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...

September 19, 2015

Platform Humour

A Trainload of Jokes and Anecdotes by K R Vaidyanathan;  English Edition Publishers and Distributors Pvt Ltd, Mumbai, 2003; pp 159, Rs 150

THE STORY IS TOLD of an English gentleman named Tom who had the deepest regard for the railways of India. Once Tom was at Karjat station waiting for a train that would take him to Poona. When after three hours  at the platform, there was no sign of a train coming, Tom asked a porter what the matter was.

"There was a train collusion last night on this line, sir," explained the porter.

Tom looked the coolie up and down with disgust. "Collision, not collusion, you idiot !" he cried.

To which the porter asked, "U or I sir?"

There are people who look upon a joke as a mere trifle, an altogether waste of words. Others say that for real harmless fun nothing can beat a joke. They say that a joke leads on to laughter which is the best medicine. Someone may break into a laugh, others may grin. The humour may be ever so slight but it nearly always brings a smile to the listener's face.

With so many joke books already on the crowded shelves of bookshops, one may wonder if Vaidyanathan's anthology has anything different to offer. The answer depends on who picks up the book. The general reader will look upon this as any other joke book with the railways as its theme. For the rail enthusiast, it is nothing less than a treasure chest of nuggets. It is a book that comes close to being a collectors' find.

A veteran writer and railwayman, Shri Vaidyanathan first began to dabble with literature when he joined railway service in 1947. He was posted to Bombay where he found an untapped mine of literary treasure lying in the VT library. It was a veritable treasure and Vaidyanathan would spend hour after hour reading voraciously. He soon found he had a penchant for collecting trivia from old railway magazines and books. He kept adding to his collection until his stock of material grew to enormous proportions, large enough to fill an entire book. Then came the task of classifying his tales under various heads. This book, released on the 150th anniversary of Indian Railways, has jokes and anecdotes on nearly every facet of railway life. Beginning with platform humour, there are sections devoted to trains and travellers, tales from the Raj, train robberies, as well as humour revolving around guards, station masters, booking clerks and a variety of other subjects.

Had it been purely a joke book, this volume would probably not have much to recommend it. Its appeal lies in the fact that the writer has carefully interspersed his work with anecdotes from real life, as well as trivia that serves to inform as well as entertain. He tells us how the railways met with opposition when they first arrived in India, and how the 24 - hour clock came to be adopted. Then there are tales telling about the legendary Thomas Edmondson and the pasteboard ticket he invented, railway officials and the games they played in their colonies, a runaway cattle train speeding through the countryside unmanned for over an hour. There is enough variety in this book to hold the enthusiast spellbound from beginning till end.

Nothing could be more charming that the tale of Mr Barnard who retired as Chief Operating Superintendent of the old East Indian Railway. Having spent the whole day in the grilling heat of Mughalsarai yard on an inspection, Barnard retired towards evening to his inspection saloon. But sleep would not come easily, and he was frequently woken up due to his carriage being shunted about throughout the night. To quote his own words:  “I was grateful for the lull towards the morning and had gone to sleep peacefully for the first time (for my carriage which had been like a furnace had, by now, somewhat cooled down), when there was a terrific bang and I was nearly thrown off my berth. This was the last straw and I got up in a towering rage intending to blow up the shunter. As I turned to the handle of the door to open it, I heard one of the shunting porters shouting Astey, astey, saala sota hai. At this I promptly went back to bed.”

Then there's the tale of the burly loco foreman known to his friends as ‘Small’ who once squeezed his frame through the window of a carriage and bolted for his life with a TTI in hot pursuit thinking him to be a ticketless traveler... Or yet again, the scene at Delhi railway station where Lord Irwin, having relinquished his viceroyalty stood shaking hands with the Station Master thanking him for his courtesy. “Not at all, your Excellency,” replied the Station Master, “It has always been a pleasure to see you off !”

