Upper Class to Sheopur Kalan

2009-03-28

In the last week of March Bharath Moro, Shashanka Nanda and I took a ride to
Sheopur Kalan (SOE), on the last surviving 2ft line of the erstwhile Scindia
State Railway (originally Gwalior Light Railway). We left Hazrat Nizamuddin on
the Mahakoshal Express, spent the night at GWL, took the early train to Sheopur,
then a jeep to Sawai Madhopur and finally the next morning’s Jan Shatabdi back
to NZM. If you’re jaded with India and wish to reconnect with Bharat there can
be no better way than to take the train to Sheopur. Some observations and
highlights from our trip:

If you have a thing for high speed overtakes, then Shanx recommends the Lichhavi
Express to Samastipur, which suffers 7 overtakes at a single station between
Delhi and Aligarh. The Mahakoshal to Jabalpur also has far too many
insignificant stops like Palwal, Kosi & Raja Ki Mandi but is subject to only one
(spectacular) overtake – by the Mumbai Rajdhani, at Sholaka.

At Ballabgarh a terminating EMU (Electric Multiple Unit)from Delhi comes to a halt on the adjacent loop
just as we were departing. Many of its Palwal bound passengers make a desperate
and mostly successful dash to board our rapidly accelerating train. Except one
young fool who is a bit slow off the EMU (Electric Multiple Unit)and thus forced into a sprint on the
uneven ground. Just as he makes a blindsided grab for our door someone who has
just clambered on seconds before and is still hanging out, slams into his back,
sending him sprawling full length on the ballast. A lucky escape from a hard
fall, though I doubt it is hard enough to knock some sense into him.

The best thing about Gwalior Jn is that almost all goods trains just speed
through while just about all the express trains have to stop here. Plenty of
container action on view as well as some BCNA & BTPN sets, and the odd diesel
hauled freighter taking the Shivpuri line.

Even if you are a very wealthy railfan, eschew the opulent Usha Kiran Palace
Hotel and just head for the Jhansi end of Platform 4, from where the
unpretentious & friendly Mahima Hotel is visible. Ask for a room on the 2nd
floor (which has a large station facing terrace), pour yourself a drink, have
your dinner sent up, put your feet up on the parapet and watch the goods trains
clatter through while the expresses glide stealthily to a halt.

The only through train to Sheopur Kalan, the seven carriage & NDM5 led
No.271 Passenger leaves on the dot at 0625 but don’t expect to find a vacant
seat unless you reach the station at 0530 or earlier. The best thing to do is to
arrive with 5 minutes to spare and commandeer a door till a seat in Upper Class
becomes available.

The line veers away from the station and the tiny NG carriage workshop almost
immediately and plunges straight into the city, running within touching distance
of the houses. It skirts the southern end of the imposing Gwalior Fort and then
heads almost due north for the next 30 km or so, next to or parallel to the
Bombay-Agra NH 3 before turning westwards for SOE.

A manned level crossing in the city has got to be the longest one in the
country. Railway and road make simultaneous use of a long and high cutting with
the track in the middle of the road. Road traffic is held up by gates at both
ends of the cutting so in effect the entire cutting is the LC!

Ghosipura is the first halt, abreast of the SW corner of Gwalior Fort. It was
once the junction for the Shivpuri branch. Today a road has replaced the
permanent way and the BG branch line parts from the mainline a couple of km
south of GWL. Ghosipura is also where the train gets really crowded and most of
the men folk opt to sit in Upper Class – the carriage rooftops. Why at
Ghosipura? Why not from GWL? You may ask. Well, there is enough standing room
till Ghosipura for one, but more importantly the section through the city is
crisscrossed by numerous low hanging cables!

I shift to Upper Class at Ghosipura while Shanx and Moro follow suit at the next
station Motijheel. The rooftops quickly fill up and soon the top surface of each
carriage and the loco is scarcely visible from our perch on the last vehicle. So
when the train is moving it looks like we were all sitting on a long flying
carpet.

Though Upper Class is unprotected from the elements it’s not without some
amenities. Young boys selling peanuts, garam chana masala and water pouches leap
nimbly from carriage to carriage. Regular passengers engage in card games just
as they do in countless commuter trains throughout the country. And if the
gently rocking motion has a soporific effect, it’s possible to stretch out with
your bag or headgear as a pillow, and take a nap!

While Sheopur is West by Southwest of Gwalior, the line heads out of the city in
a Northwesterly direction, as if it has no intention whatsoever of going to
Sheopur. For a while it runs on the verge of NH 3 and don’t be disappointed if
even mopeds & overloaded tractor-trailers effortlessly overtake the train
because the latter has the last laugh; all road vehicles are held up at a LC
near Motijheel. Besides, the slow gait allows one to sit atop the carriage
without clutching onto anything (though I take care to do so throughout the trip
as my legs are dangling in the space between two carriages).

At Motijheel there is a small power plant, which must have supplied all of
Gwalior’s requirements in a bygone era, but is probably not worth the bother
now. Ian Manning mentions (in his invaluable accounts of train travel in 1960’s
India) that coal was once brought here by a local shunt. No evidence of that
today.

