A Tribute to the Satpura Railway (Part II)

Signalling and Communication

The Advance Starter at Nagpur.
The fishtailed  Warner below really applies
to Motibagh which is only a short
distance away. Note that the Satpura
 train passes  below the BG rail
Railwaymen are a business-minded lot and when a line is constructed, the size chosen is dictated more by practical considerations than by anything else. Before a line can be laid the first thing to do is to make a thorough study of the region in terms of its industry, population, trade, natural resources and geographical features. These details together with a preliminary study of the various possible routes along which the railway may be laid enable a calculation to made of the cost of constructing the line as also the revenue it is likely to bring in. While the broad gauge may seem superior to every other gauge in terms of speed and carrying capacity, it does not offer the most economic rail solution in every case : if the amount of traffic expected is small, laying a meter, or even a narrow gauge line would appear to be more justified from a practical standpoint.

After being around for more than a century, the Satpura railway is now on the brink of extinction with many of its lines already converted to broad gauge. But what remains still delightfully retains the flavor of a heritage railway. You can still find a pointsman walk up to the track and set the route whereupon a pretty little ground lamp will be found to flip its face towards you. And stations masters along the line still use Neale’s token instruments making their entries in a voluminous train register maintained in the office.

Signalling on the narrow gauge was based on the traditional Lower Quadrant semaphore system. The usual signalling arrangements at a station would include an Outer signal with a Warner below it, a Home, Starter, and an Advance Starter. A Warner has a fishtailed arm and its main function is to indicate to the driver if a reduction in speed is called for. When a train runs through a station (and this was a rare occurrence on the Satpura lines) the Warner arm was dropped indicating that the driver could proceed unhindered. Sadly, not all Station Masters follow this injunction, and the South Eastern Railway rule book has a stern warning for offenders: “Warner signals are not always lowered for trains booked to run through. It should be impressed on all cabinmen that this is a serious offence as such a practice reacts very adversely on the speed of such trains.”

The interlocking on the Satpura NG network is simple
key locking, also known as the Annett's Lock
and Key System.

The earliest electrical instrument which enabled a station master on the line to instantly confirm the status of his section to his colleague in the rear was the electric telegraph. In later days Neale’s token instruments were installed to exchange line clear messages. But for several years to come, even after Neale’s instruments had come into use, line clear messages had to be telegraphed in addition. The Satpura timetable of 1975 has specific instructions for station masters along the line. For non-interlocked sections of the railway it clearly warns, “Avoid short cut methods. All line clear messages must be telegraphed in full.”

Railway rules for signalling provide interesting material for contemplation and study. For example, all Down trains proceeding from Chhindwara towards Nagpur are expected to stop at the Outer signal of Kukrakhapa station 36 kilometers down the line. After halting at the Down Outer, the driver whistles after which the station master on duty lowers the signal for the train to be admitted to the station.

Tiger, Tiger, burning bright. To the left is a
lamp used in shunting work. On right is a 4-sided lamp
used by railway staff at night for hand signals. 

Communication on running trains was facilitated by portable control field telephone sets. A field telephone of this kind was provided in the brake van of narrow gauge trains ; when connected to an overhead telephone line it allowed train staff to get in touch with Control during an emergency. Another interesting device used was the magneto telephone illustrated here. This had a hand-operated generator for giving a ring, and provided a link between stations masters on the line and gatemen manning level crossing gates.

A Magneto telephone used on the
Satpura Lines 

The Romance of Shunting Trains

Other than Passenger trains and Goods services, the Satpura railway also had Mixed trains on its timetable.

For the reader who wishes to savour the charm of the Satpura lines without stirring from his armchair, nothing can quite equal a study of the operation of a Mixed train running on the system. A mixed train is a composite of passenger coaches and goods wagons ; its operation makes absorbing study because it has work to do in the form of shunting at wayside stations along the route.

1 NR Up proceeds towards Ramakona where it finds two
water tanks awaiting delivery to stations further
down the line.

Consider the working of 1 NR Up/2 NR Down. This was a mixed shunting service between Nagpur and Chhindwara, and yet a passenger embarking at Nagpur could travel on this train only as far as Ramakona. Each day 1 NR Up (Nagpur--Ramakona) leaves Nagpur with a set of passenger coaches and goods wagons. After journeying for over seven hours, the train pulls into Ramakona at 8 p.m. where coaching vehicles are detached and stabled on a loop. The train therefore carries passengers no further. However, it has by no means reached the end of its journey. The engine has work to do here : switching over tracks it picks up two full water tanks and returns to the main goods train resuming its onward run (minus the coaching vehicles) at 9 p.m. On the way, it deposits one water tank at Bheemalgondi, the other at Kukrakhapa, besides picking up parcels traffic and wagons at stations enroute, finally reaching Chhindwara at about 2 a.m.

