Shahdara Saharanpur Light Railway

During a brief visit to Delhi in June 1968, I took a day off to travel by the 149 km long, 2'6" railway. This was the Shahdara Saharanpur Light Railway (SSLR), one of the few remaining Non-Government Railways in India and was the only such railway in northern India at that time.

In various archives and records, technical and operational descriptions of this railway may be available. However, my narration is more about my personal observation and experience during my travel.

SSLR was operated by T.A Martin and Company, which ran a few similar lines in Eastern India in Bihar and around Calcutta that were collectively referred as Martin's Light Railways. The main offices and works of the SSLR were at Saharanpur. Though it has grown somewhat in importance in recent times, Saharanpur was a rather one-horse town in the 1930s and the height of the ambition for the local youth was to work at the Imperial Tobacco factory (now known as BAT in UK and ITC in India) or at Martin's Light Railway. It does seem to have been a large employer there, which is why the line had a special place of affection for the local people. SSLR opened in 1907 and by 1913 it was carrying one million passengers and one hundred thousand tons of freight annually!

I boarded No. 331 New Delhi - Amritsar stopping passenger departing Delhi Jn. at 0610. We crossed River Yamuna shortly afterwards and reached Shahdara, 6 km to the E. at 0625. Continuing on this broad gauge train would have taken me, by a 171 Km long mainline, via Ghaziabad, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar, to Saharanpur before noon. I descended the 15' high embankment on the north side to reach the narrow gauge terminus that had a rather impressive facade.

When asked for a ticket for Saharanpur, the clerk stared at me and said, "You are at the wrong station! Go up there." I told him I wanted to go by the narrow gauge and pat came the reply, "No one goes to Saharanpur by this train". He reluctantly issued me a ticket, which proved him more or less right. It had been printed in the early fifties, with the fare in rupees and annas and he scribbled the prevailing fare on it. The platform had two tracks on either side, with sidings, goods shed, transfer yard, loco shed and turn-table to the east, beyond which the line curved towards north.

At 0705 a 0-6-2 tank engine was attached to the train. It was to haul the train through to Saharanpur, and we waited for the arrival of the down train on this single line route. I had boarded one of two carriages in the front occupied by the milk vendors. Many vendors had already occupied the seats, and the floor was covered with their large cans. It seemed that they were returning to their villages after having delivered the morning milk to the suburbs around Shahdara. Noticing a stranger, they started posing questions to me. Though I could make out what they were asking, my ability to reply in Hindi was nil, then a young milk vendor, who had completed his Pre-University, acted as the interpreter.

On learning that I was from Madras, there was a palpable tension among them, for, only a couple of years earlier, there had been an anti-Hindi agitation in my state and a new party had come to power in its wake. They could not comprehend how I, an Indian, could have no knowledge of the national language. I was hard put to convince them that I was no less patriotic for that matter, and they became sombre after that. Then someone asked me my name and when told, their suspicions vanished and gave way to trust and even some reverence. For these simple Jats, I, who bore the names of the three highest gods of the Hindu pantheon, could not be a renegade after all! Finally the train started at 0728, some of them burst into a folk song and one of them, to my horror, lighted up a kerosene pressure stove on the wooden floor of the carriage. He boiled milk and made a thick tea, sweetened it with jaggery and forced on me a big lota of it, which I could scarcely consume.

They got off in batches at the various stations from Noli (10 km) onwards and were mostly gone by Baghpat Road (32 km), where the engine was watered. Subsequently we stopped for watering at three more stations enroute; Baraut 49 Km, Shamli 88 Km and Nanauta at 119 Km. More people got in and so the train was still packed. At Baraut (Arr. 1010, Dep. 1044), some festival or a local fair was witnessed in the town to the west, and a large crowd was waiting to board the train.

There was a small stall vending snacks on the platform and being famished, I hastened there to eat something. Most of the items had been sold out and only some sweets had remained. As I do not fancy sweets too much, I did not buy any of them. Meanwhile, the two carriages used by the milk vendors had been detached and left on the siding. So I had to find room in some other carriage, but these were jam-packed already. People were climbing on to the roofs of these carriages and I too clambered atop one. The smooth roof was curving down towards the edges and there was nothing to hold on to. As I was hemmed in by men who were obviously accustomed to roof travel and after some initial trepidation, and being assured that there was no bridge or girder ahead to get my head smashed by, I braced myself for the ride. Truly upper class! Delhi (215 m) and Saharanpur (243 m) differ in altitude by just 28 metres and for a distance of 149 km, the average gradient works out to 1 in 5320 - which is practically no gradient.

The terrain is dead flat, as all of the Yamuna-Ganges plains are, and the colour of the soil is light brown. The fields were bare that summer, after the harvest, mainly of sugarcane. Low trees, and rarely, clusters of them, dotted the landscape. Single-storied, brick houses popped up in tight clusters amidst the fields. The towns around the major stations, hallmarked by a cinema house and perhaps a sugar mill or some factory, had pucca houses, many with two storey. Except for the vicinities of the towns, once I had seen one km of the landscape, I had seen it all!

