Satpura NG Explorer
by Bharat Vohra
Photos from this trip can be viewed here: Satpura Trip Photos
Also see Mohan Bhuyan's report here: Satpura Surprises
A ride on Delhi's new underground section and a couple of drinks later at Mohan's house it was decided and even marked out on a calendar - the 'Satpura Explorer' was to be the first of our trips for 2005. That was early January. Today was the 18th of February and the start of our 3 day long trip to discover the narrow gauge (NG) lines between Nagpur (NGP) and Jabalpur (JBP).
We met at Nizamudin at about 2030 and took our places in coach NR 97102/A of SBC Raj - a filthy coach with bearable service and average quality catering to match! Departure was on time led by Lalaguda's (LGD) WAP4 22202 which performed well with its load of 13 coaches. Was a little surprised to see an LGD power on this train - is this the usual allocation and if so, does it change powers to Diesel at Secunderabad?
Baad was crossed in 2"15 after some very slow running and Mohan awoke at Bhopal the next morning to find that we were an hour late. I awoke just in time to view all 3 ghat sections - the one north of Itarsi and the 2 between Itarsi and Nagpur. The most spectacular of the lot was the one soon after Itarsi as we headed south. Is that the Darakoh - Maramjhari section? We didn't bother making it to the door that early in the morning, so would be grateful if someone more knowledgeable would enlighten us about gradients on all 3 sections. 4 tunnels were crossed on this particular section and Mohan found out an innovative method of calculating the approx length of each - more often than not, he was right!?
Nagpur arrival was eventually 50" late. We were quite pleased at the ease of availability of the a/c retiring room there and promptly checked in. Not only that, the retiring room was reasonably well kept and clean and had 3 fine samples of furniture from the old days - a mirror, a planter's chair (Mohan's favourite) and a clothes drying stand. Other than this it also had a most effective aircon which was useful after the warm day we were about to experience in Nagpur!
This was my first visit to Nagpur and I have to say I was pretty impressed - by the station to start with and then the limited parts of the city that we saw. The station building is huge to say the least and gives one the impression of entering a grand terminus. It isn't intricate in detail or anything but has an imposing fa�ade nonetheless. The city seemed pretty well laid out and prosperous as well what with bright street lights, well maintained roads, pucca pavements and glossy billboards. The rest of the paraphernalia such as new age cinemas, commercial complexes and ATMs all dotted the streetside. Names such as Central Avenue only made the picture rosier! We were to discover that night that it was a dry day but that didn't in any way bring down our overall impression of the place.
Our first stop for the day was to be the workshops at Motibagh. Our visits to the various railway establishments in the area were pre-arranged and the people we met were a friendly bunch who showed us around and answered all our queries. The Motibagh (MIB) workshops are 125 years old today and were built in 1879. They started of with the overhaul (POH) of steam locos and carriages & wagons of the erstwhile Bengal Nagpur Railway. Post independence and with the coming in of new zones, they passed into the ownership of Eastern Railway. This was however short lived when SER came into being. Today of course they belong to one of the new & highly undeserving kids on the block - SECR! With changes and reduction in NG rolling stock over the years, the workshop's role has also changed. Today they provide POH to NG diesel locos, carriages & wagons (for departmental use) as also to Broad Gauge 4 wheeler & 8 wheeler tower wagons, track repair machines and conversion of old BG coaches for departmental use. They also occasionally build NG coaches (new body on an old chassis) for use on the Satpura & Raipur lines.
The workshop has 1 transfer table & 1 turn table. While the transfer table is understandable, the turn table is used to provide access to the various repair bays for NG diesel locos as also to the BG tower wagons. A lot of the track in the workshop is gaunteleted making for a very interesting layout. All shunting within the workshop is carried out by NG diesel locos and in order to shunt the bigger gauge stock, the workshop has devised an interesting contraption in the form of a dummy wagon which has coupling connections on both ends for both gauges.
