MGing on BG

2009-08-01

There are some benefits of laying MG tracks on BG sleepers but I’ll dwell on them a little later. This narrative begins just after 6 am on Aug 1 in the Booking Office of Guwahati railway station. I have to catch the 0202 GHY-Yeshwantpur Special Express leaving at 0630.

Though most counters are manned, the queues are long and virtually immobile. For some reason many people are clutching reservation slips and the booking clerks are accepting them! At 0622 I give up, go to the head of the line and taking permission from the people in the front request the clerk for a ticket to Rangiya Jn. She refuses – “come in line!” Explanations & pleas fall on deaf ears and when I see the all too familiar “minor babu on a power trip” smirk I shrug and leave the counter without further ado. NFR the Great Leveler – yesterday I flew in “full service”, today I’m sneaking out on a train sans a twenty rupee ticket!

Since there are only minutes to spare, it’s only natural that the YPR Special is berthed on the distant Platform 7, so there is no time to observe the entire goings on in the station. As always the crowd at GHY is a mix of civilians and men in uniform – most going on leave or returning from the various counter-insurgency training camps that dot the region. On platform 7 a platoon of Sikh Light Infantry is lounging around on its boxes. Since the soldiers are all bearing weapons, it is probably a relief detail heading for guard duty up the line. Their officer is a young Captain who looks like a northeasterner. Nice touch that though I wonder how much Punjabi he’s been able to pick up. Not much, if you go by my own example – I have a battalion of Panju relatives now and I can’t speak one word of their lingo!

0202 starts before I can reach the rear SLR, so I don’t have to walk to the end of the platform before boarding it. Most of the passengers are troops of one service or the other and when I park on the edge of a bench in the last bay
there is immediate objection from the young Oriya BSF constables occupying it. They have just completed jungle training near Dimapur and are returning home for a spot of leave. They are reassured when I tell them that I have no intention of spending more than an hour in their kind company, though they have no idea where Rangiya is.

At Kamakhya I have a brief bout of anxiety when I realize that 0202 may just take the Goalpara line – it will be helluva hike back from there. But the train sweeps northwards towards the Saraighat Bridge and my attention is soon taken up by the new carriage depot and pit lines at the western end of the station, which has made Kamakhya the Kochuveli of Guwahati. I had assumed that these would come up at or near Pandu on the river, but that would probably have required a new line to avoid having to reverse into Kamakhya and blocking the through lines during shunting.

The Brahmaputra looks in fine fettle though the Monsoon has been poor. And for the first time I don’t get a good look at either Pandu or Amingaon from the approaches; new construction and trees largely obscure the old yards now.

I do get a good look at Concor’s Amingaon ICD however, and am surprised to see so many containers there – a sure sign of activity. Apparently about 2500 TEU of tea is loaded here during the season (May-October) and then sent to Kolkata and Haldia Ports, a journey that takes up to 3 days.

The rest of the run up to Rangiya is uneventful – no crossings and no hold-ups. As we enter the yard I spot a nice looking air conditioned MG saloon in the MG carriage depot bearing the title The Frontier Rover.

Rangiya station has been renovated since I last came this way. Gone are the low brick buildings and even lower platforms of the MG era. Platform 1 now has reddish vitrified floor tiles and a new main building and generally looks spiffier than before, as befits one of IR’s newest divisions. The entrance hall also serves as the booking office (computerized) and I quickly buy a ticket for Rangapara North Jn to end my ticket less status; 124 km, Rs. 19 (though the fare chart reads Rs. 20).

Over to one side there is a “passenger friendly” touch-screen kiosk inaugurated by the current GM of NFR only 6 months ago but already on the blink. A pointless expense really and that leads me to wonder about the utility of GM’s inspections; since everyone knows he is coming, everything must work like clockwork and look ship-shape for the duration of the great man’s visit! And after his saloon departs…

0202 is still on PF 1 as I reenter – it’s waiting for the Shifung Passenger from Fakiragram to cross it and for the Delhi bound Rajdhani to overtake. Well before the Raj passes through at a sign posted 65 kph, there are announcements warning passengers not to stray on to the tracks.