In the down direction, 2 NR Down leaves Chhindwara at 2-30 in the morning with only goods wagons. On the way it picks up water tanks at Kukrakhapa and Bheemalgondi (now empty) reaching Ramakona at 7 a.m. There it deposits these tanks to be filled up, and picking up the coaching vehicles left earlier by 1 NR, it proceeds with its load of goods wagons and passengers towards Nagpur.

These shunting procedures together with other duties are summarized in the following extract from “Working Arrangements on Narrow Gauge” with the following station codes used in the text:

CWA :  Chhindwara
RMO :  Ramakona
ITR  :  Itwari
SASR  :  Sausar
KFP  :  Kukrakhapa
BMC  :  Bheemalgondi

“…. 2 NR Down / 1 NR Up will run as Mixed trains between Nagpur and Chhindwara and will do section clearance between CWA and RMO. 1 NR will perform shunting at ITR and RMO and will pick up loads and empties at ITR and RMO and beyond. The coaching vehicles by 1 NR Up should be detached at RMO and placed in position so that they may be attached by 2 NR Dn daily. 1 NR Up should be completed with loads and empties at ITR leaving room for clearance of Up loads between RMO and CWA. These trains will also clear parcel traffic in wagon loads from section ...

“… 2 NR Down will perform shunting between CWA and RMO and at ITR. It will carry loads for stations between CWA and RMO and for ITR. This train should leave CWA with full load to scheduled time leaving room for clearance of Dn loads and coaching vehicles from RMO and will also do shunting at SASR to clear perishable traffic in wagon loads, and shunting should be completed within the allowed time. The perishable loads, if any, at SASR for clearance by 2 NR shall be advised by Station Master/SASR to Control in time.  2 NR will also perform yard shunting at RMO without affecting punctual start to 2 NR at RMO.  2 NR will clear water tanks from KFP and BMC daily and on arrival at RMO will fill up water tanks and detach in position so that they may be attached by 1 NR Up daily...”

This Satpura train has just emerged from under the
broad gauge line and is on its way to Nagpur
with a diesel loco at the head.

Here is another excerpt from a vintage Satpura railway rule book throwing more light on the operation of shunting :

“... In case of emergency, train engines may be called upon to do shunting of their own or other trains if required by the Traffic department before departure from or after arrival at engine changing stations where shunting engine is not in steam. Shunting time must be recorded in a Shunting and Detention Memo...  

“.... Under special circumstances Goods trains may be required to perform shunting at some stations to attach or detach inspection carriages or other vehicles, although such trains are not scheduled to perform shunting. Drivers must not refuse to perform shunting and should act in terms of the instructions issued in S.R.I  148E .....”

Why would a driver refuse to perform unscheduled shunting? A newspaper report appeared some years back where Wasim Quraishi interviewed two retired Satpura steam drivers, Jatanlal Yadav and his colleague Hiralal, throwing interesting light on what was involved in driving a narrow gauge train.

The steam engine may be an object of devotion for the enthusiast, but Messrs. Hiralal and Jatanlal Yadav do not share this view with the enthusiast. For these gentlemen there is nothing romantic about a steam train ; it was gruelling work, particularly in the heat of the summer, and these two men, like many others of their cadre, are only too glad that the age of steam is past. Coal supplied to the Satpura railway, these drivers tell us, was at times inferior in quality leaving the engineman with a firebox that was not hot enough to build up adequate steam pressure. This was always a major obstacle for it meant that the men had to halt their train in the middle of nowhere and get to work building up the fire. During summers, water was always scarce and drivers and their assistants often made use of water in the tender for personal needs. It was punishing work manning a steam engine, leaving the men physically depleted. And there was often no time for having meals. When the crew did get a break, the food carried along in tiffin boxes was found to have gone bad.

Manufacturer's plate from an old goods wagon

Safety in Operation

Unlike the motor car, a railway is a form of guided transport. When running at speed a train develops a tremendous momentum making instant braking impossible, and this coupled with the fact that steering as in an automobile is not possible has made it necessary for an elaborate system to be devised to ensure safety.

Serving a total of over 120 stations spread over a route length of about 1020 kilometers, the Satpura railway of yore was the largest narrow gauge system in India. Ancient timetables, both public and working, are always a pleasure to study, listing stations and stoppages besides providing a wealth of information on various matters of interest. Some very pretty station names emerge from a perusal of these old documents : Hatta Road, Padregunj, Binaiki, Shikara, Chiraidongri, Ram Rama, Saongi, Tempa, Devi ....