There were 7 NG locos in the workshop at the time including, surprisingly 4 ZDM5s! It is a known fact that the SER NG network around Nagpur uses the ZDM2/3 & 4 class of locos and seeing the ZDM5 there gave me quite a shock! No.s 502 & 507 had come in from Katwa / ER and were bound for Pratapnagar (PRTN) / WR. Apparently ER is getting rid of all their NG locos and replacing loco hauled services with rail buses on their 2-3 surviving NG branches. This also explains the 2 NG railbus sets we saw at Pratapnagar shed / WR in Sept'04. Those had come in from CR and were bound for Katwa / ER. We were to see 2 more ZDM5's nos.509 & 532 on BG flats in the MIB yard later and 509 to had been marked for dispatch to PRTN/WR. The other 3 ZDM5s that we saw (2 in the workshop and 1 in the yard) had worked on recently closed branch lines of SER: Rupsa - Bangriporsi (Mayurbhanj State Railway) and Naupada - Gunupur (Parlakhimidi Light Railway). These now awaited their fate at MIB workshops. I wouldn't be surprised if they to are sent to PRTN/WR eventually.
There was a steam loco class ZE No.36 plinthed inside the workshops and this was to be the 1st of 7 plinthed steam locos we were to see on our 3 day trip! This loco was 1954 built by Corpet Louvet Et C Ltd., London and worked the NGP - Chindwara (CWA) - Nainpur (NIR) section before it was retired from service. Apart from this there was a stunning old NG saloon, GC28 built in 1908 by Kharagpur workshops complete with sun shades, wooden body and vestibules! This was just out of POH and was glowing in its fresh coat of 2 tone paint. Other than this, there were as many as 60 NG coaches in various stages of overhaul and the workshop looked busy and purposeful no doubt even though we were there after shift hours! This was a far cry from what one had seen in Pratapnagar last year and was only the beginning of what we were to discover over the next few days. The SER NG operation - reduced as it might have been - was a serious operation no doubt and no messing with that!
Our next stop was the Narrow Gauge Museum at Motibagh built at the site of the old MIB steam loco shed. The museum had on display a CC class steam loco no.677 built in 1907 by North British Locomotive Company as its star outdoor exhibit. This was surrounded by tiled walkways, landscaped gardens and children's play areas and as we walked towards the indoor gallery, we were greeted by some obnoxiously loud filmi music belching out from the loudspeakers - I don't know who thought of that as one of the attractions of a rail museum! Anyways we sheltered ourselves from the noise by walking into the indoor display area which has been made out of the old shed building. Inside were 3 more pieces of old rolling stock. A Bagnal no. 5 built by Stafford for the Bankura - Rainagar Damodar Valley Light Railway - another closed NG branch that has passed into oblivion. In front of that was a beautiful saloon car PL1 built in 1899 by Orenstein & Koppel of Germany. The last piece of rolling stock on display indoors was a ZDM2 RA no.136. These locos were the 1st NG diesels to enter service on the SER as long back as 1964. 25 such machines were supplied by MaK of Germany and these were to become the base model for the ZDM3 & 4 built by CLW subsequently. The 1st 10 ZDM2's entered service on the Kalka - Simla section of NR and were subsequently transferred to SER in the early 70's when ZDM3's replaced them. The next 15 were built for and sent directly to SER.
The indoor gallery also included sections covering different departments of the railways - mechanical, signal & telecom, civil engineering and so on. Each of these sections had in it an assortment of old photographs - some truly rare but sadly not labeled in detail - and artifacts from the past. There was more rolling stock to be viewed in the outdoor display behind the shed walls in the form of mostly wagons - not necessarily old but representative for sure of days when freight ruled these lines! Noteable amongst this set of rolling stock was a beautiful old NG steam crane built by an Italian company in the 1950's.
For all its shortcomings and the total lack of visitors that it attracted, the narrow gauge museum at Motibagh has to be lauded for its efforts. To start with, it is the first of such museums in the country and is a great step in that direction. Pratapnagar, Kurduwadi, Gwalior, Kalka & Tindharia (all places where narrow gauge workshops are located) should take cue. Secondly, they have a fine selection of stuff on display - many of it as I said rare - and most importantly it is a whole lot better maintained than our very own National Rail Museum in New Delhi! Kudos to the SER guys for that!
Our final stop for the day was a visit to the NG diesel loco shed at MIB. The 3 set ups that we were visiting today were located close to each other and a network of lines - some NG, some BG and some gaunteleted cris-crossed each other to form some interesting yard trackwork which included triangles to enable NG loco reversal as well as several diamond crossings between both gauges. The BG lead into the Motibagh area serves the workshops, a departmental works yard, the IOC sidings (for MIB NG shed) as well as a diesel trip shed which looks after WDM2s from Raipur shed. We heard from the shed staff there that CR which has a diesel trip shed not to far away in Ajni yard has been wanting to close down that facility and transfer that workload to MIB BG trip shed but the proposal is currently stuck in inter-zonal bureaucracy. So much for good planning! MIB BG trip shed is incidentally under the purview of the NG shed there.