After Motijheel the BG mainline to Agra hovers into view to the east and both
gauges run parallel to each other (at places less than a kilometer apart) till
the industrial area of Bamoura (Banmor), where thankfully all the factories are
towards the highway and the BG side. A WAP 4 led express (the Sachkand from
Nanded according to Shanx) overtakes us on the way and the difference in power
and speed is striking. When the inevitable gauge conversion takes place, I
suppose it would make economic and practical sense for the junction to be at
Banmor and for the city line to be abandoned.

After Motijheel the train labours over a barren and stony ridge and for a while
there are no signs of habitation – no houses, crops or roads. At one point the
track dips suddenly and we cross a small river called Sank on a causeway then
climb again on a 1:100 slope. Only on NG….!

Sumaoli is a biggish station (in the sense it has two loop lines and a couple of
sidings) and is the site for the first crossing of the day with 274 Sabalgarh
-Gwalior Passenger. A few 1987 built BC’s are parked on one of the sidings.
Back In 2004 Vikas Singh noted goods wagons at this place that hadn’t been moved
for 3 years. Presumably, it’s the same rake! Two rudimentary windows have been
punched out of the sides of the BC’s, a couple of steel benches can be seen
inside and the legend “Fit for Passenger” is painted on the sides (wonder which
saloon riding genius came up with that idea). Thankfully it was short lived, for
the BC’s are half filled with boulders and probably see service as a
departmental rake, if at all

Upper Class on 274 is jam packed, so much so the loco also has a full complement
of passengers on top as well as clinging to the sides. In fact all the other
trains we cross today seem to be far more crowded than ours. The Railway’s CYA
is a warning stenciled at the ends of the coaches – rooftop travel attracts a
fine of Rs.500 or 3 months imprisonment. It also has warning signs at stations
preceding the two through truss bridges on the route. But these warnings are
impossible to heed – the 7 coach trains have a capacity of 150-200 passengers
but easily carry twice that number.

The trains are popular for several reasons. The fare is only Rs.29 from GWL to
SOE while the buses charge Rs.110 or more. Some villages on the route are still
not connected by a bus service and have no major roads in the immediate vicinity
– Sumaoli is one example. And last but not the least; the rail route to Sheopur
is far shorter than the road, which begins at Morena. We may romanticize NG as
much as we want to but I’m sure the people on this line are just dying for gauge
conversion to begin. However, that looks unlikely in the near term as IR has
submitted an application for the line to be included in the `UNESCO World
Heritage’ list.

All the NDM 5 locos are running SHF. There are reversing triangles at Sabalgarh
and Sheopur and presumably a turntable at GWL. And all the locos have the side
doors/panels to the engine open for faster cooling. Additionally, local kids
often do the job of refilling the radiators from steel buckets at wayside
stations.

At Thara, a sign on the platform warns roof riders about a bridge in the section
to come. One or two of our co-passengers advise us to dismount, no doubt
worrying about the circumference of our girths. We don’t see anyone else getting
off the roofs, so we stay put and await with some excitement the arrival of the
through truss bridge on the Assan River. We cross without incident – it’s fun to
lie flat on your back and watch the crossbeams glide by a few inches above your
face!

At Jora (or Jora-Allapur as the Railway calls it, to satisfy two adjacent
villages) we meet the Morena-Sheopur road for the first time. It will stay with
us till Silipur before heading south to Goras thence NW to Sheopur, while the
railway cuts directly SW from Silipur to Sheopur.

After Kailaras, a biggish village or small town, road and rail converge to cross
the Kuari River on an old iron bridge. Road traffic is stopped by gates about
400 m before the bridge on both sides, so that vehicles caught in the middle are
expected to keep off the bridge on their own upon sighting the approaching
train. The chance of a collision is minimal because of the 5 kph speed
restriction for the train. Today on the far side enough vehicles have been
caught between the gate and the bridge to cause a particularly tangled jam on
the approach road made even narrower by the track on one side. We trundle by
with supreme unconcern – a bus in the thick of it only overtakes us after 5
kilometres!

Pipalchowki gets its name from a grove of four Peepal trees within which there
is a much revered temple. And so we reach Sabalgarh, the largest town on the
route and fittingly the longest halt. Here the Drivers and Guard change and the
crossing with our opposite number (272 Pass, heaving with humanity) takes place.
Since it’s quite hot, we descend to see if there is room in Lower Class. No
chance – there are as many people heading south to Sheopur as there were who got
off here. The local Halwai just outside Sabalgarh station serves some of the
most delectable Samosa’s to be found anywhere. Those and some quick aperitifs
are our sustenance for the remainder of the journey.

The landscape thus far as been a study in contrasts – fields replete with
harvest ready wheat interspersed with large tracts of uncultivable broken ground
with not a tree in sight except for a few stunted palms. To the west a line of
low hills is visible occasionally in the direction of Ranthambhor, as also to
the south – the uplands of the Shivpuri Plateau, the source of all the rivers we
cross flowing northwards to the Chambal, whose course is parallel to the railway
line (at times only about 5 km or so away.

