the closure of narrow gauge, he will be deployed elsewhere, he says. At the C Cabin, his duty hours stretch to even 12 hours at a time.

This colourful spectacle can be seen at the platform end towards the evening, close to the spot where the Accident Relief Train is stabled. They are folks waiting for a train that will take them to Nagbhir side.  

The end of the narrow gauge platform in Nagpur. Where does the road lead from here? Only time will tell.

December 03, 2015

Oh, those Chiming Bells...

AT CHURCH, IT IS THE sexton who tolls the bell each Sunday calling forth inhabitants to join in worship and prayer. On a railway station however, it is the Station Master who is assigned this task. You won’t, of course, find him doing the job himself for that will require him to leave his seat ignoring the all important line clear instruments that are set out on his table before him. This is a job that is performed by a pointsman or chuprassi appointed to look after sundry jobs.

The Great Indian Peninsula Railway Rules states that “... for passenger trains the Station Master will give permission to the Guard to start the train either personally or by having the station bell rung according to the prescribed code or giving a green hand signal to the Guard... 

What precisely is the code for ringing a station bell ?

Here again is an excerpt from the GIP Railway Rules:

“...  When a train carrying passengers is due to leave and all work in connection with it is finished, the Station Master shall authorize the station bell to be rung except between the hours of 22 and 6 as follows:

One beat for starting a down train, two beats for an up train, and four beats for a branch line train.

At all stations, except on the Bombay Suburban section, sharp continuous beats shall be given on the station bell to announce the approach of a stopping train... 

Station Bell Codes vary from railway to railway. The Bombay, Baroda & Central India Railway observed the following rule:

The following warning and starting bells are sounded at stations for the information of the travelling public when a train carrying passengers is ready to start:

Starting bell for Passenger trains  ....   Two strokes

At stations where passenger trains stop for more than 5 minutes, in addition to the starting bell, a warning bell is sounded 5 minutes before starting time ....  Seven strokes.

Bells are among the prettiest remnants of India’s railway heritage. Their charm no doubt arises from the connection with a church, as well as their association with Christmas. And a good many do survive on railway stations even today.

I have long been on the lookout for a railway bell that is as good as new, one that gleams in the light. And I finally found one at the railway museum here in Nagpur. This is a recent arrival, and may be seen hanging close to the Museum Manager’s office. This one is really bright and polished; it gleams in the light !

Ravindra Bhalerao

October 11, 2015

Remembering M. Sanyal

WE DO NOT HAVE FULL information on who M. Sanyal was. All I can say is the gentleman worked for South Eastern Railway as AFI, a term which probably means Assistant Foreman at the locomotive shed in some category. Again we do not know which loco shed he worked in, it could be Kharagpur, or Adra, Dongargarh, maybe even Nagpur.

One can of course check up at the railway divisional office and locate who Sanyal was, and where he is stationed currently, but that will take time. But why the Dickens should we do so, trying to find the whereabouts of the man?  

I was drawn to M. Sanyal for the plain reason that he was a railwayman endowed with special artistic skill. Without knowing anything about the man, I can say he showed remarkable skill in drawing caricatures. And so, back in the 1980s, when South Eastern Railway decided to bring out a tiny booklet called Fuel Economy Guide, Mr Sanyal’s services were requisitioned to illustrate the publication.

The Fuel Economy Guide was a tiny booklet meant for official use, and a copy was issued to each steam loco driver. In it, the driver entered his name and various particulars, and on subsequent pages, he would be required to enter particulars such as the coal consumed on each particular trip, the timings of arrival and departure of his train, and so on.

By itself the fuel guide might have been a drab little booklet, but Sanyal was asked to illustrate the guide. His artistic sense can be judged by the illustrations he executed. His pictures show no sign of immaturity. Each exhibits the kind of masterly strokes one may expect from a professional cartoonist, besides giving us a glimpse of how it was like in a steam locomotive shed.

The cover page of the Fuel Economy Guide shows
a train speeding across the countryside. 
Bright clouds in the sky and soaring birds 
lend a colorful charm to the composition.

The opening page of the Fuel Economy Guide

This railway driver is holding his book upside down.
Such a thing was entirely possible, for many
steam drivers of old were illiterate folk

In many of his cartoons, the artist depicts a
driver as a man of voluminous proportions

Ah, the inside of a cab!

With this handsome compliment from the coal checker, how pleased
our driver looks...