At the administrative entrance to the loco shed stood another plinthed steam loco - the BS class. Unfortunately this and the one we saw at the workshops sometime back were not in very good condition. We were shown around the loco shed which was built in the 1960s and is India's largest NG loco shed homing no less than 36 locos of the ZDM2, ZDM3 & ZDM4 class. The only other NG loco shed on SER today is at Raipur for the Dhamtari branch which has on its rosters 5 locos. There is only 1 ZDM2 left in service on these lines and no.138 was spotted by us on a late night working at Nainpur on 20/02. There are as many as 9 ZDM2's which have been 'stored' in the shed or marked for condemnation. These of course would not count towards the active fleet of the shed. There were many more shells and sub structures of other condemmed locomotives lying around the shed whose class it was impossible to identify!
Both the ZDM2 and the ZDM4 have a provision for pony or carrying wheels which is essentially 1 wheelset ahead of the wheelbase. The ZDM2 has a provision for 1 such pony wheel while the ZDM4s can accommodate 2. The pony wheels do not run on the Satpura lines but are instead used on the locos working the branch out of Raipur as those lines are laid to a lighter axle load. These wheels in turn help in distributing axle load. All 3 loco classes are rated to about 700 HP and some of them have undergone rebuilds at Chittaranjan (CLW), Kharagpur and more recently MIB workshops wherein their transmissions were replaced from the old Suri to the newer Voith (by Kirloskars). These locos are classified with an A' suffix and are rated to run at 50 kmh. The older ones are restricted to 40 kmh
There were 8 locos in shed at the time we visited undergoing various maintenance schedules giving an impressive 80% outage to traffic. At this point I must also say that all the locos we saw out on line over the next few days were very well maintained - not only to look at but in terms of performance as well. There are very few failures out on line as confirmed by the staff we spoke with. Evidence can be found in the confidence with which these locos are shut down almost instantly after having finished their assigned duties and are started up in one shot when the call of duty beckons. This also helps in saving a great deal of fuel for the railways and I have yet to see this practice on BG on IR where diesels are kept idling for hours on end. Another unique practice followed by crews on the Satpura lines is that of keeping their cab and marker lights on after shutdown. A safe working habit and a professional one no doubt!
There are about 3 liveries adopted by the shed, most centering around a blue and yellow stripe scheme which they are attempting to standardize on and the lone livery which is a distinct breakaway from this is that which is carried over from the SER steam loco livery - light green, yellow stripe and orange (as was used on their tenders)
We wandered into the carriage yard after that which was quite a sprawling affair of 15 tracks. Old freight stock stood on some of these sidings and about 3 passenger rakes were in various stages of preparation by the depot staff. There was 1 ZDM3 attached to a rake but powered down and another was about to pull an empty rake out to NGP station for an evening departure. It was this rake that we boarded and got a convenient ride back to the station - no haggling with rickshaw wallahs here!? Just before we hopped on we noticed as many as 9 NG saloon cars (SER doesn't seem to have a shortage of these!) parked in formation on one of the siding lines. Mohan figured that these must have been a part of the heritage special that was run here some years back. Thankfully the original IR rust livery has been restored now and they seemed to be in good nick especially with that fresh coat of paint on. Most of these carriages were built between 1900 and 1950 and a lot of them had vestibules. This is probably the only NG railway in India that had vestibuled NG coaches! Having said that, I only spotted this feature on SERs saloon cars and not on their other rolling stock! As a matter of interest these saloons had the following numbers: GC3, RB3, 204, 2, 3, 6, 9, 10 & 17. The SER had an interesting way of marking their stock - apart from painting the carriage no's on the body of the coach, they had a metal plaque for each placed on the chassis side. So it would read for example, S.E.R. on one line and GC3 on the other. Also couldn't figure out what GC meant - haven't come across that carriage code before and certainly not for a saloon car!
Had a very delayed and much deserved lunch at Comesum (not Mohan's favourite!) and then headed to our rooms. I stuck around some more to have a look around NGP station and eventually headed back for a bath and some much needed rest. Awoke close to dinner time and headed of on a rickshaw to find a previously recommended bar which we found to our disappointment was closed on account of a dry day. Back to our room, had a couple of drinks and then headed down yet again to Comesum for some rather stale dinner. At midnight it was time for us to proceed to the NG platforms to board our train to Nainpur.