Apparently the bestsellers on NFR as far as platform food is concerned are dosas and vadas. I have seen South Indian counters all over the place – Mariani, Lumding, Guwahati even Rangapara, with passengers thronging around at all hours. The Malayali gent who runs the Rangiya stall bids me to sample his wares as I walk by after 0202 finally departs. It’s not the best dosa I’ve ever had and the coconut chutney is execrable, but full marks for entrepreneurship and customer friendliness!

After lingering for a while on the footbridge where it is cooler, I cross over to the last platform which is used for transshipment. On the far side of this platform a BCNA rake has been split into several parts with substantial gaps between each bunch of wagons. On the near side is a very long metre gauge BC rake and an army of labourers are transferring what looks like bags of fertilizer from the former to the latter.

There are two passenger rakes on the MG platforms, one of which is my train 759 Passenger. There are also 3 YDM-4’s around, one of which is attached to a saloon. I know why the saloon is out –just before leaving Delhi I found out quite by chance that the line was closed because a bridge had been washed away. Apparently it only reopened yesterday. Having suffered several times in the past because of inadequate information on NFR, I had taken elaborate precautions yesterday before deciding to take the train to Rangiya; calling up a Goods Driver acquaintance based in NBQ, buttonholing two Drivers outside the Running Room at GHY, visiting the Enquiry Counter at GHY and finally calling up the Rangiya SM’s office, whose number was helpfully displayed on a board at the GHY enquiry.

Remembering a query on NFR loco sheds on the mailing list, I inspect the YDM-4’s. Two in the normal maroon livery are from the Siliguri shed just as I had expected. The third, with blue and yellow livery, just has the IR roundel logo sans shed name at both ends. Considering the unusual livery (for NFR) I suppose it is a recent import from such converted section. So the shed at RPAN must be just a trip shed like the one at Mavli near Udaipur.

759 Passenger is full with lots of people having to stand. Some of the windows have bicycles lashed to them. Many passengers are vendors heading for a weekly “haat” at Goreshwar and a few amongst them are carrying large metallic pots with a wet cloth or “gamcha” covering the opening, which they are constantly thrumming as they squat in a row on the platform waiting for the train to start. “Fish” they confirm, when I ask.

759 has one Sleeper in the middle, which means that this must be a rake used for the Arunachal & Tezpur Expresses that has now been mixed up with a Passenger because of the recent line closure. Finding no place in any bay, I opt for the TTE‘s pull-down seat in the passage between the middle doors. This is one thing I’ll really miss when MG goes away forever – more doors to stand in and more standing room within than on BG.

759 starts bang on time at 0845 and as it picks its way through the yard I am confronted with the Indian railfan’s eternal dilemma – to sit and not have a clear view or stand at the crowded door and relinquish the precious seat? I opt to sit until it becomes impossible to see out clearly.

A light rain begins to fall by the time we reach the first crossing station Goreshwar, which is having its Haat Day. Assam, like many other parts of the country has been Monsoon deficient in 2009. But visitors will be forgiven if they said that Assam hasn’t a clue about what a scanty Monsoon really entails; the rivers, nullahs and ponds are full, the landscape is bright green and paddy transplanting is on in full swing! Later I find out that it’s only begun to rain a bit since the middle of July. The rain clouds obscure the Bhutan hills to the north. Somewhere over there is the border town of Samdrup Jongkhar; a market for foreign goods in the good old Socialist days, much like Dhulabari on the Indo-Nepal border near Naxalbari.

After Goreshwar I give my seat to an old man who is looking a bit under the weather and squeeze in with the Bodo youngsters who have the door. A little rain falls on our faces from time to time but it’s refreshing. The train moves along at a steady speed of about 60 kph and I notice that the sleepers are of concrete and of BG length, with the Pandrol clips for the wider gauge in place. I had heard something about this before so I I’m not surprised, but what is surprising is that the relaying with dual gauge sleepers had been completed all the way to Rangapara. New approaches are being made at a few bridges but otherwise the BG sticks to the old MG alignment.

The signals on this route are the elegant upper quadrant semaphores but they don’t seem to be working – certainly the ones at Khairabari where we had a crossing with a goods train weren’t… The first operational semaphore I notice is at Tangla, a station that brings back memories of childhood.