This scan from an old working timetable lists stations on the Nainpur—Chhindwara route (click on the image above for a larger picture). This 140 kilometer long stretch has two ghat sections where the line crossed the Mahadeo hills of the Satpura range. Abbreviations following station names give interesting insights : 'W' stands for Watering Station, of which there were a total of about forty on the railway. The duration of a halt for engine watering depends on the class of train : 12 minutes for a Passenger train, 15 minutes for a Mixed, and 20 minutes for a Goods train. Other abbreviations found in these timetables include E for Engine Changing Station, N for Notice Station, PH for Passenger Halt, R for Restaurant, S for Tea stall, Sg for Siding, BS for Block Station, V for Vegetarian Refreshment Room, and NV for Non-vegetarian Refreshment Room.

Not all sections of track can handle a train at full speed, and for safety reasons, speed restrictions are imposed on the movement of trains. The most common cause of such a restriction is a scissors crossover where narrow gauge trains are limited to only 10 kmph. Other causes leading to a speed limit include passage over a siding point, old and worn out rails, scanty ballast, weak girders over a bridge, and reverse curves on steep gradients.

Another interesting area of safety in operation is the interlocking of level crossing gates with signals. Between Itwari and Nagpur for example, you had two level crossings each interlocked with banner type signals placed between broad gauge and narrow gauge tracks, 180 meters short of the first level crossing in either direction. These signals apply to trains approaching on both BG and NG tracks. When a driver comes up against a level crossing signal at danger, he has to come to a dead halt at the signal and blow his whistle at short intervals. If the signal is not lowered after 2 minutes, drivers are required to proceed cautiously while being prepared to stop short of the level crossing.

At other places, level crossings on the railway were protected by gate signals preceded in the rear by Warner signals or signal sighting boards.

Here is a list of ghat sections on the Satpura railway:

1) Nagpur—Chhindwara Section:
        Ramakona -  Umranalla

2) Nainpur—Chhindwara Section:
    a) Bhoma - Seoni
    b) Karaboh - Jhilimilli

3) Gondia—Nainpur—Jabalpur Section
    a) Pindrai - Ghunsore
    b) Binaiki - Shikara
    c) Gowarighat - Howbagh (Jabalpur)

The passage of a train over a downward grade on a ghat is always fraught with danger and to ensure safety, mixed and goods trains had to halt at engineering stop boards placed at the commencement of such sections and the driver required to 'pin down' brakes before resuming his run. Each such stoppage would be certified by the Guard by an entry made in his Train Report. For such trains, the rules lay it down that not less than 70 - 75 percent of the vehicles on the train should be fitted with active vacuum brakes operative from the engine.

Passenger trains, in contrast, were fully vacuum braked, and were therefore exempt from the procedure of halting and pinning down brakes on a downward grade.

For added safety, vacuum log registers were maintained at select stations in ghat areas. Station masters on duty were required to personally check the vacuum gauge of the brake van jointly with the Guard before handing over the line-clear ticket to the driver of the train, and record the results in the vacuum log register obtaining the Guard's signature in token of the correctness of the entry. The minimum vacuum recommended was 15 inches in the brake van.

Train operation on the Satpura railway may thus be seen to be based on definite rules worked out with the greatest care and forethought.

Vintage carriages that once were a part of the Satpura railway.

When it was first conceived, one of the prime objectives of the Satpura Lines was to tap the agricultural produce of the region. A hundred years later, that area of commerce has been taken over by road transport leaving the narrow gauge free to devote itself entirely to ferrying the habitual traveller to his remote country destination. Within a few years’ time what remains of this quaint little railway, too, will have vanished without leaving a trace behind other than a few select remnants preserved in the Nagpur museum. And with it will come to an end the saga of the narrow gauge rail adventure that first began when a colonial administration sniffed at the untapped resources of India's tribal heartland. There was much enthusiasm in the air when the railway was first begun. “All the passenger coaches are fully vacuum braked and lighted with Pintsch's incandescent gas,” said one brochure of 1908. “The first- and second-class composite carriages are replete with every convenience for comfortable travel ... The ceilings are of millboard painted white, and pleasing effect has been secured by the introduction of strips of metal worked into various geometrical designs ...” (2)  It was an age of new ideas, an age of optimism, where the steam engine led the way bringing in prosperity and progress wherever it went. The little train was a complete success. It sped along all through the day and late into the night, passing through obscure little towns and hamlets, bringing the blessing of mobility to a rural clientele, whistling a message of cheer and hope as it went along. Fisherman and farmer, the day labourer and the schoolmaster alike rejoiced at the sound of its approach.

That was the Satpura railway. On the eve of its departure let us salute the little train. Au revoir !

Close-up of a signal lever frame of 1899 made by Saxby
Farmer Limited of London and Calcutta.

Ravindra Bhalerao

1)  Bill Aitken,  Exploring Indian Railways, New Delhi, 1995, p 169.
2)  R. R. Bhandari,  South Eastern Railway: March to New Millenium, Kolkata, 2001, p 50.

I wish to record my gratitude to Shri Kumar Newar, formerly Manager of the S E C Railway Narrow Gauge Museum of Nagpur for kindly making available archival documents and photographs from the museum collection for this article.

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