The NG platforms at Nagpur were hopelessly crowded when we got there and we were praying that this particular train had first class (FC) on it. Although we did have confirmed FC reservations, we had been warned that on a lot of days the FC coach simply doesn't turn up! On that day however we were lucky and our prayers were answered! Coach 225 was to be our base for the next 11 odd hours and was also to be one of the highlights of our trip - travelling reserved first class sleeper overnight on a narrow gauge line in India!
It was a second class sitting cum FC sleeper composite coach and the FC part of the coach was a completely independent set up what with its own 2 doors and our very own personal toilet that ran the width of the coach - we hadn't seen one quite so big in fact! There were 5 berths in all. 1 arranged against the width of the coach and the other 4 along the length of the coach - 2 down and 2 up. The coach was meant to seat 9 FC passengers by day. A passenger train guard was to be our only companion till Chindwara early the next morning where he would alight in time to 'guard' a reverse working back to Nagpur. Pretty efficient manpower utilisation we thought! Although we would have prefered the coach to ourselves (greedy!) he was in no way intrusive and quickly settled into his slumber as the train rolled on.
Departure was about 10 mins late and soon we were on our way to our first stop Itwari. On the way we passed now familiar territory - the lines leading into Motibagh workshop, shed and so on. The BG lines crossed from above in the form of 'rail over rail bridges' or RORBs - first the double line to Itarsi, then the BG access line to Motibagh yard and finally the lines towards Gondia / Howrah. Between NGP and Kalumna the Howrah bound lines take different alignments. One of them would take the direct route to Kalumna while the other would join the NG alignment, go through Itwari Jn. and cut back to join the other line at Kalumna. Both lines would allow for bi-directional working as confirmed by Alok.
A WAG5 hauled steel coil freighter passed us just as we were approaching Itwari. We were put onto the loop line at Itwari as the platorm was already occupied by a double headed (2nd loco powered down) working towards NGP. The BG line was on our left all along and just short of station limits, one spur cut across our NG line by means of yet another diamond crossing and emerged on our right to reveal a departmental yard full of rolling stock. I believe there is an accident relief train (ART) unit based here among other things. The BG yard soon gave way to an NG yard which had rake load after rake load of bogie high sided open wagons - all sadly empty. These very wagons - the NG counterpart of BOXN - would have carried, not so long ago, iron ore and coal from the mineral rich area that we were now traversing. Today they are lined up at yards such as Itwari awaiting the cutters. There is an ART unit at Itwari for the NG as well which we could not notice on account of poor light. Itwari station consisted of 3 platforms - 2 that served the BG and 1 for the NG. Soon after the station area was crossed we could see the NG line branching of towards Nagbhir and with it a few more rakes of open high sided wagons parked alongside - a reminder of the better days seen by Itwari!
Closer to Kalumna the train negotiates a magnificent curve which eventually helps it pass under the BG alignment to Howrah. We could see a couple of west bound BG freights standing at the end of Kalumna yard and these made for a great sight at night with their headlights piercing though the darkness. No less than 3 more RORBs were crossed in the Kalumna area. The first, I believe, was the NGP - Itwari - Kalumna BG line gaining height to meet the other BG alignment, the 2nd was the direct route out of NGP and the 3rd was a line from Kalumna yard to Khoradi power plant. This was a single electrified line serving the power plant which would run parallel to us on our left. To our right was yet another single electrified line which would also run parallel to us till Kaprikheda where it would serve the power plant there and emerge once again as a non-electrified line to veer of a little later towards the coal mines in Saoner. While we saw no action on these parallel BG routes that night, we wondered what it would have been like with coal trains of both gauges running together on this section.
There were lights and settlements all along the way and not once did it seem like we were heading into no-man's land. These settlements in turn would serve the power plants that we were about to pass. The sodium lit 'smoking' cooling towers of the power plants flanking us on both sides made for some awesome viewing by night. Some quick running by our train to the tune of at least 50 kmh, great views all along, a cold draft blowing in and the FC coach to ourselves (well, almost!) called for a toast! And that toast(s) I have to say was one of the most memorable and enjoyable drinking moments of my life! We considered ourselves blessed that evening - for being able to make this trip in the first place, for our prayers being answered in the form of an FC coach and for all that we had to look forward to over the next 2 days.