Between 1977 and `82 my father was the Manager of a tea estate bang on the Bhutan border about 22 miles north of Tangla (Bhutan began where the estate ended). One day during the winter holidays of 1980 I think, I persuaded my parents to allow me to travel to Tezpur by train. An unsuspecting staff member was ordered to accompany me and we took the passenger from Tangla (759 in an earlier avatar). The train was a couple of hours late at Tangla and by the time we reached Tezpur it was night. I had a great time but I guess my minder thought he had a deranged kid on his hands by the end of it. It turned out to be my last journey on a regular steam hauled train.

Two armed CRPF(Railway Protection Force) constables join me at the door after shooing the Bodo youngsters away. They are returning to their base at Harisingha after guard duty up the line. Since we have been passing through the restive semi-autonomous Bodoland Territory, I ask the constables how the situation is. “Quiet now, but one never knows”, says one. “These Bodos are strange,” the other continues conversationally, “sometimes they kill Bengalis, at other times Adivasis (ex tea garden labour) or Assamese and if they can’t find anyone else, they kill each other!” I can’t think of a suitable retort and just as well; in India “sensitive policeman” is as much an oxymoron as “honest politician.” Nothing I could have said to the contrary would have made an iota of difference in their attitude.

At Udalguri, which is the HQ of the new & eponymous district under BTC administration, we are kept waiting outside the station for a long time in order to let the Up 5815 Tezpur-Rangiya Express into the station first. Some people can’t wait and begin walking through the trackside courtyards towards the town. 5815 is festooned with bicycles and not for the first time I regret not bringing my camera along. The longish halt gives me the opportunity to inspect the tracks; the through line is laid on BG sleepers except at points & turnouts but the loop lines haven’t yet been touched.

With two standing trains, Udalguri station is crowded. From Rangiya to here, the railway route is direct while the roads are circuitous and not in the best shape. 759 will gradually lose most of its passengers after Udalguri as the highway to Tezpur is direct and gives a wide berth to the obscure Rangapara.

Between Udalguri and Rowta Bagan both railway and road pass through a swampy, low lying area crisscrossed by rivulets. One night in May 1977 all these rivulets were in spate and in one of them the rising waters began to eat away at the abutments of the railway bridge. When the 13 Up Tezpur Express reached the bridge some time after 1 am, the bridge collapsed plunging the engine and a few carriages into the swirling waters. Many passengers were killed and I believe it remained NFR’s worst disaster until the ghastly Gaisal collision of a few years ago. Till 1982, we used to drive by that spot many times and I remember the buffers of the ill fated loco (YP? MAWD?) sticking out of the mud for a long time after the accident. My mother used to tell me a story (as I stared at the tragic bridge thinking macabre thoughts) each time we drove by about how a distant relative was saved because his dogs (who were with him in a First Class coupe) gave him so much trouble that he detrained before the accident took place. Must be a made-up story because no passengers would have got off at night in the middle of nowhere, not even if his dogs were all mad and he was an Englishman.

Rowta Bagan station is only 3 km away from NH 52 so it serves as a depot for gauge conversion material, bridge girders and such. After the station is the longest bridge in the section, a through truss with 7 or 8 spans across the Dhansiri River. A few km north of the bridge, just where the Dhansiri emerges from its Himalayan run is the tri-junction of Bhutan, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

At Majbat we enter tea garden territory. Earlier we have been on the fringes, but from here till Rangapara North we’ll be passing through several of them. Tea gardens, especially the manicured ones, make for rather pleasant viewing from trains. And this line as well as the Tezpur branch has the best of them.

A TTE enters our carriage and begins asking for tickets. He is accompanied by two RPF constables who are armed to the teeth. “Overkill”, I say to myself even for a line that has seen it fair share of insurgency related incidents over the years. As it happens, everyone has a ticket. After my ticket is checked I ask one of the constables if they always accompany the TTE on his round. “Some times” is the reply.

There are many cops on duty on the train under the command of a stout and tough looking Havaldar. They are all active and alert, constantly moving from one carriage to the other. At one point the alarm chain is pulled and Assam’s Finest are out in a jiffy, scanning the carriages and looking for the culprit. Wisely whoever pulled the chain doesn’t reveal himself, not even by sprinting away after the train restarts.

