The Kangra Valley

2002-10-16

by Mohan Bhuyan

I made this trip in July, so this is way overdue. Part of the problem was that to be true to railfanning best practices I would have had to submit three reports:

  • NDLS -Pathankot by the Swaraj Express
  • Two trips on the Kangra Valley Railway
  • Pathankot-DLI by the Jammu Mail

Naturally I procrastinated and today being a holiday I 've decided to write at least one, so I've selected the Kangra Valley trips. Here goes...

A sister-in-law (SV) and I were the only ones in the family who were unemployed in July so we decided to check out Mcleod Ganj, the seat of the Tibetan govt. in exile. Of course, for me there was the added bonus of the Kangra Valley Narrow Gauge line. Because of the Amarnath pilgrimage we couldn't get reservations on any of the overnight expresses from Delhi so we landed up at Chakki Bank around lunch time by the Bombay - Jammu Swaraj Express well in time to catch the 4 pm passenger (7 PB) to Baijnath Paprola from Pathankot Jn.

The rake sans loco was waiting and already quite full. We found a couple of seats in the last vehicle just behind the guard's cabin and waited. Soon a railway employee came along and told me and a few other men/boys to get lost as the last coach was reserved for ladies, though there wasn't any signage indicating this. Turned out that he was just trying to keep a few seats free for some relatives of his supervisor - Indian style sycophancy at its zenith. By this time the guard appeared and confirmed that the LV was usually for women, though the rule wasn't cast in stone. Pointing at SV I asked him if I could hang around in the last coach, letting it be known that I was a freelance writer on the railways!

Departure time came and went, the loco was still aimlessly shunting around in the yard so I engaged in some conversation with the guard whenever he was alone, to make him feel comfy about letting me stay in the LV. Over in the narrow gauge yard I could see the smart looking carriages of the Kangra Queen started with much fanfare a few months earlier. When I asked the guard about the Queen he snorted and said that it had been withdrawn 3 months ago due to poor patronage. Apparently the inaugural run didn't attract more than one paying passenger. A pity I thought, sometimes the public is so maddeningly indifferent to well meaning experiments!

Just before we finally started behind a ZDM3, the guard told me that the maximum booked speed for the NG line was 30 kph, though we would rarely go that fast! We were off and I positioned myself at the door adjacent to the guard's cabin. The first few km after Pathankot is unspectacular...a trundle through the town and thereafter an interminable low cutting that restricts the view from the train. Seeing me at the door armed with a camera, the guard pointed out the slow speed and remarked that the line wasn't in great shape. Thus began a conversation which turned into a useful friendship. More about this later.

The first great sight on this line is the long steel bridge over the Chakki River which is the boundary between Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. I read after my trip in Mike's Rail History that this line is notable for its steel bridges, particularly the 200 m steel arch known in the 1930's as the Reond Arch. A few of the bridges are indeed quite spectacular, though for the life of me I can't remember which one was the Reond Arch. Shows that a little research is a must before every trip!

Our first stop was at new looking Dalhousie Road, so named because the road for Dalhousie in the Chamba Valley branches off from here. We went on our way...the gradient wasn't too steep - the avearge gradient on the line is 1:50. After some time we were at Nurpur Road where we waited a long time for the down 4 PB to cross us. The guard explained that the interlocking system was quite tedious. First our train was allowed into the station without stopping while 4 PB was made to wait at its outer. Then the key from our outer was brought to the signal box to open the points for 4PB to come into the adjoining line. We then had to wait for 4 PB to leave in order for our points to be opened. Because this process takes so long with the pointsmen having to go to and fro on foot, the guard said that sometimes the starter was moved to "off" from the point itself rather than the signal box - a forgivable bending of the rules, I agreed.

By now we had become quite friendly and I was invited to join the guard in his little cabin and I gladly abandoned SV who was reading a book at her window seat. The guard was a Class A based at Amritsar and he much prefered doing duty on BG passengers and DMU's where his cabin was bigger and the tracks safer. But he turned out to be a jolly chap, faithfully pointing out each sight and technical oddity on the line and regaling me with his experiences on duty as well as his observations of the local society. It was interesting to see him operate. To start the train he would look up and down and say "Omprakashji, Right" into his hand held radio and wave his flag. To which Omprakash the driver would respond "accha ji" and open up.

We were now gaining height and the late afternoon scenery was a sight for sore eyes from Delhi. Away in the distance we could see the huge lake formed by the Pong Dam on the river Beas. That stayed with us for a long time as we curved back and forth. The guard said the Kangra Valley Railway had originally been built in order to ferry equipment to a hydro electric dam site near the terminus at Joginder Nagar. At Talara there was another interminable crossing with a very late down 2 PBJ. Schedules are only loosely followed on this line - apparently our train always leaves late from Pathankot and is extremely late when it finally arrives at Baijnath. We crossed Jawanwala Shahr where I found the station building with its red tiles to be picture postcard perfect so I took a few snaps.