The sun was not very hot that day and I traveled on the roof, disconcerted only by swings accompanying the steady trot of the ride, which I timed at about 28 Kmph between stations. Then disaster struck…….well, nearly. The air suddenly got chill and there were a few drops of rain. A menacing dark, cloud suddenly appeared just ahead of the train. The men around me bent their bodies forward, shouting "aandhi, aandhi!" I did not grasp its meaning and tried to rise on my knees to see what it was all about. The fellow behind forced my body down on the back of the person in front of me, just in time, as the fierce dust storm struck us hard. I felt I was going to be blown off the roof and clung to the dhoti of the man in front for my dear life. The trot of the train seemed to become a struggle against the gale. The train stopped at Balwa Halt (83 km) at 1235 for just one-half of a minute and continued its onward march bravely, with the storm still raging.

There was not much of a rain, but with dust swirling all around and I could see very little. The storm raged in full fury for 10 minutes and yet we covered a distance of 2.7 km. It died down only after Shamli (88 km, Arr. 12:50, Dep. 13:03). I got down from the roof of the carriage and went inside a compartment, feeling immensely grateful for the security it offered, irrespective of the crush. That was the first, and the only, occasion I traveled on the roof of a train. The rest of the journey was uneventful. Seeing that I had not obtained anything to eat at Baraut, one man, a villager by his looks, took out two chappathis from a roll and gave them to me; he would not accept any money, saying something in Hindi, which I took to mean "home-made." The chappathis were hard and there was no "side dish". Yet, out of deference to his concern for me, I chewed at and swallowed them both. That was a bit of an ordeal, but they were very filling and I did not need anything more till I returned to Delhi.

The vista remained much the same; flat, bare fields, occasionally some green crops, with the soil now a shade reddish, punctuated by short trees and clusters of houses. Shamli was the largest station enroute, with sidings beyond a sizeable goods shed. Many stations had two loop lines and even some of the halts had a loop line. Apart from the curve towards the north out of Shahdara, a gentle one past the Nanauta Sugar Mill, and finally at the narrow gauge loco shed and turn-table, just approaching Saharanpur (149 km, Arr. 1549), the line was practically straight with no curves to speak of. The narrow gauge terminated at a wall, and past it was the broad gauge loco shed of the junction.

On my return, I took No. 20 Dehradun - Bombay express, running some 20 minutes late (Saharanpur Dep. 1655) that day, for the177 km route to Delhi, via Meerut arriving Delhi Jn. at about 2115.

SSLR closed in September 1970 and the rails were pulled up quite quickly thereafter. The SSLR was later taken over from T. A. Martin and Company by the Indian government and absorbed in Northern Railway. The new broad gauge line was built in the late 1970s, mainly at the insistence of the one-time Prime Minister Charan Singh whose constituency of Baghpat is on this route. Although the broad gauge largely follows the same trackbed and alignment as the erstwhile narrow gauge, there is a minor deviation near Saharanpur. The broad gauge line takes off south towards Delhi from Tapri on the main line, while the narrow gauge line did not touch Tapri at all. Other than that, the stations are the same as before.

I have not been on this line again, which now has 5 through trains each way, including a stopping passenger up to Haridwar, and an express which covers the distance in just 4 hours. All other trains stop at almost every station, including the halts, underlining that they serve a population that is still predominantly rural, though living so close to India's capital. The terrain must remain the same, but with more residential colonies and factories, and of course, the now ubiquitous telecommunication towers. I am sure that the life style and awareness of the people along the erstwhile narrow gauge route would have undergone many changes during the last 38 years. I am equally certain that the hearts of the people in this area also remain much the same, warm as ever.

Editor's Note

The other railway lines managed by T.A. Martin and company were Howrah - Amta light railway and Howrah - Sheakhala light railway (both 2'0" gauge); Arrah - Sasaram light railway, Baraset - Basirhat light railway, Bukhtiarpur - Bihar light railway and Futwah - Islampur light railway (all 2'6" gauge).

The first eight locomotives that were ordered for SSLR were 2-6-2 side tank engines built by Hunslet in 1907. These had 30" coupled wheels and 12.75 X 16 inch cylinders and were known as the `Jumna' class. Next to appear were the `Shada' class 2-6-4 tank engines also built by Hunslet with same size cylinders and coupled wheels. The difference was the enlarged coal bunker behind the cab whereas the `Jumna' class carried coal in a side and top front bunker. The `Shada' was the most popular class of locomotives and 11 locomotives were built, the last one in 1955. Two locomotives of this class were built at Saharanpur shop in 1945/6 using spare frames and parts supplied with other orders by Hunslet.

SSLR also received two engines from Martin's lines in eastern India, the first one being a 0-8-0 tank built by Henschel that arrived from Baraset - Basirhat light railway in 1941 but is withdrawn from service by 1948. SSLR also received a 0-6-2 tank locomotive built by Hunslet from Bukhtiarpur - Bihar light railway when it closed for conversion to broad gauge in 1962/3. SSLR also brought a second hand Kalka - Simla class KC No. 524 locomotive from Northern Railway in 1967. Besides the above 22 steam locomotives used in its 64 year reign, there were three also three railcars used at SSLR.

'Shada' 2-6-4T No. 14 built by Hunslet in 1948 bringing the Saharanpur - Shahdara train seen at Noli in 1966 - P. J. Bawcutt collection (courtesy Continental Railway Circle, UK)

'Collector' was a 2-6-2 Tank engine built by Hunslet for SSLR in 1907. The subsequent 2-6-4T engines provided coal bunkers behind the cab - Kelland Collection (courtesy Continental Railway Circle, UK)


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