But cops being cops they are not averse to other opportunities. At one of the stations a few people board our Sleeper with large baskets of vegetables and handicrafts for market – too big really for the coach but perfect for the SLR. Sure enough, as soon as the train stops for a signal, the cops climb into our coach and head, as unerringly as missiles homing in on a satellite phone in Afghanistan, to the far end where all the wares have been stowed. Soon the sounds of hard negotiations reach our ears and at the next halt, the cops move to another carriage looking smug and satisfied.

As we resume our run after stopping at Hugrajuli Halt I suddenly remember the Singri Panchnoi River Tramway, a mysterious narrow gauge line(apparently owned by one of the Brahmaputra Steamer co’s) that operated here in the 1920’s and 30’s, which no one remembers now. It ran northwards for 20 miles or so from Singri Ghat on the river to the environs of Hugrajuli and like its counterpart to the East, the Tezpur Balipara Steam Tramway (later Light Railway), it served the tea gardens in the area. Perhaps the extension of the East Bengal Railway to Rangapara from Tangla in 1933-34 put paid to this line because it would have been quicker to transport teas to Kolkata by train than by steamer even after transshipping at Parbatipur or Santahar. I dash to the door to see if there are any vestigial signs of the tramway at Hugrajuli but I’m too late.

There is a YDM-4, a departmental rake and a saloon at Dhekiajuli Road marking it as the location of the breach that halted operations till yesterday. The culprit is a fast-flowing river just behind the station and parallel to the line. It is an arm of the Belsiri, which makes a 90 degree turn to cut across the track just east of the station within the shunting limit while the main channel of the river crosses the line some distance away. Not used to sudden gushes or increased volumes in what used to be little more than a nullah; the puny pony truss bridge has succumbed, rendering the entire 400 km line hors de combat. Today we cross at walking speed over a temporary bridge, while the engineers and workers look an anxiously.

The next town must have been a household name back in 1962 but is largely forgotten now. Misamari has two stations, a large army camp and a small military airfield. During the Border War, Misamari was the gateway to Bomdila, Tawang, Se La and the Namka Chu in NEFA. In those days the road ran north from Misamari to an area known as Foothills and thence in to modern day Arunachal. Nowadays the main route is through Balipara and Bhalukpong. I have seen pictures of Nehru visiting the troops in Misamari and Foothills after the debacle, smiling but clearly under tremendous strain.

In older timetables New Misamari had an asterisk against its name with the legend “Opened for Military Traffic Only” in the footnotes. My memories of 1980 are of a large station bustling with uniforms, a refreshment room doing brisk business and a full goods yard. Today the station appears lifeless – nobody seems to have got down or come aboard and the army’s MCO appears to be closed. How the larger than life images of childhood diminish with age – looking at the station today I don’t understand why I was so impressed with it all those years ago. Ironically the civilian Misamari is just a halt station but is seems to have more patronage today than its military namesake.

The last few kilometers to Rangapara are through picturesque tea garden territory with the bushes coming up to the track on both sides sometimes on high bluffs, giving the impression that the train is passing through long cuttings.

Rangapara North has a complex layout perhaps because it used to be a dual gauge station until the early 1950’s. The shed line cuts sharply northwards from the West Cabin and the sheds (new -diesel trip, old – abandoned steam) are at least 2 km away, out of sight from the station and tucked away behind NFR staff colonies. The goods yard with the carriage & wagon depot begins well before the Tezpur line from the south joins the mainline. In fact the former comes in right in the middle of the station instead of at one end, requiring elaborate shunting & reversing for the goods trains that are to head that way. Other than the fact that the goods yard is large and well populated with BC’s, hoppers, tankers and flats, the station itself is unprepossessing and a little worse for the wear. 759 has been allotted a humungous 1 hour and 24 minutes to cover the 9 km from Misamari. Even so, it is about 20 minutes late!

And what are the benefits of MGing on BG? Well, the ride is smoother, the pace is decent, the gait is more even and the speed restrictions are few. In fact most of the caution orders were for bridges and culverts, which receive a year-round hammering from the rivers and streams debouching from the hills to the north. All in all a line worth seeing even after the rails are placed a little wider than they are today. That is, if it is open!


Material provided by Mohan Bhuyan, Copyright © 2009.