We crossed a river called Dehar Khad on a long iron bridge after a suspenseful approach through a long cutting. Soon we had looped around the bridge - a terrific sight from above. At another point the guard motioned to a ridge perpendicular to us and said we would soon be on top! Sure enough, we entered a tight curve and began a steep ascent that had the ZDM3 growling away at crawl speed. "1:25", said the guard. The view from the top of the ridge to the valley we had just left with its slate roofed cottages amidst greenery was quite spectacular. Most of the initial stage of the journey offered views of the Punjab plains on one side and glimpses of the formidable Dhauladhar range on the other. The Kangra Valley was living up to its reputation.

There was another long wait at Harsar Dehri for the down 4 PBJ to cross us after which we reached Nagrota Suriyan where there was a trackside "haat". The guard purchased some rice and vegetables for his dinner at the Baijnath Paprola running room. Knowing that the guard wouldn't leave without me, I went and bought cells for my camera from a nearby shop!

By now it was dark and the lights in the last coach were very dim, while the guard's compartment was pitch black forcing him to make notings in his log book using his flashlight. Between Nagrota Suriyan and Barial there was a long stretch under speed restriction. Very old track said the guard, which meant we crawled along at about 10 kph.

At Guler we crossed 6 PB and by now we were one and a half hours late.As the evening wore on the crowd thined out, beyond Guler there were not many people on board. I remarked that the trains seemed to be in demand considering that each seemed to be packed to the rafters during daytime. The guard said the train fare was half that of the bus fare and in any case most of the passengers were ticketless! He also said that the train would be almost empty after Jawalamukhi Road as hill folk like to turn in early.

By now there was little one could see outside except for the twinkling lights of towns and villages on hills. A largish band of twinkling lights clinging to the Dhauladhar in the distance I took to be Dharamshala. At one station ( I can't remember the name now) we stopped on a curve and the guard really made my day. While he told Omprakash to start her up, he let me lean out of the door on my side and wave his flashlight at the assistant and told me to continue doing so in an up and down motion till we had rounded the curve.

Jawalamukhi Road is almost exactly the halfway point of the line and there was a longish stop for refreshments from a stall run by a Sardarji. Wanting to thank the guard for his kindness I quickly bought some tea and bread pakoras for him little knowing that it was free for him and all the railwaymen!

After Jawalamukhi Road SV was quite alone in her portion of the coach so I reluctantly left the guard's cabin to join her. The train picked up speed and gradually the lights became brighter - I guess the battery was fed by a dynamo - when the train was slow, the lights dimmed appreciably. At Kangra we saw the beautiful fort tastefully lit by well positioned lights. It was now well after 9 pm and our thoughts turned to where we should stay since finding road transportation from the railway to Dharamshala was out of the question at that hour. Thanks to the trusty Lonely Planet we decided not to get off at Nagrota the railhead for Dharamshala but to go on to Palampur where decent hostelry was available.

After Nagrota there was a nip in the air and I could smell pine. The moon came out almost full and I could sense that the scenery was stunning, especially when the train wound its way high over small valleys and dales. At some point before Palampur, in the middle of a pine forest and without another light in sight, I spotted a man standing by the track side waving a green lamp. Turns out there had been a landslip recently and he was there to warn approaching trains. I wouldn't have exchanged places with him for a crore of rupees!

I settled down to catch the rhythm of the train. It was rather like a truck negotiating the hills. The ZDM3 would roar uphill and let the momentum carry the train downhill. As soon as it picked up too much speed Omprakash would squeal the brakes. The sound from the diesel was akin to being constantly in third gear, with gentle pressure on the accelerator when required.

Looking at the moonlit landscape I resolved to make another trip after a couple of days. We finally got to Palampur at 11 pm an hour late. Refusing the guard's entreaties to more hospitality at Baijnath Paprola, SV and I thanked him profusely and made our way outside. Luckily there was one Maruti van taxi, which took us to town, quite a distance away from the station.

After a day at McLeod Ganj where we were lucky to see the Dalai Lama at a public audience, I decided to follow Lonely Planet's advice, abandon SV at McLeod Ganj and check the line west of Nagrota. On reaching Nagrota after 2 crowded bus rides, I found the 1 Up PB passenger stranded due to loco failure. Its ZDM3 stood silent and forlorn with side panels removed and innards in full public display. I recalled that the friendly guard had told me that the ZDMs were prone to failure and I went forward to find out what had gone wrong. The "Lube Pipe broke" said the driver, "lucky it happened here and not up the line". Sure enough the engine compartment was awash with dirty looking lubricant and murmuring an apology to the ZDM3, I took a few snaps of the interiors.The driver said that help in the form of spares and mechanics was to arrive shortly from Pathankot on the 3 Up PB - my train.

