A Train in the Satpuras Clangs Away to Oblivion

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.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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Views: 3524      Comments: 9

Comment Thank you for your article. I have enjoyed the whole Satpura railway during 2014 and 2015. Published an article on ' Jabalpur Nainpur section travel by Legendary Satpura Express ' in a Bengali travel magazine. Now, all nostalgic to me. Desire to visit Nainpur NG rly museum.

Dr.Arunava Biswas
10-Sep-2023 01:16 AM

Comment Thanks Mr. Mandan for your appreciative comments. I value them highly.

Proloy Bagchi
20-Oct-2015 07:37 AM

Comment I was highly pleased to read the comments of M/S Mandan and Prasad Rao. This only encourages one to write from the heart. I was born and brought up in Gwalior but I never had occasion to travel to Shivpuri on the narrow gauge train. I, however, remember huffing and puffing the train used to indulge in negotiating the gentle climb of the Fort over Shinde ki Chhawni

Thanks once again for your comments

Proloy Bagchi
11-Oct-2015 01:12 AM

Comment Thanks Mr. Bagchi for a nostalgic writing on the Narrow gauge trains. There was a similar NG train from Gwalior to Shivpuri, which has now perhaps been abandoned. I saw the NG train from Gwalior to Sheopur huffing and puffing on the hill around the Fort and sometimes in the rains, the passengers had to literally push the train to cross that hill track. There were many narrow gauge trains in Central Gujarat, many of which have been discontinued.

India does not have the habit of protecting the heritage. It is people like you who bring out the golden threads of the past.

Suresh Mandan
09-Oct-2015 14:14 PM

Comment I read every word of the article unlike the political discourse articles which I frequently gloss over. I asked myself why did I do that? I never heard of the Satpura Express train or any of the towns mentioned except ones like Jabalpur and Nagpur. An express train going an average of 15 miles per hour? The whole narrative being recounted from memory by the author of a bygone era is simply fascinating.

Prasad Rao
09-Oct-2015 07:18 AM

Comment Purely to set the record straight, Ghoom (or Ghum) railway station of the DHR is the highest railway station in India. It is situated at an altitude of 2,258 metres (7,407 ft).

07-Oct-2015 20:36 PM

Comment Thanks, Mr. Chandra Mouli, for your flattering comments. I am happy to know you like my pieces.

Though I have been to Darjeeling twice yet I never took a ride on the DHR. Most interesting part of the rail line seemed to be the complete loop that it makes near Ghoom. It is a marvel of engineering as the train climbs up to nearly 11000 ft.

In my childhood I remember to have had a whole pack of photographs of the Darjeeling Railway passing through various parts of the region which were mostly forested. Beautiful postcards, they were which, I suppose, my father had bought for record. The were printed sometime in 1930s

06-Oct-2015 06:37 AM

Comment My schoolboy experience of the 'toy train' was the railway route from Siliguri in the plains of West Bengal up through various hill stations including Kurseong and Ghoom to the terminus at Darjeeling. Indeed, the railway was called the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway). Among the many novelties the train ride provided as it twisted its way and looped the loop on a precipitous course was that of reducing the engine to beast of burden sluggishness, so that sometimes it was quicker to walk, or indeed, anticipate a point ahead to rejoin the train on foot - though I never tried this myself. The compartment ride was both cramped and plagued by stinging coal dust if one dared to look out of a window, not to mention the blackening effect of air-borne soot - so much for mountain air - on one's face and shirt. The romantic aspect was entirely subdued by the functional as a means of transport; the alternative being the bus, ramshackle and full of fumes, which induced an unfailing bout of emptying of stomach contents on the go. It's no exaggeration to say that we schoolboys, in the nineteen fifties, were among the long-suffering pioneers of hill travel. Even the steam engine of the toy train, as you mention, was, though not in my time, replaced by a diesel.

05-Oct-2015 22:19 PM

Comment Thanks for an interesting article sir. I am a great admirer of your work.As a former Railwayman I share your concerns and bid adieu to Satpura Express and the narrow gauge line no longer required now by Indian Railways.Regards.

T.S.Chandra Mouli
05-Oct-2015 03:32 AM

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