A Tribute to the Satpura Railway (Part I)

THERE IS SOMETHING about a Satpura narrow gauge train that sets apart the experience as exotic—an unforgettable ride that leaves behind a pleasurable sensation, a raw taste of what the ‘real’ India is like. Here you are surrounded by colourful tribal folk—the Gonds and the Bhils, the Adivasis and other tribes that the anthropologist is at pains to discover and unearth, and for a short while albeit, a curtain is drawn aside revealing a rich tapestry of tribal life which the city dweller has never glimpsed before. The train rattles on bumpily over the points, the carriages heave and sway, the clunk-thud seems to blend in with the unfolding landscape; but the old man wearing a turban and his wife seated opposite gaze out of the window, lost in a world of their own. Their contact with this marvel of miniature railway engineering is but transient. An hour later they will have got off at a station set amidst the open. The train hoots and begins to move. The man and his wife have begun their trek along a dirt road leading to a cluster of huts hidden from view by jungle and bush.

The origin of the Satpura lines can be traced to the early part of the twentieth century. Some ten years after the Bengal Nagpur Railway Company was formed, engineering surveys were carried out in the then Central Provinces with a view to open a low-cost railway that would unite the region into a whole. The object of the railway was two-fold : first, to open up the agricultural and mineral resources of the region ; and secondly, to safeguard the inhabitants of the area should a famine arise. The gauge selected for the purpose was 2 feet 6 inches and the first link from Gondia to Nainpur was opened in 1903. In the years that followed, construction progressed, till by 1913 Nagpur was connected with Chhindwara by narrow gauge. The ‘Satpura Lines,’ as they had come to be known, were the largest narrow gauge system in the country. With over a thousand kilometers of track mileage, the railway linked together Jabalpur, Gondia, Nagpur and Chhindwara with extensions going as far as Nagbhir and Chanda Fort in the south.
The map here shows the network as it was in the early twentieth century. Full black lines denote 2 feet 6 inch gauge track. The dotted line from Tumsar Road to Katangi was a 2 feet gauge light railway built to transport manganese ore deposits found in the region. This light railway offshoot remained in operation till 1929 following which it was decommissioned and a portion running from Tumsar Road to Tirodi converted to broad gauge.

A narrow gauge train at Gondia Junction. Note the
broad gauge track in the foreground.
(by courtesy of NGRM, Nagpur)

The Narrow Gauge Railway Museum of Nagpur

The present trend on the railways is a futuristic one that looks forward to modernization and adopting a uniform gauge countrywide. Anything that is old and unserviceable faces the threat of extinction. Thankfully though, the DHR, the Nilgiri and the Kalka-Simla lines have been exempt from this rule. These tiny, unremunerative lines meandering through hills and valleys are now protected species ; their survival is guaranteed by UNESCO world heritage status.

Visitors' first view of the indoor museum showing
a Bagnall loco of 1916 vintage, and the railways'
mascot holding a lamp.
Could not something of a similar kind be done for the Satpura lines of Central India? For having served the region for nearly a century, this legendary railway is now slowly passing into history. Here is a diminutive railway enterprise tailor-made to suit the needs of tribal folk in the heart of India, a miniature rail miracle that has been around for so long that it would be a shame to pull it apart summarily without giving a thought to the heritage value of the system.

The railways, it seems, were aware of this, and since they could not continue with a system that had outlived its usefulness they did the next best thing, and that is to come up with a museum. For more than a decade now, the Narrow gauge railway museum of Nagpur has offered the visitor a rare peek into the past of India’s famed Satpura railway, besides being a much-loved amusement park where families may be seen to congregate in large numbers in the evenings. With its sprawling gardens spread over an area of over four acres, the museum is built over the site of the former S. E. Railway broad gauge steam locoshed, and is a vast repository of antiquarian objects that sets out to document the technology used on the Satpura and other narrow gauge railways since earliest times.