The ripe Rabi wheat is truly a sight to behold and every time I see a yet to be
harvested field, the image of Sting singing Fields of Gold and of Russel Crowe
running his hands through the grain as he walks in his fields in the movie
Gladiator, come to mind. After a while this becomes annoying as I can’t seem to
conjure up a similar image in a typically Indian setting. The closest I come to
are the Punjabi mustard fields of DDLJ!

Our co-passengers are mildly curious but friendly and eager to point out places
of interest. Almost all the womenfolk cover their faces with the “pallu” of
their colourful sarees and it’s only in the larger towns like Sabalgarh that one
can see unveiled women and some others in salwaar kameez. Later in Sheopur I
spot two young women in jeans buying something from a hawker – I wonder if you
can call that progress!

I was expecting some old and charming station architecture but it wasn’t to be.
Most of the halt stations just have earthen platforms and a shed. Some are quite
pretty like the tree lined Ambikeshwar and Kaimarakalan. Bigger stations like
Kailaras and Sabalgarh have one regular platform with the standard canopy.
Signaling is limited to one semaphore on both sides of a crossing station. The
track has steel sleepers and is well ballasted for the most part, except when it
runs on the verge of a road.

The most scenic part of the line is after Sabalgarh. Beyond the wheat fields to
the west of the line a huge undulating forest of thorny trees and scrub hovers
slowly into view. This is one part of the National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary
according to the Eicher Road Atlas. The forest and track play hide and seek for
a long time until a quite stunning coming together after Birpur: The railway
curves through the fields towards another through truss bridge on the Kuno
River, for which we once again lie flat on our backs. Upstream of the railway
bridge is another odd looking one carrying what looks like a huge concrete pipe
across the river. It’s actually an aqueduct for a new, yet to be completed canal
that will carry Chambal water to the arid Shivpuri plateau. On the other side of
the Kuno, the train enters a long cutting and when we emerge we find ourselves
on a high ridge with a stunning vista below us: the Kuari valley and beyond it
stretching to the horizon, the vast Chambal National Sanctuary. In the monsoon,
this scene will be absolutely breathtaking.

Some of the stations on the route now like Silipur and Ikdori have names that
have no relation whatsoever to their location. Silipur should have been Shampur
and Ikdori probably should have been called Raghunathpur. Ian Manning also wrote
of a military farm “with a light tramway leading back into the bush”. We search
in vain for this and even the locals don’t have a clue. The 1950’s era US Army
topographical map of the area available on the Internet shows an abandoned NG
line heading southwards from Seroni Road Station. Maybe this was Ian’s tramway –
though no visible signs remain today.

Durgapuri is a way side halt for a renowned temple of these parts. The station
is lined with stalls selling offerings and virtually the entire train makes a
beeline to the temple for a quick “darshan”, so the stop is rather long. I get
down to see if the temple is of any architectural interest (it isn’t) and bump
into the Driver as he returns after genuflecting. He says the MPS on the line is
25-30 kph.

At Girdharpur we have the last crossing of the day with 278 Sheopur-Sabalgarh,
again with a full complement of passengers in both the classes. The approach to
Sheopur is through vast, open and mostly cultivated fields. The town’s microwave
tower and cell phone masts announce it from a long way away. The station is
unassuming though slightly larger than the others on the line and we have
arrived bang on time at 4.25 pm – ten hours for 200 km. Actually it’s not bad at
all for a 2ft line, I’ve been on MG lines that are far more laggardly.

We have an hour or so till the next bus to Sawai Madhopur so we go to see the
fort, which is badly in need of intelligent preservation. The view from the
western rampart is spectacular – over the Sip River and verdant fields.

The Sawai Madhopur bus is getting a tyre replaced and it looks like it will take
ages to reach there. Shanx hires a jeep for a grand but just as we are about to
depart a police inspector stops us and commandeers the front seat without so
much as a by your leave. Apparently he is on a mission to Patiala in Punjab to
arrest somebody who disappeared after a bad property deal. Though we are annoyed
at first, he turns out to be an interesting companion ably describing the
socio-economic and political characteristics of the region to us. In return we
tell him the names and timings of all the trains he can catch from SWM to Ambala
or Rajpura.

The 60 km journey to SWM is an uncomfortable one as the road is being widened
and so is in a state of disrepair for the most part. But it has some redeeming
features – the bridge on the Chambal for one and the southern fringe of
Ranthambhore National Park. Alas SWM does not have a trackside terrace hotel
like Gwalior and the one we choose leaves a lot to be desired.

The Jan Shatabdi journey is uneventful except that a young mother sitting near
us has a superb collection of Aerosmith on her cell phone. I spend more time
looking at the speed and distance displays than out of the window, while Shanx
and Moro spend more time at the door and in 2S than in our AC Chair Car.


Material provided by Mohan Bhuyan, Copyright © 2009.