Badarpur-Lumding Trip Report
by Mohan Bhuyan
This trip was made in the beginning of November, so this report is way overdue. Apologies to those who had evinced keen interest before I had even set out! I'll try and make amends with as much detail as possible, so here goes....
My first glimpse of the Barak Valley (Cachar, Southern Assam) metre gauge network came as my plane from Kolkata swooped low over Silchar on its final descent to a runway perched rather scarily on some hills beyond the town. The broad Barak River (also known as Surma) divides the town into two parts and I could see the yard of Silchar terminus on the northern side. And in the distance, the quaint Arunachal Junction, from where a branch line heads eastwards to Jiribam on the Manipur border.
I was staying with my friend Subroto in the town of Karimganj at the other end of the valley and close to Bangladesh, so I was expecting a long drive from the airport with glimpses of the Barak on the right, the railway line on the left, and a wide, flat and very green valley interspersed with hills and numerous rivers. I wasn't disappointed. In fact the only jarring note was played by the road, a disgrace of a national highway.
Not long after we left Silchar we were joined by the railway, which never strayed too far from us all the way to Karimganj. BG conversion was in full swing - earthwork & bridges and I was glad I had decided to make the trip when MG was still running.
As we approached Kathakal junction from where a line heads south to Bhairabi just across the Mizoram state line, I was in for a shock. I noticed that there was a queue of trucks and cars for the bridge over the Kathakal river and coming closer I saw why - it was the most narrow & rickety road cum rail bridge I have ever seen in my life, that too on a national highway. The railway line occupies the center & the bridge is so narrow that good driving skill would be a prerequisite for two Marutis to pass safely. Subroto said we were lucky - the jams are maddening, if a train happens along. Obviously no one had bothered to replace the bridge since the British era when road traffic was sparse. No wonder the Cacharis feel neglected, I thought.
Next came Panchgram, which could have been a picturesque spot with its high bluffs overlooking a broad plain, if not for a grimy paper mill that hulks over the entire area, and I suspect pollutes it as well. Not long afterwards we approached the outskirts of Badarpur (BDB) the main railway centre in the Barak Valley and the junction for the hill section to Lumding in the Brahmaputra Valley to the north. I saw that the good looking cantilevered bridge carrying the line to Lumding was before BDB Jn making it necessary for the trains from Silchar to reverse there. Badarpur itself is a fairly grimy town and we were glad to leave it behind and move on towards Karimganj, now on a much improved highway.
In the western part of the valley the Barak undergoes another name change and is known as the Kushiara. It also forms the border with Bangladesh and soon Subroto was offering me glimpses of that country through the trees and across the river. After a sumptuous lunch of different varieties of Bengali fish curry we headed out for a spot of sightseeing, which in Karimganj means little more than staring across the river into Bangladesh from different points on the western bank. At the ghat (ferry port or river bank as opposed to a hill in these parts) we got a good view of Bangladesh, which I have to say, was no different from India!
The bustling ferry ghat offered a spot of family history. My grandfather was the Sub Divisional Officer of Karimganj during Partition, and he would hold flag meetings with his Pakistani counterpart from the town of Sylhet on boats anchored in the middle of the river to discuss the streams of refugees heading either way. Today boats chug up and down the river bearing different national flags, even the country boats, but cross channel traffic is highly regulated. Later we also saw the British era Deputy Commissioner's bungalow, where my grandfather reigned as lord of the then Karimganj sub division of Cachar District.
Karimganj once had a flourishing economy, based entirely on the smuggling of goods to and from Bangladesh. Five years ago the authorities cracked down on this hectic activity, so everyone in the town looked gloomy because of their greatly reduced untaxed incomes, and spoke nostalgically about the glory days! Nowadays the legal trade is almost entirely in the transport of coal from mines in Meghalaya to Bangladesh. Unfortunately the railway plays no part in this as evidenced by the dozens of trucks lined up on the official road crossing to Bangladesh.