Newar, the visionary museum
While the credit for planning and setting up this heritage rail park goes to the railway top brass who have but to wave a wand and the miracle comes to pass, the popularity of the place as a venue that offers relaxation, entertainment as well as instruction derives largely from the efforts of one man who decided to bring the finest skills in mechanical engineering to bear upon the management of narrow gauge relics. Since 2008 the museum has been under the charge of Shri Kumar Newar, a man who had held all along a senior engineering position in the Motibagh Railway Workshop. A highly respected figure in divisional railway circles, Shri Newar took over charge and using his innovative and imaginative skills transformed it into a bustling place that now brings in a revenue of nearly a lakh rupees each month, an accomplishment which earned him a letter of commendation from the senior railway administration.

Says Newar: “When I first joined as Manager, the place was undeveloped, mostly jungle, and as visitors were few in numbers, the monthly income was only to the tune of Rs 1200. Something needed to be done if the museum was to be a success! In consultation with my superiors I sent out letters of invitation to Principals of 750 recognized schools. The immediate result of this was that schoolchildren began to pour in accompanied by teachers. In the meantime, landscaping of the museum grounds was in progress and the result was quite pleasing. The museum now took on the appearance of a public park with well-watered grass and shrubs, slides and swings, old style benches, and, most important, a toy train was begun which children found irresistible taking them on a long, circuitous ride along the museum periphery. We have on show here some very rare items of rail heritage and I wanted children in particular to know about this collection. To this end we again invited schools for holding competitions in drawing, painting and essay writing. The response to this move was tremendous. These days the museum is also open to groups who wish to hold birthday parties on the premises for a small fee, of course. These initiatives soon began to give results : the museum today draws crowds in large numbers, bringing in a monthly revenue of over Rs 90, 000.”

The Narrow Gauge Railway Museum of Nagpur

Shri Newar, an engineer by profession, has interesting recollections of his days in the Motibagh workshop: “Motibagh is a heritage workshop in the heart of the Orange City, and was established in 1879 by the Nagpur Chhattisgarh State Railway to cope with periodic overhaul and repairs to locomotives, carriages and wagons,” he tells us. “When I first joined the workshop in 1974, the staff strength was around 1200 ; now it has come down to 640 because of the implementation of the uni-gauge policy of the railways. Now that narrow gauge is on the way out, the workshop is gearing itself to undertake repairs and overhauls to broad gauge rolling stock. The workshop has as its head the Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer who is assisted in his work by two senior officials and two engineers. During my forty years of service here, I have served in the capacity of Head of the Planning Section as well as in the manufacturing units. These were jobs involving a high level of responsibility. Towards the end of my stay here, I was assigned the task of designing the toy train you see running in the museum. It was a challenging task, but in every way, a memorable one too. For this accomplishment, the then GM, Shri Pradeep Kumar honoured me with a cash award of Rs 50,000  on his visit to the museum in 2004.”

The toy train in the museum was designed
by Kumar Newar.

A view of the yard. The conical tower at top-left is a
non-functional signal cabin

So does the Nagpur railway museum succeed in conveying the true flavor of the Satpura railway? The casual visitor who drops in hoping to find a dozen or more steam locomotives in the yard waiting to be stroked on their backs is going to be disappointed, for he will find only three engines here, two of them housed indoors making good photography nearly impossible. But if we accept the view that a rail museum exists to depict the sum total of what a railway was like since earliest times, then the place at once takes on a new meaning ;  it comes alive with colour and atmosphere.

A hand-point made by Anderston Foundry of
Glasgow, 1887.

Indoor exhibits at the museum include a large assortment of artifacts from a bygone age, kept in glass showcases, and forming a number of galleries. There are static models of locomotives and carriages on display, builder’s plates, signalling and permanent way equipment, hand-lamps and old telephone sets, locomotive fittings, and various other objects of interest. The archive houses a collection of rare stamps as well as old documents, locomotive specifications and diagrams, and railway manuals.