Saoner was soon passed and then came Patan Saongi where we had our 2nd crossing in a matter of a few hours. Once again we were put on the loop and the platform line was cleared for another south bound overnight working. It was now close to 0230 am and as we stood out there on the platform in the cold night air, we couldn't help but be in awe of the NG network here. The station was staffed, platform lights were on, points and signals were set and within minutes of our arrival there we could see the lights of a ZDM loco as it brought its trainload in for a scheduled stop. Both trains were well patronised and the station was literally buzzing at the time. We had line clear by now and that meant us scampering back to our coach. At a stop a little later we were joined by 2 GRP constables who were supposedly on duty but chose to watch over the occupants of an FC coach instead! Once the train started moving, they quietly climbed up into the bunks on top and were snoring away. Not for long though as the 2nd of 2 chain pullings occurred soon after and that had them scurrying down, into their shoes and out of the coach to attempt catching the culprit who was of course long gone by then!
While we had great plans of staying awake to view the ghat section between NGP and Chindwara (CWA) the drinks got the better of us and soon we were asleep only to awake a couple of hours later as we rolled into Chindwara Jn. The train had lost time on account of the those 2 chain pulling incidents and Chindwara arrival was 20" late. The train would reverse here and we had a cool 30 mins at the station. Tea was sought soon enough and while Mohan chose to tuck under his naga shawl for a bit more, I scouted around the station area.
Not to many years ago, the NG route would have run through to Parasia and met the BG branch from Amla there. On its way it would go through Khirsadoh Jn which in turn had 2 small branch routes originating from there. All this is no more now and while the Khirsadoh branches have long closed, the BG line has been extended till Chindwara. An Itarsi WDM2 was running around its train which it had brought in from the Amla side. This was the Bhopal / Nagpur - Amla - Chindwara passenger. The trains from Bhopal and Nagpur would amalgamate at Amla and run through to Chindwara. On the NG side was en empty rake of 7 coaches with a ZDM4 powered down ahead of it. Our loco had already been cut off, moved a little ahead and powered down to. A few minutes later there was a working from the Nainpur side which came in behind ZDM4 no.211 and eventually stopped a little beyond our train. A crossover loop allowed for 2 trains to be held on the same platform. A 4th ZDM3 no.196 soon emerged and attached to the front of our train with its direction now reversed. Not only were the crews changed here but so were the locos! I wonder why? In the meantime, the loco from the incoming train had already run around and had plugged onto the other side, now ready for departure towards Nagpur. Line clear was given to both trains and the Nagpur bound working moved of first with the guard who had shared the FC coach with us till this point waving his green flag at me! Almost felt a part of the railway fraternity here! Soon we were off to.. While moving out of Chindwara, we passed a small freight yard which held another NG ART unit and some more unused freight stock. A little ahead and to our left as we moved away from the Nagpur line we could see the remains of Chindwara steam loco shed. It was in pretty pathetic condition with a delapitated structure, a steam loco tender here and some stray freight stock there.
Dawn was literally upon us by now and with that awoke Mohan! It was cold at that time in the morning but we braved the doors anyhow as the sight of the rising sun casting a golden light on the little NG train as it weaved its way across the Madhya Pradesh countryside was one to behold. The section between Chindwara and Nainpur started of with some gentle hills and plenty of twists and turns. The vegetation varied from scrubs and bushes to banyan and palm trees but one thing was common- the landscape was lush throughout. Whoever said this was desert like country? I for one was thoroughly impressed and had so far underestimated the countryside in Madhya Pradesh. It was beautiful and untouched, it was rich and diverse, it was simply full of suprises and we were to discover more of this over the next 2 days.
