Assam Excursion

2008-05-25

Late in May my wife attended a conference in Singapore, and I accompanied her there from my home in Melbourne, Australia. Having got thus far, four more aeroplane hours brought me to Chennai, arriving late on 25 5 08. Very few foreigners were on the plane – I got the message that this is not the tourist season.

It is of great convenience to have an agent in India to buy tickets, and my friend Sivaramakrishnan had done just this, as well as providing travelling companionship. On the morning of Sunday 26 5 we therefore found ourselves at Chennai Central. After a farewell dosai with Sridhar Joshi in the air-con veg restaurant and a walk along the platform, Sivaramakrishnan and I found ourselves travelling sleeper class on the Coromandel Express. It left on time.

I have travelled on the east coast main line north from Chennai many times, and can’t say that I regard it as India’s most scenic main line. However, on this late-May morning the temperature was pleasant and the country beginning to look green, in both cases thanks to pre-monsoon showers. Viewed through sleepy eyes, this undemanding scenery was just right to overcome the effects of half a night of plane travel.

Pulicat Lake is still the northern boundary of metropolitan Chennai. We crossed it on a low viaduct from which we could look out to the east. Was that silvery horizon the sea, complete with low waves on the sandbar of the lake? North of the lake there were new and tentative urban developments, but the boys playing cricket were not confined to little corners of land; they could have whole fields to practise on, the grass kept short by black-faced sheep. There were several varieties of palm trees on the bunds, and the railway curved occasionally to line itself up for a bridge over some minor watercourse or other. The stations had refuge loops, and the local passenger trains were EMUs. When, short of Sri Venkatakeswarapalem we stopped at the home signal, not only could we admire a temple on a low outcrop of a hill but we were serenaded by a chorus of poochies.

Those familiar with the route will know that the country changed subtly as we entered the Andhra irrigation areas, and that the Krishna bridge coming into Vijayawada is a major distance-marker on the route north of Chennai. As timetabled, it was dark not far after Rajamundhry. The little Bengali boy and girl travelling on the side berths started singing, and they were good at it, too.

Dawn came more or less at Bhubaneshwar. Thanks to the reversal at Vizagapatnam, we now found ourselves on the east side of the train, looking towards the sea not that the line anywhere came within sighting distance of it. Coming into Cuttack works were in progress to add another track, involving new bridges, and the works continued north of the city as well, where the new track is almost ready for use. There were impressive flyover junctions once the last distributory of the Mahanadi was crossed, and again at Jakhapura a bit further north this latter now obviously an important junction for mineral trains heading south from Jharkhand.

Coming into Manjuri Road a bridge was under reconstruction with bigger trusses, with a temporary track to trolley the new spans out over the river bed. Despite this East Coast railway being a major main line, oil traffic was still carried in four-wheel vacuum-braked tanks with basic leaf springs. The tanks labelled for Black Oil were indeed stained black, but so also were those labelled for Kerosene or White Oil. The stations had manned north and south cabins, and between them the double tracks ran on low embankments over paddy fields that were waiting for the monsoon.

At Rupsa junction the low brick station building remained, but the veranda where many years ago I sheltered from a June thunderstorm had now been enclosed with a grille, and the public was provided with a much larger open veranda out on the platform. The former narrow-gauge yard was now used for stacking firewood and the turnout for the replacement broad-gauge line faced Cuttack to facilitate the running of pan-Orissa expresses.

We knew we were reaching Bengal when the brickworks gained bottle-shaped chimneys. Lines of trucks parked on the adjacent road marked a border checkpoint. We know when we had reached railway Bengal when we started picking our way through the complex of junctions which brought us into Kharagpur. I suspect that the Bengal Nagpur company purposely built this station large, since here it was the sole occupant not, as at Howrah, under the shadow of the East Indian company. Whatever the origin, the station had two wide island platforms and a large brick building.

From Kharagpur it was, of course, EMU (Electric Multiple Unit)territory to Howrah, a bit like Kerala the way it looked so rural while yielding such heavy commuter traffic. When I first came to Howrah the SER made do with the southern platforms of the ER station, but it now had a virtually-separate station with its own concourse, it being simpler to walk to the ER station outside than over the internal footbridge. At the ER station (platforms 1-16) we found that the former Railway Officers Rest Room has been converted to a Sleeper Class Waiting Room, which would account for the waiting room being accessed by a long staircase in a hallway by the station superintendent’s office a staircase with a high Calcutta beam and plaster roof painted Calcutta grey. The waiting room had a balcony with a fine view of the Hooghly and the Howrah Bridge. It was also floored with the grey paving tiles that are doing so much for the cleanliness of Indian stations. It proved to be a civilised place to spend the few hours before our next booking, on the Kamrup Express.

Leaving Howrah, again sleeper class, we were intrigued to see on a siding a 3-car EMU (Electric Multiple Unit)painted light blue, named Durga and identified as the Ticket Checking Special. We trundled steadily through the suburban territory to Bandel, and then onto the single track through Katwa where the local services were still EMU.