Deep within his heart, the railway enthusiast holds an unfortunate bias. He would love to think of his railways as an enterprise that exists solely for its own sake. The buzzing crowd on the platform, the follies and foibles of railwaymen, the cries of a porter, the exchange between travellers seated in a carriage—these and a host of other things are seen as a positive hindrance, and shrugged aside as though they were no part of the real business of railways. But let him but come upon a Signalman posted on duty, and his perspective dramatically alters. The railwayman at work assumes an importance out of all proportion to the true nature of his work; he appears as a larger-than-life figure, a superhuman being engaged in the noblest of all pursuits. 

With its human interest stories and anecdotes, Vaidyanathan's book has a remarkable levelling influence. It helps to dispel some of these notions held by the railfan, creating a more balanced perspective. Let a man but read this volume, and if he be a rail enthusiast, he will find himself better equipped in his mind when he sets his sights on the next train due at the station. 

This is a wonderfully evocative book peopled by engine foremen, guards and drivers, rail travellers, ticket examiners, station masters and railway superintendents of old. One may dip into it at leisure and draw inspiration and enjoyment. It is a perennial source of merriment and pleasure, a lively voice that conjures up India's steam age in all its hues and colours.

Ravindra Bhalerao

September 15, 2015

Of Station Clocks and Bells

THE FIRST TIME I looked upon an old grandfather clock, it did not strike a chord with me. It looked ancient, its appearance was ungainly. When it struck the hour, the chimes came low and sorrowful. It seemed to say that time was a slow moving, melancholy business.

The years wore on. I never did get a chance to see a similar clock again--at least not in a home. Old grandfather clocks have all but disappeared leaving no trace behind. Oh, how we hated to wind up the key each day! Modern battery operated clocks have freed us from this drudgery, but with the passing of mechanical clocks, time itself seems to have moved into a new era. Of the old, nothing is left except for a few scattered indications, a few remnants here and there treasured by discerning individuals as heritage.

And so here I was gazing up with wonderment at a large dial with bold numerals printed on it. The hour and minute hands carried arrowheads pointing unmistakably to the hour of the day. This was not a pendulum clock; it was a station clock made way back in 1900 by Favre Leuba which had served for a good many years on Dabhoi railway station before it was moved to the rail museum in Vadodara. A glorious old time-keeper, spring wound of course, the whole affair enclosed in a majestic dark case of generous size. Being a station clock it needed constant attention, as indeed every clock did. Each day, the station master's attendant must climb up to polish the glass and wind up the key. And when Marconi's invention took the world by storm, it became common practice for each such clock to be set each day to radio time.

Although working on batteries, this replica of a station clock
would make a fine addition to any home

Many of these railway clocks are truly old. I have come upon a specimen dating back to 1870 (sadly, didn’t carry along my camera with me!) manufactured by Messrs. John Walker & Company of London, a revered name in wall clocks since the 15th century. Many of these clocks are still in working condition today, their dials still sparkling as though new.

But it really immaterial if a clock is functioning or not, for each is a priceless treasure from an age when the Industrial Revolution had first begun to make its effect felt in the Indian subcontinent. Each has a tale to tell; each has lived through several generations and is a silent witness to social and technological change taking place around.

I then turned my attention to the bells on display. The Vadodara museum had two bells on display made by the firm of J. Warner & Sons, London. But perhaps the most fascinating of all the bells I have ever seen is an old brass one dating back to 1868, hung up beside the Station Master's office on Mahim station. Mahim is an important suburb of Bombay and here hung this ancient piece of brass for over a hundred years. Then times began to change and the old station bells which heralded the arrival of trains with their musical beats were abandoned and forgotten. But it is cheering to note that many of these old bells survive to this day. The Mahim bell was extra special; being the oldest on the B B & C I Railway, it was shifted to the Western Railway General Manager's residence on Altamount Road where it stands as a glorious memento of India's railway heritage. 