Before Partition it was possible to go all the way across East Bengal by rail to Kolkata from Karimganj, with a gauge change in between. Today the end of the line is at a place called Maishashan, about 11 km west of Karimganj. I thought it would be a real feather in my cap if I could get to Maishashan, which is not on the main road to Bangladesh, and photograph it for IRFCA. Subroto, long familiar with my railway related eccentricities readily agreed to take me there, and we set off on a dirt road overpopulated with rickety wooden bridges. Alas, it proved to be a bridge too far when we came to a particularly tottering specimen, and I had to weigh one newish Hyundai Santro belonging to someone else against one obscure & desolate railway station, of not the slightest interest to the owner of said Santro. No contest, so we headed back to Karimganj for some whisky and more outstanding fish.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny and I had a train to catch. Namely 5812 Barak Valley Express from Silchar to Lumding, which I was to board at BDB at 9.15 am. TAAG showed that it had a FC coach and I was hoping for a coupe. But Subroto put paid to that; handing me a sleeper class ticket, saying that first class was only one day in a week, if at all.
When we arrived at the station ( a 3 platform affair, with numerous loop lines for goods rakes & shunting), 5812 had already come in from Silchar and was in the process of receiving a YDM4 as a banker. I found my coach - inevitably the scruffiest of the ten on offer - and took my seat in the first compartment (next to the aisle for easy access to the doors) . Back in the Seventies, the Barak Valley Express ran between Guwahati and Silchar and was one of the prestigious trains of NFR. No longer.
In the mean time BDB was fairly active - a goods train came in from the Karimganj side and a passenger ( described as the Tripura Passenger by the announcer) from the Silchar/Lumding side.We were off at 9.15 and as I stood at the door waving to Subroto and his brother, I decided to remain there for the Barak Bridge. The line for Lumding ascends almost immediately after the BDB yard leaving the Silchar line below and curves over the latter & the road to enter the bridge in a spectacular approach. The Barak is wide and deep at this point with low hills on the other side & piers for the new BG bridge were being constructed in between the MG bridge and the one bearing the road to Shillong & Guwahati - all so interesting to this avid rail fan that he quite forgot to take a photograph!
The train headed steadily northwards - towards the formidable Barail Range - all steep slope, high crest and wall like, and I wondered how we were supposed to get through. Then a gentle turn, and away in the distance what appeared to be an opening - two hills meeting in a "V". 5812 pointed itself at the "V" and throbbed away. The train was fairly slow - 40 kph or thereabouts, rocking from side to side in the characteristic gait of the metre gauge. But the countryside is lush, and the pace just right.
First stop for the Barak Valley Express is at Chandranathpur where a crowd of people made a beeline for our sleeper. The TTE stopped them in the nick of time and pointed them in the direction of the general coaches. The halt seemed inordinately long but was soon explained by the passing of a very late Up Cachar Express boasting the only 2AC service on NFR's metre gauge trains. The token exchange took place right next to my coach but again I failed to capture it on film. After the crossing we started, only to stop within seconds. "A drunk was trying to get onto the roof of one of the coaches", our Assamese TTE chuckled. It's that kind of line, I thought - leisurely and good humoured.
After Chandranathpur, we are into the "V" - hills covered with wild bamboo close in and soon we are into our first tunnel. The "V" turns out to be a river valley flowing in the direction we were coming from. "Doyang River", said our TTE - Jatinga I learnt later, as the Doyang is encountered only after Haflong. The Jatinga is the thread with which we were going to stitch through the Barail range and I headed for the door to soak it all in. Beauty was all around us. Witness the scene at KM 160 - the stony Jatinga below us, the water a comforting blue, bamboo on our side of the river and a tea estate on the other. Above us the green hills and a clear blue sky.
The gradient was kicking in making the YDM4 out front growl. The speed was really slow - 10-15 kph but the hills were soothing, blanketed with trees - many betel nut & banana groves in between the bamboo, and tea - now on our side of the fast flowing Jatinga. We cross Damchara without stopping, its signal cabin bore the legend "Damchara West" - despite the North-South alignment of the line. I took note of the various gradients we traversed - 1:100, 1:88, 1:70, getting progressively steeper.