On Tuesday 27 May we entered gauge conversion territory. At Kishanganj the station building was low-level, as befits a metre-gauge station which it still is, courtesy of the line to Siliguri. The weather was misty but not wet. As a change from the East Coast, we crossed an oil train composed of bogie tankers all the oil trains seen on the NFR had bogie tankers rather than four-wheelers.

After the metre gauge had peeled off to the left to make its own way through the chicken neck to Siliguri, we passed our first tea gardens, not to speak of a great many plots of pineapples and some of tobacco. We crossed the Mahananda river a strong flowing stream on a sandy bed and would probably have been able to see a bit of Bangladesh had we known where to look.

A few stations later we recrossed the Mahananda, and entered New Jalpaiguri. The name prompted me to look up Bradshaw’s station list, and note that India has 16 New stations, of which 12 are on the NFR. One of the New stations which is not on the NFR is New Delhi, and here the New indicates that the whole city is (or was) new. On the NFR the meaning is different: it means a station sited for the railway’s convenience and not necessarily particularly close to the place it’s named after, but usually on a site with plenty of room. As befits a New station, New Jalpaiguri had an expansive layout, with plenty of goat-feed between the tracks. When I first came here in 1975 the narrow gauge was at the back of the station building, but the layout has been simplified and the DHR now has its own island platform on the other side of the goods yard. The station stop proved to be a good time to stock up on puris, sold (according to the signwriting) as ‘service with smile’. Our train was invaded by men selling plastic raincoats.

The Kamrup Express took the direct route east from New Jalpaiguri, as opposed to the converted metre gauge line which runs closer to the hills. The young soldiers from the south who had the middle berths amused themselves by reading English-language military comics. We crossed a misty plain, with curves on rock-reinforced embankments to cross the Teesta River and also the disused metre gauge line from New Mal junction. At Dhupguri a rake of goods vans was being loaded with bags of potatoes and onions, brought in by truck presumably from some nearby hills. New Cooch Behar had the expansive layout one associates with New stations. Here we encountered a north-south line which I presume dates from the days of the Cooch Behar State railway, and which is now broad gauge resplendent with concrete sleepers. New Alipurduar also had wide island platforms, and made up for its lack of junction status by originating its very own express to Sealdah.

A sharp right hand turn with the loco powering brought us alongside the former metre gauge line from Siliguri, and from Samuktala Road the two tracks were operated as a double line, albeit one where the tracks were sometimes a fair way apart and where the station buildings were mainly leftovers from the metre gauge. Bamboo seemed to be the main freight loaded. Thus we entered Assam, and continued to New Bongaigaon, which as befits a New station had extensive yards, repair shops and staff training bungalows.

The Kamrup Express now took the northern of two routes to Guwahati this time the former metre gauge route, running more or less on the flat though sometimes within sight of hills, sometimes crossing tea gardens and more often crossing swamps with white water birds. At Rangiya we connected with the metre gauge going further east, then turned south to pick our way through some low hills. We waited for half an hour or so, whiling away our recovery time, till an express came through the other way, then crossed the Brahmaputra on a through-truss bridge which was higher than the river levee bank. From here the track curved down into Kamakhya Junction and Guwahati, where Sivaramakrishnan and I elected to alight and spend six hours or so before continuing by the Intercity Express to Ledo.

Guwahati station turned out to be quite a good place to spend an evening, because at the west end of Platform 1 there was a sleeper-class waiting room which was far enough from the action not to be crowded, and which had a good clean bathroom. Its only disadvantage was that it was opposite the parking-spot for the Radjhani Express generator car, not to speak of the Garib Rath Express power car on platform 2, and hence very noisy.

The lady who speaks for the kind attention of passengers was slow in announcing the Intercity Express to Ledo, which was formed by an arrival from Lumding. We tracked it down and took our sleeper berths, having decided to go by this train, rather than continue on the Kamrup, in order to see the main line beyond Dimapur by daylight. Daylight it indeed was when we reached Dimapur, crossing the little corner of their state which gives the Nagaland Police a taste of railway duties.

The morning was coolish, with a pleasant breeze through the open windows. To our right the sun had risen over the Naga Hills. This was the time of year for two-bullock teams to be out in the lowland fields ploughing, supplemented sometimes by single buffaloes hauling ploughs. The villages were surrounded by bamboo, and indeed were largely made of bamboo. Furkating Junction had an island platform made by looping a track round the back of the station buildings, which were all of cream-painted brick but seemed to have built bit by bit at different times. This was not the only junction we encountered. At Amguri a rusty branch diverged towards Nagaland and I was reminded that once upon a time the town gave its name to a brand tea popular in Australia. It was advertised by painting the slogan ‘more water for Amgoorie tea’ on the overhead tanks at loco depots. At Namrup a low-speed siding diverged from the main line and at Naharkatia a cart-track curved to the right suspiciously like the formation of some planter’s narrow-gauge tramway.