Amongst the most delightful pieces on show indoors is a platform weighing scale made in 1897 by W. & T. Avery Limited of London and Birmingham and a signal lever frame from Saxby Farmer Limited dating back to 1899. And there is an ancient hand-point mechanism in the yard outdoors from Anderston Foundry Company Limited, Glasgow and Middlesborough,  with a barely visible 'BNR 1887' appearing in relief.

Besides a diesel-hydraulic locomotive and a narrow gauge royal carriage built in 1899 by Orenstein Koppel of Germany, the principal attraction indoors is a 5 Bagnall 0-6-4 narrow gauge tank loco weighing 15 tons and having a maximum speed of 25 kmph. This baby tank engine is no old junkie—built in 1916 by Bagnall Limited, Stafford, England, this loco was reconditioned for a heritage run in 2002, and can be seen resplendent in bright red livery and polished brass fittings.

Placed on a low ‘pedestal’ outside the main building is a 39.5 ton 4-6-2 steam loco manufactured in 1907 by the North British Loco Company, Glasgow, UK. Cross over the lawn and you find yourself in a little ‘yard’ complete with turnouts and a level crossing gate. Here you will find stabled a 1957 make steam crane of Italian make coupled to a goods brake van, and on the adjoining track, an oil tanker, old goods wagons and heritage carriages in the usual maroon-red livery.

Number 677 CC was made in 1907 by the North British
Locomotive Company, Glasgow.

A Legend called Nainpur

No railway can hope to survive without extensive repair facilities. On the Satpura Lines, periodic overhauls were done at Motibagh while routine maintenance of engines was carried out in sheds spread over the region. There were locomotive sheds at Howbagh (Jabalpur), Chhindwara, Nagpur, Nainpur, Nagbhir and Gondia. With the exception of Howbagh, each of these locosheds was furnished with an accident relief train and a 10 - ton steam loco crane.

Royal Saloon of 1899 used on the Parlakimedi
State Railway

Turntables for reversing engines could be found at Nainpur, Howbagh, Nagpur, Chhindwara, Chanda Fort, and Gondia, each 50 feet in length, while triangles were provided at Katangi, Chhindwara, Khirsadoh, Nagbhir and Mandla Fort.

The centers of busiest railway activity were, without a doubt, Chhindwara and Nainpur. Bill Aitken, exploring the railways, had been to the latter town, and he tells us of “…the satisfaction of seeing a steam locomotive back up to take us to Nainpur which in 1985 boasted of a locoshed that still homed ten ZEs. Like all narrow gauge carriages the fittings were old but full of character. The wooden seats of the lower classes gave a pleasant enough ride for me to have no regrets on that overnight journey which ended at 4 a.m. when the train, which was running to time, halted for water and a change of engine at Nainpur Junction.” (1) The narrow gauge enthusiast must gravitate to Nainpur just as the old countryman cheerfully turns to the pub on his way back home ; but on another occasion, while at Nainpur, Aitken had the unpleasant experience of being ‘chased away by censorious securitymen.’  A most unfortunate experience for a man possessing an official permit allowing the use of a camera—and perhaps the reason why his book does not have a single picture from this busy little railway town.

Being then the focal point of the Satpura railway, Nainpur was a place of concentrated railway activity. With four routes radiating outwards, Nainpur (like Chhindwara) was fully equipped to deal with any contingency that arose. Its station had two platforms, one low-level, the other rail level ; six reception lines, and loops long enough to hold about 20 vehicles on each. For the student of narrow gauge railway operation, no other station offered as much scope in terms of equipment, infrastructure and staff : the Electrical Department with its Train Lighting Fitters, Electrical Mistries, and Electric Fitters, all working under the Foreman ; the Signal and Telecom Department with its Signal Inspectors, Signal Maintainers, and Block Inspectors ; the Engineering Department staffed by PWIs and Bridge Inspectors ; and as always, Train Examiners, Carriage & Wagon Inspectors, Loco Inspectors, and Transportation Inspectors.

Locoshed staff of Nainpur shed pose in front of ZE 44  (Courtesy of NGRM, Nagpur)