Railway trains have been a fascination for me since my childhood. Ever since we all used to board the narrow gauge train for the famous Gwalior Fair from the tiny little Elgin Club station in front of the College where my father used to teach I was hooked on trains and the rhythmic huffing and puffing of the steam locomotives. When I entered service of the government there used to be travels on train every few days, sometimes short and sometimes long. In course of time I covered virtually the entire country on trains. That is how I know the Satpura Express running between Jabalpur and Balaghat on the narrow gauge line which was discontinued from 1st October 2015. When I travelled on it, it used to run right up to Gondia to connect with the mainline between Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata).
The train on narrow gauge of 2’6” was a curiosity for those who would visit Jabalpur. But for me these trains were no curiosity. Having been born and brought up in Gwalior I had on several occasions taken rides in narrow gauge trains of the Gwalior State Railways. Recently it was reported that a heritage train running between Gwalior and Sabalgarh was going to be discontinued. Soon the news of the discontinuance of Jabalpur – Balaghat train also followed. It seems, all relics of the past are gradually being pushed into oblivion. For the Satpura Express, however, the reason of discontinuance due to gauge conversion seems to be sound. The line between Gondia and Balaghat has already been converted to broad gauge under the Railways’ “uni-gauge” scheme. The longer portion of Balaghat to Jabalpur had continued in the narrow gauge, presumably, for reasons of want of the necessary resources.
I had had occasions to travel to Balaghat in this train when I was posted at Jabalpur in 1966-67. The postal operations of Balaghat and Mandla districts along with those of Jabalpur used to be in my jurisdiction. Mandla was only 60 miles away and it could be covered in couple of hours or so by bus. In those days we did not have vehicles attached to the posts for moving around in our areas of operation. We had to fall back on public transport even if it was a rickety road transport service. Balaghat, however, was different; it was more distant than Mandla and a bus journey could be very tiring.
In the I Class of the toy train it was comfortable barring that it would shake and sway from side to side all the time and on occasions even get pretty violent bumps. The tracks were old and were perhaps seldom attended to. I remember that once I almost was thrown on to the floor from the lower berth by the violent jerk that I got one night while asleep. Nonetheless, the train suited me as it would take me to Balaghat 180-odd kilometers away overnight in 10 hours. It was hauled by a steam locomotive which later, I understand, was replaced by a diesel locomotive that, apart from increasing the carrying capacity, shaved at least two hours from the travelling time.
Nainpur on the way, about 100 kilometres away, used to be an important station where the train would halt for a substantial length of time. It was a junction from where a line went to Mandla in the east and another to the west to Chhindwara which, in turn, was connected with Nagpur by another narrow gauge line. It was also connected with Parasia in the north. Nainpur claims to be the biggest narrow gauge junction in Asia. Once a focal point of the railways in the shadows of the Satpura Ranges it also had a divisional office for some time. Nainpur, however, may not lose its important position even after the plan of gauge conversion is implemented because of its strategic location.
The railways in Central India in the Satpura region are more than a hundred years old. Soon after establishment of the Bengal Nagpur Railway Company (BNR) in the late 19th Century surveys were carried out in the region which used to fall in the then Central Provinces. The gauge selected after engineering, traffic and other surveys was the 2’6” narrow gauge. In any case, from the very beginning the idea was to construct a low-cost railway line to serve the area which was home to numerous tribes including Gonds, Bhils and so on.
The Britishers claimed that the objective behind laying the railway lines in the region was twofold: the first was to serve the needs of the local people and the second was to transport the agricultural and mineral resources out of the region. The first decade of the last century saw about a 1000 kilometres of railway lines laid in the region. My suspicion is that it was not as much for the people (who were tribal and hardly had any connection with the outside world) as for tapping the minerals and the timber of rich teak forests that the Britishers laid the narrow gauge lines. They also laid such a line from Gondia to Tumsar (now in Maharashtra) and Nagpur to Nagbhir and on to Chanda Fort. Chanda teak was famous till a few decades ago. Now, of course, they are scarce. Besides, Chanda town and the district (now Chandrapur) are sitting on higher grade coal.
It must have been a herculean job to lay the lines not only because of the hilly terrain but also for the thick forests that the region had; part of it was the famed Mowgli Land, after all. I read somewhere that the railways in India while laying the lines for opening up the country had unwittingly fattened the Royal Bengal tigers, as many working on the tracks ended up as victims of stalking tigers. In the early part of 20th Century we had around 40 thousand tigers and the then Central Provinces was where there was a fair concentration of them as they had a huge, largely undisturbed forested territory to wander around.
So, another chapter in the history of India’s narrow gauge railways has come to a close. Satpura Express had its moments of glory. It was considered the fastest narrow gauge train in Asia doing as much as more than 20 kilometres an hour covering 180-odd kilometres in seven hours. It served well the people for whom it was meant. And, now it has not-so-quietly clanged away from the scene becoming history leaving behind only pleasant memories.