New Tinsukia is unusual among Indian stations in that it is on a balloon loop though the loop is not used for turning trains so much as to allow them to proceed, without shunting, either east to Ledo or west to Dibrugarh. We were headed to Ledo, and accordingly took the left-hand side of the loop. We thus reached a worthy example of a New station with a long main platform and in addition a long island, complete with electric plugs for the platform-cleaning machine. Such a place commanded a long wait even if it was only a couple of kilometres to Tinsukia Junction, the old station.

The line from here to Ledo had a distinct metre-gauge feel about it, particularly the section which ran down the street in Tinsukia with shops both sides, mostly serving the building trade. We traversed this section slowly, with much tooting. This roadside running ended at Makum Junction, an unusual layout where the branch points came first and the two diverging platforms later. From here the train ran through tea gardens and jungle till the air, which had been humid with the smell of trees and bushes, became vaguely acrid. To the left, behind a wall, stood the Digboi oil refinery, and to the right, in front of a couple of abrupt little hills, the Digboi club and an indoor stadium.

After this brief encounter with Assam’s venerable oil industry, we returned to tea gardens, then passed through a bazaar into Margherita, a station-name which initially sounded to me like some kind of alcoholic cocktail but which on further reflection is a standard pizza. It seemed an unusual place for the head office of the Coal Mines Provident Organisation. We headed into low hills. The next station, Bargolai, looked as though it once had an extensive layout, but the passenger terminus, Ledo, had a simple four-track yard. The building was well below track level, with one centre-posted veranda near the building and the other up on the platform. The outer loop had a rake of vans with coal being loaded from trucks. The hills above had been gnawed by mining, so presumably this was where the coal came from.

With our aim of reaching India’s easternmost station fulfilled and rain now falling heavily we went no further. Arunachal buses were passing the dim little hotel on the bitumen road outside the station where I had a thali meal, to find that it had been paid for by a fellow diner a young man on a motorbike who had taken shelter from the rain in the hotel. The rain continued falling as we waited most of the afternoon for the afternoon passenger to Dibrugarh Town, which was timetabled to follow the return run of the Intercity Express. A certain amount of shunting was required to get the two trainsets in the correct order and disentangled from the goods vans, much of it carried out by the two passenger train engines coupled. Once this was accomplished and the express had gone the booking clerk turned to selling passenger tickets. We returned to New Tinsukia and then continued to Dibrugarh Town.

Though it fell dark and we couldn’t see much, the branch to Dibrugarh had a strong metre gauge feel, being laid roadside with very little separation from the road a style which was much more common in Indonesia than in India and which reinforced the feeling that we were somehow in South East rather than South Asia. At Dibrugarh Town there is only one main platform, so our humble passenger train terminated at a low-level platform far away from the station building on the other side of the yard. This must have been regular practice, because a group of auto drivers was there to meet us. However, our intention was to catch the BP Mail (Brahmaputra) which would conveniently get us to Dimapur at dawn on Thursday 29 May.

The building at Dibrugarh Town was low-level with a high-level platform, resulting in the unusual experience of having to stoop down to patronise the tea stall. It transpired that, due to the shortness of the platform, only about half of the BP Mail originated here; the rest was added at New Tinsukia around midnight. And, as timetabled, it delivered us to Dimapur just after dawn on Thursday 29 May.

The railway from Guwahati to Tinsukia emphasises the division between Upper and Lower Assam by deviating into the hills presumably if it stuck to the south bank of the Brahmaputra all the way the division would be much less obvious. The route through the hills makes sense historically, since the lines were originally built as connections to Chittagong. Dimapur lay the best part of a hundred kilometres from the Brahmaputra, up the valley of one of its tributaries. The station was a major railhead, particularly for the military. Our train began to fill up. A WDS6 was parked in the yard, indicating that this was also an important station for freight traffic.

From Dimapur we headed westwards into low hills, crossing a freight at Rangapahar consisting of van after van loaded with sacks of vegetables

onions perhaps, or potatoes. The track curved gently through these

low hills, never quite out of sight of small cultivated fields though the hillsides were forested. Diphu turned out to be a sawmill town, with small bamboo houses built without chimneys so that the smoke of the morning cooking fires leaked out through the gables. The forested section was not very long, and soon we were curving across low hills planted to sugar cane. The streams here flowed clear on rippled sand.

As expected, Lumding was a large station complete with South Indian Snack Bar but of course, due to recent rebel activity, no trains to carry us south. Accordingly we kept on going, glimpsing the brown metre gauge passenger stock and noting extensive transfer yards. We now headed back to the Brahmaputra valley and its paddy fields, bamboo and areca palms. The morning continued sunny, but we noted ladies walking under umbrellas chosen to match the colour of their saris. Lanka station was notable for having six boulder stacks, all numbered by the authority of the section engineer. At Hujai there were as many waiting passengers in the yard as on the platform. It turned out that this was because the Janshatabdi express heading east regularly used the loop. By now we were more or less back to the Brahmaputra plain, with its butterflies and butterfly-catching birds. Entering Chaparmukh Junction we crossed a small river with people travelling by canoe, and once on the loop in the station we crossed the morning Guwahati-Lumding express.

