The Narrow Gauge Rail Museum of Nagpur

 FOR MANY PEOPLE Motibagh is synonymous with the former South Eastern Railway's establishment here in Nagpur. Coming down from Kadbi Square you couldn't help being so much a part of the railway and its doings : there was the South Eastern Railway Health Centre, the Railway Institute, the workshop and the diesel loco sheds, the railway quarters and the stadium. Motibagh is set in railwayland ; it lies at the junction of a network of criss-crossing rail tracks some laid above the others, and not far from the ever present D-cabin that lies on the main line to Bilaspur and easily seen from the roadway. It can all be seen from the road itself -- even the steam loco shed of the South Eastern Railway. 

This was how things stood many years ago. Then came the move to do away with steam power and the old steam shed was left to itself, abandoned, forlorn and uncared for. When I had been to see the crumbling edifice a long time back there were no locos in sight, but I could see plaster peeling from the walls, and a list of engine types and numbers which went to make up the holding of the shed.

That was how the steam shed of Motibagh stood some two decades back. Today the building still stands but bears an altogether different look. The structure was renovated years ago, the yard was demolished and landscaped, a fountain was installed, trees and shrubs planted. This great centre of steam motive power never did vanish altogether ; it was made into a receptacle worthy to house relics belonging to the narrow gauge railway network of the Satpura Lines. The snore and heave and clang of steam have long since vanished ; today in its place we find a quiet public park with lawns and gravel pathways, soft music pouring from loudspeakers, and a modest collection of narrow gauge rolling stock and engines on display. This is the South East Central Railway's  Narrow Gauge Museum in Nagpur.

Notwithstanding the visitors' book which heaps lavish comments on the collection held by the museum, the true heritage enthusiast is going to be somewhat disappointed with the exhibits he finds here. And with good reason too, for no matter what one may say,  the heritage buff looks upon a rail museum as the repository of a variety of steam locomotives, and the Nagpur museum is lamentably poor in this respect. Besides a diesel hydraulic loco housed indoors you have two -- just two steam locos in possession of the museum. But this could perhaps be an intentional feature. Had a dozen or more steam locos been brought in for display, this would hardly have served to promote the place as an evening resort,  and the Nagpur museum brings in a greater part of its revenue  from families and groups who arrive to spend an evening in the amusement park. The railway is only of incidental interest here ; for the great majority of people who throng the place, the exhibits only serve as a bonus attraction, something that is viewed as a curiosity and nothing more.

Moving on then to more specific details, the principal indoor exhibit is a 0-6-4 Bagnall No. 5 narrow gauge tank engine built in 1916 by Bagnall Limited of England. Enthusiasts love this old tank and some, armed with cameras,  have even been seen to climb up on chairs to get a proper view of the Ramsbottom safety valve high up on the boiler.

Outdoors we find a 4-6-2 Class CC No. 677 built by the North British Locomotive Company of Glasgow in 1907, and this together with the Bagnall held indoors completes the steam loco collection of the museum. A few more steam locos would certainly have been an added attraction. ZEs were extensively used on the Satpura Lines and one of this kind reposes in the Motibagh workshop next door, while a Class BS 615 leads a solitary existence within the gates of the narrow gauge diesel shed not far away, both of which were eminently suited to occupy a place in the museum yard.

But let it not be supposed that the museum is entirely without charm on this account. The designers were indeed imaginative and if one will but step behind the CC 677 he will find a delightful water column erected at the precise spot for the locomotive to have its drink. There is beauty and innovation here amidst apparent frugality.

In the matter of rolling stock, however, the narrow gauge museum does exhibit a remarkable variety. Besides an oil tanker we may find here a steam crane of Italian make, a narrow gauge covered bogie wagon built by Pickering & Company of Glasgow in 1915, and of still older vintage, a 4-wheeler covered wagon of tare weight 5 tonnes built by the Bengal Nagpur Railway in 1904. Passenger carriages include a postal van and a first class carriage both dating back to 1958 and built at the Motibagh workshop itself, and a royal saloon once used by the Maharaja of Paralakimedi and manufactured by Orenstein & Koppel in 1899.

Ths enthusiast is going to be delighted with the tiny narrow gauge "yard" here complete with turnouts and a level crossing gate where these items of rolling stock are laid out on parallel tracks. Nearby loom trees and shrubs, an undulating landscape with a well laid out lawn, water taps -- this is the spot for picnickers and families. Indeed the goods brake van in the yard proves to be the ideal spot for lunch and some of the museum staff regularly retire to the convenience of the brake in the afternoons for this very purpose.

The most extensive range of railway paraphernalia may however be found only indoors at the Nagpur rail museum. The visitor who steps inside is confronted with a vast collection, and indeed, the very first impression we get is of a bewildering array of artefacts arranged in showcases in a set of galleries. The whole railway were, as it were, taken apart, even dissected into bits and pieces and laid out for all to see.

But even amidst the chaos that reigns here there is beauty for the beholder. Whilst steam engine details make very little sense to the uninitiated, there is this charming little blackened wick lamp from the house of A. C. Wells & Company that once gave its light when the boiler of an engine had to be inspected from within. Amongst builders plates we may come upon names such as "Stableford & Company Limited, Carriage and Wagon Builders, Leicester" and  "The Metropolitan Amalgamated Railway Carriage and Wagon Company Limited, Birmingham". For the collector of railway memorabilia, the indoor galleries provide an endless source of pleasure. There are surveying instruments used in bygone times and various kinds of mechanical signalling equipment including a pair of semaphore arms and a spectacle plate carrying red and green glasses ; we find vintage carriage electric lamps and fans ; and besides there is a vast collection of signalling lamps used for a variety of purposes all working on kerosene and so delightful to behold. The railways have certainly done a good job of salvaging precious old relics from the heap of rubble that lay accumulated as the old gave way to the new ; one can even find Edmondson ticket machines on display here, an entire ticket booking window salvaged from some old station, a pretty ticket tube, and telephone and telegraph equipment dating back to the days of steam.

It would take a whole booklet to catalogue the full collection held by the Narrow Gauge Rail Museum of Nagpur. We remarked at the outset that it is a rather unfortunate state of affairs that the museum has on display but two steam locomotives and no more. However, what a dozen or more idle steam engines on display could not bring about in the mind of the heritage enthusiast has been amply achieved by the exhibits on display indoors : the permanent way inspector's trolley, waiting room chairs, refreshment room chinaware, and vintage photographs -- these and a hundred other aretefacts serve to bring alive the quaint charm of India's steam age here as no assemblage of steam locomotives standing in a yard by itself could have done.


Ravindra Bhalerao