Seoni was to be our only big stop that morning and as we rolled in, we had our 1st crossing for the day. This time however, we were given the platform line! The station was bustling with activity at the time and our FC coach - now all to ourselves - was parked right in front of a tea stall from where we had multiple rounds of tea and savored on our breakfast which consisted of cheese sandwiches procured from Mohan's favourite (;-) Comesum the previous night! That done it was time to move on again and within minutes we were upto our designated speed of 50 kmh. A few kms after Seoni begins a long ghat section with grades ranging from 1 in 100 to 1 in 80. Soon enough we were into the most sensational rolling countryside I have ever seen - akin to the picture postcard Scottish Highlands. 'This was Kipling country' I was told by Mohan and till now I was sadly unaware! The 'Seoni wolf pack' finds mention in Kipling's Jungle Book and it was these wolves that Mowgli grew up with. We were soon to cross rivers such as the Wenganga which make their presence felt in the very same childhood epic! I of course chose the Seoni - Bhoma section as the one on which to brush my teeth while Mohan called out to me frantically from time to time to share the magnificent views he was witnessing. I in turn would rush out with toothbrush in one hand and paste all over my face and look out with complete disbelief at what I was passing through and try my best to utter some words through all of that. Am sure I provided much comic relief to our fellow passengers looking out the window and doors of their second class coaches!!!
Some great curves on this section allowing ample photo opportunities and each curve brought with it a different view of the countryside. The 'Palas' tree with its red flowers appeared every now and then to add that extra spot of colour to an already magical morning. The 'Pench' and 'Wenganga' rivers were crossed just before Seoni and closer to Nainpur a healthier looking Wenganga was crossed yet again. After Bhoma the terrain flattened out gradually and we had fields on either side growing a variety of produce which would accompany us all the way till Nainpur. Nainpur was eventually reached at 11 am some 10" before time after some fine running. Train 1NHJ would have another 30 min long halt here as its direction would be reversed yet again. This time however, the same loco would run around to haul it on the last leg of its journey to Jabalpur with a new crew in tow. It was time now for Mohan and me to finally leave the comforts of carriage 225 and head towards more sober accomodation in the form of a 3 bed railway dormitory!
The TTE staff at Nainpur were a helpful and professional lot who immediately had the necessary paperwork done and then escorted us to the dormitory which was situated above the computerised reservation centre. Their colleagues in the meantime busied themselves checking the tickets of unsuspecting passengers alighting from our train. We noticed later on as well that the ticket checking staff is extremely vigilant and on the ready as soon as any train arrives. They are usually accompanied by 1 member of the RPF in case any incident were to arise. We were told that most travellers on the Satpura lines were fare paying passengers which was good to hear! Broad Gauge - please take note!
The beds in the dormitory were not made since their last occupants left them but otherwise it was reasonably clean and well appointed and most of the amenities worked. Besides we had it all to ourselves and for 25 bucks a head it was a steal! We dumped our stuff and were out in no time scouting the station and yard. Nainpur is made up of 4 platforms and a foot overbridge to boot! It is not uncommon to find at least 3 if not all platforms occupied at different times of the day. Average platform occupancy is higher on account of reversals that take place here and in any case this station receives no less than 24 trains (up and down) per day which effectively means something or the other happening there every hour of the day. There are of course slack periods as well but the station functions 24 hours with trains passing through at odd times like 2340 hrs and 0135 hrs and so on. The TTEs office for instance functions on multiple shifts 24 hrs of the day and the refreshment room serves customers on board the through train to Jabalpur which calls on this station close to midnight! As a matter of interest this station is served by no less than 2 refreshment rooms - 1 veg and the other non veg! This is supplemented by various tea and food stalls on the platform. It was absolutely refreshing to see an NG junction this busy - trains passing through every hour, crew changes, loco reversals, passengers boarding and alighting through the night, food stalls open at odd hours, ticket checking staff going about their business. You could have been at any big junction in India..except this was little know Nainpur!
4 tracks that run parallel to the platforms make up what must have been a busy goods yard not so long ago. These 4 tracks served goods sidings whose remnants could be seen from the overbridge and each of these tracks had on it even more unused freight wagons lying there in a sorry state of neglect. On the east end of the station is the carriage depot and this boasts of possibly the longest ever NG pit line. I'm not sure what they had in mind when they built this and for all the greatness of the SER NG system, this project looked a little to ambitious to us! Think 24 coach NG rake on a pit line and you'll know what I mean! Talking of train lengths on the Satpura lines - the shortest that we noticed were 7 coaches long and the longest were about 11-12 coaches. Pretty healthy size that for an NG train. SER did and still does boast of many firsts as far as NG systems in India are concerned - 1st railway to run an express train on NG (Satpura Exp), only railway to have a/c coaches on NG (ac chair car coaches used to run on the original Satpura Exp), only railway to have overnight NG trains, only railway to have sleeping accomodation in NG trains. Yes, apart from the FC coach that we travelled in, they do have regular second class sleepers as well! Some of these we saw undergoing rehab in the workshops at Motibagh and 1 such example was standing outside the carriage depot at Nainpur! On one of the lines adjacent to the platforms stood a freshly painted ZDM4 no.225 with the unique light green - yellow - orange livery and attached to that was a saloon car no.5 which was based at Nainpur. On the other side and opposite to the carriage depot was the fuelling facility for diesel locos in the form of an IOC dump. This also doubled as the place where diesel locos underwent light trip maintenance - Nainpur being a trip shed for Motibagh.