From Chaparmukh to Guwahati the line crossed river flats, with ranges to the left and occasional outlier hills to the right. A siding led from Jagi Road station to an old industrial plant, which I took to be a paper mill. There was also a coal yard it seemed for loading coal from road trucks to rail vans, not the other way round. To indicate that we were approaching Guwahati we passed a series of brickworks, caught a glimpse of the Brahmaputra and slowed down through New Guwahati with its freight yard and carriage depot thankfully the NFR has not made it the passenger station but retained the station in the middle of the city.

Rather than alight, we continued across the Brahmaputra to investigate the metre gauge line which serves the north bank of the river. The broad gauge at Rangiya Junction had an up and a down platform, both on loops and connected by a high footbridge at the east end. People preferred to walk across the tracks, but often could not due to trains awaiting crosses or overtakings. The station buildings on Platform One were modern and spacious, but the metre gauge platforms were narrow with low verandas. There were three of them, accommodating three trainsets, each with its YDM4. One of the trainsets was at the metre gauge platform which backed onto the up broad gauge platform, and the other two were lined up, one behind the other, on the inner track of the metre gauge island platform. The carriages were brown, as were most of the locomotives. At 1445 a driver started the YDM4 at the eastern end of the island platform, and confirmed that this was the Tezpur Express. Inside the carriages the lights worked but the fans didn’t, so many of the waiting passengers preferred to remain on the platform till 1500 when the loco gave a good long toot. This was followed by a wheeze the horn could make different noises then another toot and a burst of power and smoke. Soon we were jolting over the points of the transfer sidings and diverging left from the broad gauge.

Our carriage promptly developed end-to-end bounce, but this wasn’t the problem which stopped us less than five minutes out of town. Whatever it was, the TTE and driver fixed it, and soon we were loping along across flat country, crossing the occasional small sandy river. There were some bridgeworks in progress, the desultory beginnings of gauge conversion. A characteristic of the Tezpur Express was that it stopped all stations, running express only through the minor halts. The loop at Goreswar station was laid in concrete gauge-convertible sleepers, and there was also a stock of plate girders lettered ‘monsoon reserve’. The next loop was at Khoirabara, and here we crossed a goods train which was incidentally carrying local passengers and their bundles. The line continued across paddy fields, with villages shielded by bamboo. At Tangla we gained passengers who hanged their bicycles by the pedal upside-down from the windows, then rang their wives on their mobiles to report their estimated time home.

At Harisingha we diverged left onto the loop, and paused in front of the double-storeyed signal box one box for the station, with traditional metre-gauge double-wire signalling. While some joining passengers stowed bundles of stout bamboo stakes under the seats, the signalman operated his levers and in due course a silver and yellow YDM4 came through with No 760 Passenger from Rangapara North. The signalman then operated his levers some more, and a girl in a red and white NFR sari carried a bamboo loop with pendant token to the driver. We left at 1700, thus maintaining our express speed of 25 kph.

The line continued across the flat country which is below Bhutan and above the Brahmaputra, crossing wide but currently shallow grey rivers; crossing paddy fields and passing villages built of bamboo and sheltered by bamboo. After passing the first tea gardens of the line we came into Majbat, which was important enough to have a tea stall and a Section Engineer’s Office complete with boulder heaps, monsoon reserve girders and compound of track parts. Past Majbat the tea gardens became continuous, and at Dhekiajuli Road there was a major unloading of bamboo stakes and sugar cane, presumably for estate use. In the twilight our YDM4 wafted diesel smoke over the tea gardens, then over low-level fields where an embankment was under repair and the speed limit was low.

New Misamari originally appeared in the timetables as a station for military traffic only but is now open to all. It was distinguished by its rodded rather than double-wire points and wide but dimly-lit platform. From here it was a short ride to Rangapara North, where the train drew into the right hand side of the island platform. Most of its remaining passengers alighted. Rangapara North has major junction status and even an Express cannot go through without paying its respects and waiting for half an hour or so. The loco ran round; the South Indian refreshment stall sold dosais, and eventually the timetable caught up and we set out on a non-stop run to Tezpur. The countryside was dark apart from the fireflies, but for the last few kilometres we ran roadside, lit by the various businesses across the road. We reached Tezpur on time at 2030 with several dozen passengers. No wonder that few of the good people of Tezpur know that they have an Express.

After an enjoyable two nights and a day in Tezpur, we returned to the station before 0600 on Saturday 31 May. The passenger service which brings the carriages for the Tezpur-Rangiya express up from Rangapara North had just arrived, and its YDM4 promptly ran round. The station lay in the official part of town, on a high bank of the Brahmaputra. The building opened onto a forecourt away from the river with an unpretentious portico, and had plastered brick outer walls with wooden internal partitions painted grey and somewhat dusty. There was no queue at the booking office, and an Edmondson express ticket to Rangapara North was quickly forthcoming. At 0610 the peon rattled the station gong, and soon the YDM4 gave a squeak followed by a toot of the horn.