This GIP Railway bell was made in 1898 and till as late
as 2000, hung outside the Station Master's office
at Barbatpur station on the Itarsi - Betul section
of Central Railway

Like clocks staring down from high up on the platform canopy, bells were an essential part of the working of railway stations. Before the arrival of public address systems, bells were indispensable. They were used to inform passengers of the arrival and departure of trains. When a man laden with luggage and with a family in tow heard as long series of peals, he knew his train would shortly pull into the station. Two short beats, on the other hand, meant that a train at the platform was preparing to leave. That was a real primitive way of informing passengers waiting at a station. And yet it was accepted practice. Bells were in use at both large as well as small stations. At a wayside station, it was a common sight to find village folks in droves hurrying up the station steps, frantic and worried at the sound of the station bell.

With modern technology taking over, station memorabilia has become an endangered species, and many large stations will be found to have succumbed to modernization to such an extent that very little of the old remains except perhaps the station building itself. But all is not lost. Hidden away in chambers and offices, one may stumble upon a long sought-after antique, a priceless rail artefact that warms the heart and brings back nostalgic memories of the past. Rail historian Rajendra Aklekar has made it his province to explore such remnants in the Bombay area, and has come upon an enormous amount of treasure, untapped and lying neglected. His discoveries may be found listed in his book Halt Station India, together with a good deal of history. Among the many fascinating discoveries made by this avid explorer is F. W. Stevens' original furniture--decorative tables, chairs, desks and cupboards with GIPR carved on them--furniture that is still in use in the offices of Victoria Terminus, the headquarters of the erstwhile Great Indian Peninsula Railway in Bombay.

Aklekar also tells us of fire buckets in the corridors of the Victoria Terminus, manufactured by Merryweather & Sons, that grand old English firm which began production of fire equipment in 1692. Oh, how I wished I could get to see some of these old fire buckets! By a lucky happenstance, I found what I was looking for closer home. Nagpur Railway station has something today which will cheer any rail heritage buff. On the orders of a Divisional Railway Manager, the very last platform towards Santra Market side has been designed as a "heritage gallery". Among the handful of heritage items scattered across the length of the platform is an old fire pump manufactured by Merryweather & Sons of London. Grand old vintage stuff ! The pump is manually operated by a pair of wooden handles which operate pistons in a pair of cylinders to pump out water to douse the fire. 

It appears at least four men would be required to operate the pump, but I can't be sure where the water is stored -- probably within the large red case itself.

Station memorabilia makes interesting study. Bill Aitken once suggested it would be an instructive experience for a rail enthusiast to board the Agra Passenger from Delhi , getting off a stations enroute to explore rail heritage lying around in station offices. His remark was made several years back; today it is doubtful if any such heritage item would be seen lurking around in Station Masters’ offices. We are, of course, speaking of Edmondson ticket machines. With computerized tickets now universally in use, these quaint old date stamping machines have all but disappeared, and may be found only at tiny stations on routes that still issue card tickets.

Vintage Edmondson ticket
dating machines

Close-up of a ticket dating machine

Here is another example of station memorabilia, a platform weighing machine from H. Pooley and Sons of Liverpool, England. Henry Pooley & Son was established in 1790 to manufacture scale beams. By 1835 they had begun to make platform scales. Business continued till in 1913 the firm was absorbed by W. & T. Avery Limited. So Pooley & Sons have been in the business for a long time, being the forerunners of Avery Limited. Here then is a  piece of platform machinery that can be said to be truly vintage in character!

When Victoria Terminus station was opened in 1888, it was lit by incandescent gas lamps, as were many other early stations of the time. But kerosene lamps were in universal use too, and here is a fine example of what a wall lamp those days looked like. We have no information where this lamp was employed. It might have been fixed on the wall of a Station Master's office, or maybe a waiting room...

And here's a lovely hurricane lantern below. How could the railways have ever functioned without lamps and lanterns?! Why, the whole signalling system relied on kerosene lamps to indicate signal aspects by night. This lamp comes from the Accident Relief Train stabled in Motibagh in Nagpur. 

Ravindra Bhalerao