We followed the alignments east of the station which led towards Mandla Fort on the one side and Balaghat on the other. Closer to the Balaghat branch was located the old Nainpur steam shed. A brightly painted (green - yellow - green) ART unit was parked there but other than that the shed wore a desolate look. Not a soul to be seen anywhere and certainly not a locomotive! Not that we were expecting to find steam locos there but we had been told that Nainpur was a trip shed for diesels so were expecting to see it in its new 'avataar'. The intention was very much there - they had built inspection pits to match the profile of diesel locos but not a single loco seemed to visit that pit anymore. As I mentioned, all trip maintenance now seems to be carried out closer to the station itself. So there it was..this grand old building with a fresh coat of paint and just a hint of what was!
On the way back to the station we walked through the old railway colony which had in it some stunning old houses complete with landscaped lawns. The colony itself was beautifully planned with a grid like system of houses, concrete roads and 'pucca' drains. We disovered later on why - Nainpur was an erstwhile divisional headquarter of BNR/SER before that honour was bestowed on Nagpur. Such had been the importance of this unknown narrow gauge junction! A ZE no.8 lay plinthed inside the compound of a railway office closer to the station - serving as a reminder to the great steam era that the area had witnessed.
After a hearty lunch at the non veg refreshment room, we made our way by cycle rickshaw to the nearby bus stand where we boarded 'Lukcy 31' to Mandla! Lucky 31 seemed to be a cartel of bus operators in the area and I would get most excited everytime I spotted one enroute! The road was good and our driver made fine progress uptill Chiraidongri - the point from where one can drive down to Kanha National Park. After this point there was only a hint of tarmac and craters made up the rest of the so called state highway to Mandla. The road or the lack of it thereof was in complete shambles and the journey would turn any unseasoned traveler into a complete wreck. Add to that the blasted air horn which the bus driver used with a flourish each time he detected a possible obstruction to his course a few hundred metres away. And so it carried on for 2 torturous hours..
The road route from Nainpur to Mandla follows the alignment of the NG branch line quite closely and has at least 10 odd level crossings with it - all of them unmanned. The horizontal beams that form the LC gate are placed on supports along the length of the road on either side of the rail track. Trains running on these lines (4 each way) carry on board a gateman and stop short of the crossing to enable him to lift these horizontal beams and place them on supports along the length of the track thereby stopping road vehicles from coming onto the path of the train. Expectedly so this is a time consuming process and the trains end up losing time on this section. Speed breakers have been placed on either side of these crossings with ample warning signs to boot but our bus driver chose to ignore them - accelerating through it all as an F1 driver would out of a curve! And these very drivers end up getting compensation paid to them by the railways after LC accidents take place!
The Nainpur - Mandla section runs through essentially flat terrain skirting the hills that come up from time to time. This section is 'one train only' working and the stations enroute are devoid of any crossing loops or signals. I would imagine that ticket sales are in the hands of contractors as is the case on other NG routes in India. Mandla Fort is the only station manned on the route with a loop line for locos to run around their trains. The track quality on the line is however exemplary allowing speeds of upto 50 kmh and we noticed permanent way gangs hard at work at 2 locations en route reaffirming the fact that no one takes the Satpura lines lightly!
With a huge sigh of relief we alighted from Lucky 31 and quickly made our way by Cycle Rickshaw from the hustle and bustle of the town bus stand to the more serene setting of Mandla's fort. Set against the banks of the Narmada, the fort was built by the Gondwana rulers to protect their position on the riverfront. The fort is strategically located at a point where the river takes a turn due south and is joined by the 'Banjar' river. Only a shadow of what was remains to this day with ruins of the fortress scattered around the high banks of the river. The rural settlement that has come up there is very aesthetic and blends perfectly into the surroundings. This is something we noticed with a lot of village houses in Madhya Pradesh - they were simple yet tastefully done up and blended well into their setting - a tribute to the aesthetic sense of the people of these parts. We made our way leisurely across the Narmada by boat - first to one bank and then to another. These 2 banks on the other side of the Fort were separated by the Banjar river. The boat ride, setting sun and the calm waters of the Narmada provided a perfect blend and were most soothing to the senses after that disaster of a bus ride. We spent some more time sitting on the ghats and then walked across to the train station which was about a km away.