At first our speed was low, but once we reached the bungalow suburbs we sped up and ran roadside for a while, past motor repair shops and mobile telephone shops. We passed within touching distance of the low thatch roofs of a village bazaar. These roofs were just big enough to cover a stall, and in effect were umbrellas for the vendors with the buyers expected to provide their own umbrellas as they walked between stalls. After this village we struck out across paddy fields. The only intermediate siding on the line served a FCI godown. Level crossings were protected by stretching a chain across the road and showing a green flag to the train, which tooted. We curved into low hills, and so passed through tea estates to platform 2 at Rangapara North only the eastern side of the island platform was accessible from Tezpur.

Rangapara North had the layout of a major metre-gauge junction quite similar layouts were to be found in South India till recently. It had a single wide island platform accessed officially by footbridge, but most people walked to the adjacent bazaar across the tracks. The booking office was located in the bazaar, and was a small but strange building, with blank walls where one expected booking windows and windows in odd places, but no problem in buying second class tickets to Murkong Selek. At each end of the yard there was a signal box with point rods and multiple double-wires for the semaphore signals. The rest of the station buildings were strung out along the platform. After a respectful wait the Express left for Rangiya with a loco at each end, the one at the back crewed but just tagging along. During the couple of hours we had to wait there was shunting in the goods yard shuffling wagons lettered for the various regional railways which had once had metre gauge tracks and to which the various vans could never return. Our train was to be No 761 passenger, which officially originated at Rangapara North but was in fact formed by No 759 passenger from Rangiya, which arrived when we should have been departing. We left half an hour late at 1015.

For a while we crossed ‘high land’, which is high in the sense of being a few metres above the ‘low land’ and has tea bushes rather than paddy fields. When we crossed ‘low land’ we were up on embankment. The first station out Balipara was junction for a branch which goes up into Arunachal Pradesh but no longer has a passenger service. By contrast with the full signalling of the stations between Rangiya and Rangapara North, this junction had no more than a stand in front of the stationmaster’s office with three levers, one for each home signal. In traditional narrow gauge fashion, this ensured that no more than one train could enter the station at a time.

As we drew closer to the hills of Arunachal Pradesh we passed a large number of brick kilns there must have been something about the local clay. The hills were a presence to the left from now on, sometimes closer, sometimes further and always cloudy, and every so often sending down a river which required a truss bridge and defensive earthworks. Thanks to pre-monsoon rains in the hills, these rivers were running fast and full. The standard station building was at ground level the platform and the tracks were generally on a low embankment and comprised a large brick room, with the roof extending over a similar area to form a waiting hall. Each station had its platform stand with a pair of double-wire signal levers and each had its complement of staff including pointsmen, but there were no staff at the halts and the TTE had a busy time selling tickets. We waited at Helem, losing time and admiring the jack trees on the platform till our opposite number from Murkong Selek came through, well-patronised.

For the most part we continued across bunded fields and past villages lost in bamboo. Every so often the line rose up on a higher embankment and crossed a river. Only once did we get within a few hundred metres of the ranges, in this case a low outlier with bigger hills behind, the mist drifting about like it does in Chinese mountain paintings which, come to think of it, are inspired by the eastern scarps of the same mountains, less than a thousand kilometres away in Sichuan.

By Harmuti we had achieved two hours late. The tea gardens petered out, leaving paddy fields and villages with bamboo thickets and areca palms, and always the ranges to the left. In the twilight at 1640 a railway came in from the direction of the ranges and we entered North Lakhimpur station. Was this a junction? No, it was a reversing station, though there was no obvious geographical reason why it was laid out this way. The station had a high-level platform with a welcome array of poori vendors and tea vendors, so after the loco had run round we continued into the night well fed. More people were leaving the train now than were getting on, with a notable exodus of students at dusk. The evening was humid with spots of rain. In the limited light the country seemed to be covered in thick jungle, but much of this impression was due to darkness.

At around 2200 we stopped at a platform with an independent centre-posted veranda and long low building down a slope from the platform. This was Murkong Selek. A couple of the rooms of the station were lit by hurricane lamp, and I asked the stationmaster whether there was anywhere to spend the night. Indeed there was: the Hotel Beauty, well not really a hotel he said, but yes a hotel, and the only choice. He took us across the station forecourt where two places were serving meals, the further of which provided our accommodation for the night. The proprietor was ready for people off the train: Rs 150/- bought a room for the two of us, and a thali meal was also available and could be made vegetarian if we really wanted it that way. The room was just big enough for two cots, on which the proprietor spread clean sheets. Sivaramakrishnan noticed an insect, and loudly proclaimed that he would not sleep in a hotel with cockroaches, but I was able to point out that it was not a cockroach but a large grasshopper, and we were provided with mosquito nets so that none would hop onto us during the night. We therefore settled down for a very sound though short night’s sleep.