We moved on slowly, twisting and turning every few seconds. The hills were now covered with forests - bamboo everywhere, and there were no signs of human habitation. I spotted wild bananas in the midst of all the foliage - no fear of starvation if one ever got lost in these jungles! There were a couple of fresh looking landslides near the line, and we slowed down as we crossed them. In fact speed restrictions and caution orders were plentiful, but we didn't seem to be too late. Along the way, there were many signs of BG construction - earthwork and high embankments along a parallel alignment. At Bandarkhal we overtook a goods train with POL wagons. Three YDM 4's made up its loco component, two in the front and one banker - the most I've ever seen on an MG goods rake.
We were only 10 minutes late at Ditokcherra but the halt extended to half an hour and more. I went forward and found the Assistant Driver lolling about beside his charge and we got into a conversation. He said the steepest gradient on the line was 1:37 at some points between Harangajao and Jatinga. MPS he said was 70 kph between BDB and the first tunnel. There after it varied between 25, 22 and 15 kph for most of the hill section. Closer to LMG it was 40 kph. Their shift ended at Lower Haflong, from where LMG based crew would take over.
The long wait at Ditokcherra I was told, was because there is shunting activity going on at the next station Harangajao, plus there was a crossing to be made and the controller at BDB couldn't decide whether it was to be at Ditokcherra or at Harangajao! I began to wonder whether the folks who run this line are much too casual for their own good. Apparently the controller decided in our favour, and we began a slow crawl to Harangajao where more misery awaits us.
The average speed between Ditokcherra and Harangajao was about 10 kph. Recent line renewal work was evident in patches - new concrete sleepers, etc. I noted with surprise that the BG alignment had switched to the other side of the Jatinga River. Our TTE said that he too found the new alignment quite confusing. He said many existing stations would be abandoned, but he wasn't sure which. Perhaps Harangajao - a station of some importance with 3 loops, 3 sidings and a refreshment room would be one of these, as I could see the BG earthwork on the other side of the Jatinga valley and halfway up the opposite hills.
At Harangajao we caught up with the culprits responsible for the delay to 5812 - a rake being loaded with boulders (to be broken up into ballast) with a YDM4 in attendance. Our train showed little signs of imminent departure so I got down to take in the bustling activity on the platform. The platform also served as a ""haat" or bazaar with Hmar women (looking distinctly Burmese in their colourful headgear and lungi like dresses) selling oranges, plantains and pineapples. That we were in the midst of restive tribal territory was made evident by the sight of 2 soldiers from the 8th Gurkha Rifles patrolling the station in full combat gear.
Our TTE went to the ASM's office to find out the reason for the delay. Crossing and shunting he told me and promptly headed down the pathway towards the bazaar some distance away to make a telephone call home! Resigned to a long wait after seeing the TTE stride so confidently away, I took a couple of photos of the Hmar women and hunkered down in my compartment. At 1 p.m. the goods train we were waiting for came in from the Haflong side. Only NFR would keep an express waiting for more than an hour for a goods train. A display of commercial acumen or customer apathy, I wondered. Our TTE was in no doubt as to which was more important. Only freight brings in revenue he said, "this is a freight line." "True, but it doesn't mean that passengers have to be subjected to endless delays," I replied, in response to which I only received a sniff of disdain. Silently, I wondered how efficient NFR actually was in hauling freight on the hill section. Already we had seen the wrecks of at least 3 derailed goods trains on the way up from BDB.
The goods train left for BDB almost as soon as it came while we showed no signs of leaving. Frustrated I went forward and received a rude shock - our loco had gone!
Our loco had gone to couple up with the shunting YDM4, which would run dead with us till LMG. More unnecessary delay. No wonder most people in the Northeast prefer the buses!