It so happened that the 2 down PBJ and the 3 Up PB arrived at Nagrota simultaneously making for an unusually crowded station. Just as well, because most of the stations on the Kangra Valley line have just the one loop, if at all. Passengers from 1 PB who hadn't yet fled by bus joined us, so my train was again quite full. I selected a carriage with cushioned seats and parked myself at one door. The answer to why Nagrota had 3 loops was revealed when I noticed the other side of the yard had a facility for punching holes into steel sleepers. Work was on in full swing.

Sitting near me was the Inspector of Signals on tour from Pathankot. A bunch of station personnel were swarming around him and he looked busy so I resisted butting in with a few questions. Soon we were off and I began to enjoy the journey. The Kangra Valley is truly verdant and it was a bright sunny day. We wove our way through some meadows and I tried to photograph the train on the curves with my puny aim and shoot. This attracted the attention of a few co passengers and soon I was explaining what I was up to and politely declining offers of hospitality and free guided tours to the shrine at Baijnath. Hill people all over India are so much nicer than us plainsfolk.

The approach to Palampur, which I had seen only by moonlight, is a delight. Once the train gains height, it is chary of giving it up unless a river has to be crossed. Unlike the parallel highway, which goes up and down at will, the railway clings to the pine clad contours affording some spectacular views. There are many orchards ( apple, plum and cherry, I think.) and meadows interspersed with fields of maize. Near Palampur there are one or two scraggly tea gardens as well. A few small boulder strewn rivers and streams lend their touch, while the sheer face of the Dhauladhar range in the distance completes the picture.

At many places there are what I can only describe as "water bridges" crossing the line. Basically a steel half tube held up by supports. I couldn't make out whether they were irrigation channels or merely to prevent rain runoff from falling onto the line . Didn't see any dripping though, so they may even be disused.

After Palampur, all the stations till Baijnath Paprola are basically single line halts. One in particular is etched in my memory - Majhran Himachal Halt, with an unmanned hut in the middle of an orchard. A few picknickers were waiting for the train - I didn't see a single railwayman there, not even a gangsman.

After a long wait at the Baijnath Outer, we entered the neat looking yard which is the terminus for most trains on this line. We were late as usual, but this isn't a line for those short on time. After buying my return ticket I decided to explore the yard. The rake I came in was removed to the maintenance line after some elaborate shunting to detach the LV and position it at the correct end for the evening's down journey. Meanwhile I walked up the line to take photographs of the yard and to see how the route to Joginder Nagar looked. After Baijnath, the line curves to the left, crosses a widish river on yet another iron bridge and immediately begins a steep ascent. Looking at this vista I wished I could have gone till the end of the line but I wanted to be back at McLeod ganj in the evening and only a couple of trains make it to Joginder Nagar, that too at inconvenient hours. So I had to make do with a couple of photographs of the line beyond. Mike's Rail History says that the last few kilometres are the steepest in the line with a ruling gradient of 1:25. Perhaps the Reond Arch is on this section? Next time!

1410 came and went and my 6 PB showed no signs of impending departure. Besides we had to wait for the stranded 1 Up PB to catch up with us, so I went and got myself something to eat. 1 PB came in a while later with loco repaired but side panels still open. I got into a coach where some hip looking tourists from Delhi armed with a digicam had taken the best seats. We got into a conversation and it turned out that their leader was a veteran of the line, though he wasn't a railnut. He said that the best time to travel the line is in the winter when the Dhauladhar are covered with snow.

We departed an hour late - in keeping with the best traditions of this friendly line. We clipped along at a fair speed by NG standards - perhaps the driver was trying to make up for lost time. The Assistant seemed to be having fun - grabbing at trackside foliage and waving back at the village children. This time we didn't stop anywhere except at Panchrukhi and Palampur. I decided to get off at Chamunda Marg Halt, which is at the crossroads for Chamunda Devi, Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj. But by now the driver had got carried away with his non stop run, we rocketed right through the station until the guard realised what was going on and halted the train way beyond the platform and round a curve. As I walked back to the station I asked the guard what had happened. He smiled, waved his walkie -talkie at me and said, "the driver forgot!" This is really an easy going line - I bet there would have been an inquiry if it had happened on the broad gauge!

Material provided by Mohan Bhuyan, Copyright © 2002.
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