At 0430, in the cool early light of an overcast day (Sunday 1 June), the YDM4 coughed into life and Murkong Selek awoke not that there was much of it to wake up, since it consisted only of the station, its forecourt, out hotel, another eating house and a bit of a village. Though it is near the upper end of Assam, where the Brahmaputra emerges from the hills, there was no visible indication of this there were ranges to the north, but they did not visibly bend round to enclose the valley. In my native country many a branch line ended where the construction money gave out, rather than because the railway builders had reached some major objective. Murkong Selek had something of the feel of this a railway which just petered out rather than reach a terminus.

As we left the Hotel Beauty I turned round to look at it by daylight. Its name sign was multi-lingual, including a rendition in a local language which used Latin letters and spelt its name ‘Biuti’. It was built of teak with brick infill, and in design and atmosphere it strongly resembled its counterparts in the small towns of Burma. Indeed, Assam in general, particularly away from the tea gardens, has a strong likeness to Burma, which after all is not so far away across the hills. The likeness extends to villages of bamboo and plaster (the old Australian term is wattle and daub), to traditional women’s dress and to the sight of ladies smoking cigars (though I suspect that the cigar smokers are from the hills). But the Assamese do not construct stupas, nor do they build Buddha statues they content themselves with one essential but humble element in the typical Burmese temple, the community meeting hall, here built with open sides and an unpretentious religious annexe.

Like the line at Murkong Selek, the Myanmar Railway is metre gauge. In days past its steam locos were of the Indian standard classes and its rollingstock was also recognisably Indian. However, nowadays its diesels are European in origin and it never benefited from the work of the Integral Coach Factory. Nobody now would mistake the train that waited for us to board for an 0500 departure from Murkong Selek for one of its Myanmar counterparts: it was fully Indian. We bought tickets to Rangiya, and the train left near enough to on time.

Even at this early hour the two-bullock ploughs were at work, preparing paddy fields for the rains though there were also fields of hill paddy which does not require transplantation. A young woman standing by a thatched hut helped her baby to wave to us, and a little further along two little girls danced as we passed one got the feeling that the passage of the train was an event. The station buildings at Telem were of a similar design to those nearer Rangapara North, but were brick only to waist-height, being corrugated iron above that. The villages had soccer fields rather than cricket pitches.

After Simenchapari a river came out of the ranges and, having threatened the line, obeyed its levee banks to pass under a substantial truss bridge. There were rapids in the river as it crossed the line of stones which underpinned the bridge. This bridge served road traffic as well as the railway and the gatekeepers’ duties included regulating road traffic (the bridge was single-lane) as well as closing the gates for trains. Shortly after this the hills with their broad-leaf forest came close to the track, but then receded. We spotted a ploughman wearing a conical straw hat as commonly seen in South East Asia, and some of the women on the train were wearing the richly embroidered sarongs one associates with Burma.

At several points hereabouts the line ran on a low embankment, parallel with the ranges. Streams from the mountains had brought down silt and deposited it against the embankment on the uphill side, with the result that the track was only just above water level to the right, even though it was well above the paddy fields to the left. The railway trying to dig ditches to encourage these uphill streams to carry their silt to the nearest established bridge, but in a few places they were within inches of spilling over the track into the downhill paddy fields. Meanwhile the locals were beginning to plough the new uphill fields thus created, replacing their rough sand-grass with crops.

Silapathar ranked as a major station. Its long low station building had a waiting room and a stall which provided our breakfast pooris. Though the stationmaster had only two signal levers, his yard was interlocked with keys. We set out fast and rough, so much so that the seat opposite collapsed. The locals cheerfully lifted it back onto its iron supports. The carriage continued to bottom on its springs but the seat stayed up till the next rough patch. Every few kilometres we crossed rivers coming out of the hills, one of which had undermined its bridge abutments. We deviated slowly onto a steel trestle. The standard bridge spans were ready to be put back as soon as the abutments were fixed.

At Dhemaji we crossed the Arunachal Express, and also noted goods vans on the siding. A pan vendor boarded, presumably doing a return trip. We waited for ten minutes after the express had left, listening to the calls of a wide variety of birds and the chirps of an even wider variety of insects. The next station, Gogamukh, had a large godown labelled ‘cement shed’, which was presumably a souvenir of some nearby construction project we could see a gorge going winding back into the hills. Closer by, a herdsman was pursuing a cow which had pulled up its stake and invaded a paddy field.