By the time we left Harangajao after two hours I had already explored every inch of the station. The next station was Mailangdisa not a scheduled stop, but I wasn't surprised when the brakes were applied. What did surprise however, was that for the first time a goods train (oil tankers) was waiting for us instead of the other way around. After 5 minutes of waiting I decided to make the most of it and had a late lunch of boiled eggs, aloo and paratha from Subroto's kitchen. The POL train had departed soon after we had arrived but we remained rooted to Mailangdisa and its spectacular view of the valley below. After taking my fill of the scenery I decided to find out the reason for the long halt. Line fracture up the line near Jatinga reported by the crew of the just departed tanker train, I was told. Then what sounded like pure bunkum but a veritable nightmare, if it were to prove true - We would have to wait till the loco of the tanker train reached Harangajao, returned light with men and materials, overtook us on the now available loop line, reached the effected spot, made the repairs and finally came back in order to allow us to cross! "At least two hours", said our TTE. "More like four", I muttered to myself, now extremely cross because I was fast running out of daylight and we were not even halfway to LMG!
To cool off, I climbed the hill behind the station and was about 50 feet up when the station bell brought me scurrying back. We were leaving, after only an hour in Mailangdisa! From Mailangdisa, a steepish climb begins. I noticed a gradient marker showing 1:37 and our loco was roaring away with the extra effort. Soon the Jatinga River was way below us and quite some distance away horizontally, though still visible. We crossed a couple of interesting bridges, at least 200 feet above unseen rivulets that join the Jatinga and before long we were at Longrangajao, where almost inevitably, we stopped to let yet another goods train through.
Longrangajao proved to be a worthwhile halt because there were two longish curved bridges within station limits. If 5182 had been as long today as in its glory days - the last 2-3 coaches and banker would have been stranded on the bridge, 100 feet above the rivulet! The sun was low in the sky behind the bridges so I decided to try for some fancy photography while the goods train crossed the bridge. The results were not impressive!
After Longrangajao, the sun entered its last lap giving a golden hue to the hills. I took my camera to the door, looking to replicate John Lacey's Debara Gate shot. The train emerged from a tunnel and curved over another longish bridge. With the sun low in the sky, the rear end of the train and the banker offered a great shot against . In my haste, I dropped the camera's case onto the bridge and I could see it for quite a while, lying forlornly on the walkway. At least the shot turned out to be a good one and perhaps some passing gangman is now making good use of the case!
The approach to Jatinga (infamous for its bird "suicides") is through a 300 m long tunnel, which marks the final farewell to the Jatinga River Valley that had helped us across the Barail range. Till that point the BG earthwork was still on the other side of the Jatinga, so perhaps Jatinga will also get the chop. The line fracture was in the middle of the tunnel and men with Mashaals (flaming torches) were hard at work even as we crossed - a surreal scene for my camera, but it refused to click as it sometimes does! There were many birds circling above the ridge overlooking Jatinga. Perhaps that is the ridge where the villagers lure the birds to their death at night using mashaals and sturdy clubs. Leaving Jatinga, we could see the lights of Haflong high above us and in the distance. The headquarters of the North Cachar Hills District is itself not on the line, but is served by two stations Haflong Hill and Lower Haflong 12 km apart.
Haflong Hill is a single line halt station, but perhaps the most important one I've ever come across. About half the passengers got off and headed for the mass of autos, taxis and jeeps waiting on the road to Haflong. In between the two Haflong stations is Bagetar, a crossing station, where we came upon the Up Barak Valley Express and its equally frustrated complement of passengers. They had been held up for three hours at desolate Migrendisa just beyond the more amenable Lower Haflong where they could have had access to food and water and were seething when we met them.
By now it had become totally dark and I prayed for a moonlit night and not for the first time, cursed the govt. for not having a different time zone for the Northeast! I had spent a good deal of money just to make this trip and we hadn't yet reached the famous Doyang Viaduct. Lower Haflong turned out to a biggish station, as stations in the hills go. There were separate running rooms for drivers and train staff while the refreshment stalls did brisk business. Colour light signals gave it a modern feel, though most of the line is governed by LQ semaphores.
