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.