Such is the unpredictability of pre-monsoon showers that we now crossed several dry creeks, as well as a couple more where the water was still and the colour of strong milkless tea. It was about here that we passed our first tea gardens for the day. At Baginadi some men loaded long sawn timbers onto the roof of the carriage for the 25-kilometre journey to North Lakhimpur home signal, where the train conveniently stopped while the timber was kicked back to ground level. Only after this stop did we enter the station. As yesterday, poori vendors were lined up along the platform. A couple of YDM4s were in the yard, and after our loco had run round one of these joined it so that we became doubleheaded. The station buildings here were much more elaborate than at Murkong Selek, the main building being flanked by one for the RMS and another for the RPF.

West of North Lakhimpur there had been rain, and we crossed culverts running at maximum discharge. The safeworking had become more formal, with tokens and peons to carry the token-loops to and from the engine and the accompanying paperwork to and from the guard. As yesterday, we crossed our opposite number at Helem. Just after Vishwanath Charali we were reminded that it was a Sunday by a family having a picnic around a little fire on the grassy bank of a tank: they waved as we passed.

At Rangapara North, with a change of engines, our train stopped being No 762 passenger and became No 758. There was a wait of nearly an hour, during which a blue YDM4 headed east with a goods train. Most of the many through passengers simply sat in their compartments, venturing out to buy tiffins we again patronised the South Indian dosai stall.

It was a further 124 km to Rangiya, most of it in the dark. We crossed the Tezpur Express, with its hanging bicycles, at Majbat, and the Arunachal Express somewhat later, at about 2000, by which time I was on the luggage rack snoozing. We reached Rangiya a little early, and were delighted to find that the New Bongaigaon Guwahati passenger, which we should have missed, was running late and so making a convenient connection just enough time to cross over to the main building, buy tickets and be back for the train, which had seats for us if not window seats. The passenger was headed by a WDM2. Once under way it made the clucking sounds characteristic of Alco designs of its generation. The night was dry and warm, an invitation to stand in the open doorway. Crossing the Brahmaputra I could look down and watch the river eddying fast against the pillars of the bridge.

At Guwahati it took a while to find a hotel, so that the day did not end till midnight. We accordingly declared Monday 2 June to be recovery time, and also took it easy on Tuesday June 2 by making a return trip to Haibargaon. The Fast Passenger was timed to leave at 1000, but since it was formed by a trainset from New Bongaigaon which did not arrive till 1040 it left about an hour late a long train with plenty of room. Most of the journey was along the main line towards Lumding, but at Chaparmukh we diverged left, leaving a ballast train with green WDG2 in the loop.

The branch ran through villages with coconut palms, and sure enough a villager boarded with a stock of coconuts and drinking straws. His coconuts had plenty of milk and were good value. The line crossed river flats with hardly any gradients, but boasted an incipient junction Senchoa. Here a former metre gauge branch was nearly ready for re-opening as broad gauge and there were also extensive FCI godowns. At Haibargaon a crowd was waiting, cooled by fans spinning under the platform veranda, so that the number boarding was roughly equal to the number alighting. Our WDM2 ran round for the return trip, leaving a train of goods wagons with van on No 3 road presumably the loco off the evening passenger would go back with the goods train. At Chaparmukh on the return journey we noted that the green WDG2 was still sitting on the loop with its ballast train.

On Wed 4 June we commenced our return to Chennai on the Sampak Kranti Express for Delhi, chosen because it took the opposite choices between Gauwahati and New Jalpaiguri to the Kamrup Express by which we had entered Assam. In other words, it took the south of the river option to New Bongaigaon, and the nearer the hills option via Siliguri when approaching New Jalpaiguri. The train came from the New Guwahati sidings behind two WDM2As. It was late docking and its carriage numbers were a bit scrambled, but the platform indicators got them right, more or less. The train did not depart till it had pushed back so that the indicators were exactly right.

The line to New Bongaigaon via Goalpara ran between the Meghlaya hills and the Brahmaputra, though always out of sight of the latter and only in sight of the former if the clouds cleared. Instead there were smaller hills to watch on both sides of the track, which nevertheless managed to stay nearly level with gentle curves. Much of the way it was on a low embankment over paddy fields, lily ponds and the occasional small river with canoes very rural, and of course the village houses had bamboo matting walls, even if most had corrugated iron roofs. Its stations had multiple loops, high level platforms and buildings which were notable for not having any windows on the platform side, only a row of doors. Goalpara Town was one such, and it might just as well have been called New Goalpara for it was sited for the railway’s convenience, without much visible settlement beyond the railway houses. Here we turned north, and soon enough encountered the Brahmaputra. Our bridge was 2.5 km long, and sprang from the downstream side of a low granite hill on the south bank to a similar hill on the north. Like the Guwahati bridge, it was a double-decker with the road on top, and it afforded a fine view of the river as it broadened out downstream in anticipation of spreading itself across Bangladesh. Jogighopa, on the north bank, looked a bit more industrial than the average Assam town.