We crawled on through the night, though thankfully the moon was out and visibility was good. Fires on a few of the surrounding hills attested to the fact that the practice of "Jhum" or slash and burn cultivation, was alive and well. A pity, because the hills are still well forested, but for how long is a moot point. At Migrendisa, a goods train was waiting for us to pass but we stopped nevertheless. I had already resigned myself to the fact that 5812 was an express only in name - it stopped at every station after Harangajao. A couple of women were hitching a ride with the drivers of the goods train, while a pair of armed Gurkha soldiers were with the Guard - I guess the drivers always get the better deal! In fact hitch hiking is a feature of this line. Almost all the cabooses I saw carried a full complement of passengers. Perhaps the locals know that a goods train is a far quicker option than the two expresses and one passenger that ply the line!
The famous Doyang Viaduct was bathed in moonlight, and even in the dark it was quite impressive though not as high over the riverbed as I had imagined it would be. The approach is fabulous - a long curve through a tunnel, that continues over the viaduct and begins a steep ascent immediately afterwards.
The broadgauge construction suddenly resumed next to the MG line. Here the work was going on at full blast; bulldozers and JCB's pounding away through the night under bright floodlights. Luckily the work sites were at decent intervals, and we could enjoy the stillness of the forest and the moon shining through the trees. I was surprised that they were working at night given the numerous insurgencies that were simultaneously active in that part of Assam. Perhaps the army cover gives them the courage - Gurkha soldiers in battle fatigues were visible in every station.
As the night wore on, it grew colder and a light mist appeared that merged with the moonlight and the thick foliage in a manner that made me glad I was on the train and not tramping solo through the forest! Through all this, 5182 clickety-clacked away at a gentle 20 kph or less. I've been on NG lines where the speed has been higher! In fact the slowness of the entire line was emphasised on the approach to Maibong, the ancient capital of the Dimasa people. An autorickshaw on an adjoining road overtook us with ease and disappeared into the mist. Perhaps BG will be faster, if less picturesque.
After Maibong the forest and the mist coupled with the gentle swaying of the train seemed to have a soporific effect and I caught myself dozing off. A squabble between some co-passengers about seating arrangements was the final straw and I fled to the upper berth for a snooze.
I woke up with a start, sensing we were nearing Lumding. A peek out of the window revealed the BG mainline from GHY to Dibrugarh Town, and soon we were crossing the petroleum depot on the outskirts of town and the transshipment yard - which was in a hollow between the BG and MG lines. We were almost 5 hours late.
Lumding is a big station, befitting a divisional h.q. It also has an excellent non-veg restaurant serving simple but tasty chicken and fish curries, which I made short work of. It was close to midnight but my connection - the Ledo-GHY Inter City was due only at 3.30 am. I had originally planned to try for a retiring room, but we were too late for that so I decided to wait it out at the platform, pulling out a jacket, smearing exposed sections liberally with mosquito repellant and fortifying the insides with tea and cigarettes.
Several trains came and went in both directions - Kamrup, Brahmaputra and the Up Intercity along with a couple of goods. The DBRT-NDLS Rajdhani (2435) came in at a rather self-important clip but turned out to be a bit of a joke with only 5 coaches, the last of which was an ordinary SLR trying to look the part in Raj livery!
I had asked my father to pick me up early in the morning from Chaparmukh junction - 80 km and two hours away on the Guwahati line. I had worried that it would still be dark when I reached Chaparmukh, but the Intercity was half an hour late, giving me the chance to view a lovely wintry sunrise from the comfort of a first class coupe.
Though its really slow and NFR's train controlling skills leave much to be desired, I highly recommend the Lumding-Badarpur hill section. Your chance to follow my tracks on the original 101 year old MG line will end in 2007, when BG is expected to take over. Go now and don't be put off by the references to the security problems - non locals are rarely in any real danger.