We curved into New Bongaigaon at the same time as a passenger service was arriving from Rangiya the station had a couple of island platforms so that both trains could arrive at once. We did not wait very long but obeyed the green colour-light signals which bade us thread our way past extensive marshalling yards and onto the double track. At Samuktala Road we paused while the Guwahati-Trivandrum Express drew level with us behind a WDM3A. The Kamrup Express came the other way, clearing the section for the Trivandrum Express, but this was not what we were waiting for. As soon as the departure home for Siliguri cleared we diverged to the right, taking the former metre gauge alignment.

Though the two tracks between Samuktala Road and New Jalpaiguri are both single, they are not run as a de facto double line. Both carry traffic in both directions. The northern of the two tracks ran parallel to its alternative, but about 30 km away and thus much closer to the hills (and Bhutan) and further from Bangladesh. This made a considerable difference. The line ran through tea gardens much of the way, and several times grazed against the hills, passing through green rain forest bundled up with creepers. On those sections where it was away from the front range it crossed a number of rivers running on beds of grey shingle. Stone training walls funnelled each river under its bridge. By contrast with these river crossings, we approached our last and largest river, the Teesta, by sidling up into the hills. We threaded our way through tunnels in conglomerate rock, and encountered the river just as it left a gorge, crossing it by a relatively short, high bridge. From here it was just round the corner to Siliguri, with both narrow and metre gauge coming in from the right. We ran express through both Siliguri Junction and Siliguri Town to stop at New Jalpaiguri and alight. Though we had taken the longer route, we made better time than the Trivandrum Express, which didn’t reach Platform 3 until the Sampak Kranti had left for Delhi.

The idea now was to take the Teesta Torsa Express to Malda Town, continuing to Howrah on Thursday morning by daylight Shatabdi express. The Teesta Torsa turned up alright, and our sleeping berths awaited us, but when approaching Malda Town we received an SMS from Samit Roychoudhury warning us that Kolkata would be under bandh tomorrow. We accordingly continued on the Teesta Torsa till, on Thursday morning, it slowed down and got stuck at Bandel.

Bandel station would have been quite a good place for watching trains, if only there had been any. But all was quiet, apart from at the couple of small hotels in the forecourt which simply did not have the capacity to feed three or four trainfulls of stranded passengers. However, we found an uncluttered seat on one of the island platforms, some newspapers to read, bread and plantains to eat and chai to drink; all quite relaxing. At about 1545 the first post-bandh train to Sealdah started moving and shortly after delayed expresses started arriving from the north. The first train for Howrah did not leave till 1715 and was not an express but the humble passenger from Mokama. This advanced steadily, station by station, till we found Howrah as busy as ever; its thali meals as acceptable as ever, and its Sleeper Class Waiting Room welcoming. It was as well that we had come through from Malda Town, because the day’s Shatabdi Express had been cancelled, and if we had relied on it we would have missed our connection to Chennai and I would have missed my air connection to Australia. Samit and his wife called by, giving us the opportunity to thank him for his timely SMS.

The southbound Chennai Express is formed by the northbound Coromandel. Due to the bandh the usual turnaround time of twelve hours had been reduced to less than six, but the SER had risen to the occasion and the train docked with around 20 minutes to go to departure time. The RPF had the passengers for the unreserved carriages, who were mostly young men, organised into a queue for orderly boarding. After the back carriages were full the queue was quick-marched to the unreserved carriages behind the loco. We elderly sleeper-class passengers were given more time to find our berths, and the train left late, just after midnight.

The Chennai Express is not only formed by the Coromandel; it is its mirror image in time, and both pass through Cuttack at dawn. We saw that Bhubaneshwar station now serves a big city but Khurda Road Junction, the more important place in railway terms, was still without a town. It sat on its laterite rise, a nest of nests of sidings. From here the line ran steadily south-west, with halts and refuge-siding stations alternating, these latter putting away mineral trains for us to overtake. Chilka lake was notable for extent to which it had been fenced with blue plastic fishing-nets. Orissa passed imperceptibly into Andhra, and at Naupada we saw another example of how the replacement of a narrow gauge branch with broad gauge both simplifies stations and enlarges them.

The railway installations at Visakhapatnam continue to grow in complexity, and after changing direction and returning ten or eleven kilometres to the junction we found ourselves passing a series of demoted signal boxes, each labelled Gopalapatnam Goomty plus a number, and each still manned and displaying the green flag. These led us under flyovers and up onto a high embankment from which we could overlook Vizag and perhaps even see the sea. As we continued the wayside temples became more southern in design, and at Samalkot Junction a Higinbothams bookstall announced that we had really reached the South. By now it was evening, with the air humid but smoky from burning paddy straw, and after Rajahmundry it was not only dark but pouring with thunderstorm rain. A good monsoon could well be coming.

I took to the top bunk at 1800, getting down at 0415 to find our train crossing Pulicat Lake into the familiar northern suburbs of Chennai. We reached Central a little late perhaps, but still before sunrise. Before catching the plane in the evening there was plenty of time to visit a couple of the relatives and also end the journey as we had begun, with a coffee with Sridhar Joshi, this time in the Egmore refreshment room.


Material provided by Ian Manning, Copyright © 2008.