With over 2 hours to kill, we acquainted ourselves with a tea stall owner on the platform and many rounds of tea and 'bhujiyas' later we made that our perch till it was time to depart. Mandla Fort station had seen busier and better days. While the number of passenger trains calling on this station has remained largely the same, the goods sidings on the far side haven't seen activity for almost 10 years now. The tea stall owner for example made his livelihood providing contract labour for loading and unloading wagons in the sidings. He told us that there was at least 1 loaded train that used to arrive there daily and a return working in the evenings. All that has disappeared now and with that his extra earnings. Its no surprise that the locals prefer the train to the bus. For starters it's a lot cheaper and after seeing the condition of the road, am sure it's a lot more comfortable as well! The other great thing is that its faster to! The train takes 90 mins and the bus 2 hrs! Weren't we glad we were taking the train back to Nainpur!
ZDM4A no.236 brought in an 8 coach train from Nagpur 90" late. Loco turnaround was quick and subsequent departure was 75" late. We did well on our run back to Nainpur and even the unmanned LC gates did not hold us up for to long. Nainpur arrival was eventually 70" late. We made our way up to the dormitory, had a much needed bath and then headed down to the non-veg refreshment room for yet another sumptuous meal! It was past 2300 hrs now and Nainpur station was alive and kicking at the time. Tired and sleepy as we might have been, we just felt a resurgent need to spend some more time at this delightful little narrow gauge junction and soak in some of the atmosphere there. We eventually turned in around midnight to the horn of the Jabalpur bound overnight train that had just arrived there. Nainpur Jn would continue to be awake..
We were up early the next morning as we had to board the 0620 departure of the Jabalpur bound passenger. The station, as expected, was active at the time and as we walked towards our platform, a Nagpur bound train casually trundled past us from platform 4. Our train was 20" late that day and we used the time to have some tea and take yet another walk along the platform. On the last leg of our journey we had arranged to footplate with the crew of 1 NJ from Nainpur to Jabalpur. The run was 111 kms long past 8 stations and 6 passenger halts and would take almost 5 hours. ZDM3 188 was the assigned locomotive for the day and brought in the train from Balaghat. It was promptly attended to by diesel mechanics and within minutes of the new crew and us boarding, the all clear was given.
The morning air was cold and we had to brave all of that by sticking our heads out every now and then and standing by the door. Reason - we were long hood leading and the resultant views were terrible. So every station and halt brought with it some much needed relief from the cold draft. It was to be a beautiful day though with weather conditions ranging from cold in the morning to a very pleasant late morning, to a spot of rain later on, overcast skies at times and the sun warming us up just when we needed it the most. Not once did it get unbearable on board and that coupled with the lush countryside made this one of the most pleasant footplating experiences ever. This was not one of those rebuilt units, so speeds never exceeded 40-45 which was just as well given the excessive rock and roll one experiences on board an NG loco!
If the Seoni - Bhoma section was a delight to travel through the previous day, we had a lot more in store for us today. There were no less than 3 ghat sections that we were to cross on this section. The 1st an ascending ghat that would bring us upto the highest point (546 MSL) on the NG system of SER. This particular point had a board proudly proclaiming this fact! The 2nd was a mid-ghat section and the last was a descending ghat section. Gradients were predominantly 1 in 80 here as compared to 1 in 100 on the Seoni - Bhoma section. There were plenty of curves - most of them sharp allowing splendid views of the trailing train and in doing so, each one presented with it a new photo op! These ghat sections had all the ingredients of a great mountain railway - spectacular views, untouched countryside, dense forests, challenging gradients, S curves, bridges and some deep cuttings to - all that was probably missing were a couple of tunnels and of course the altitude! But we weren't complaining - this was everything and more that we could ever have asked for and we savored every moment of it. The forests that we passed through were untouched by the so called 'civilized world' and we were told that the only occupants of the area were tribals. This was evident by the fact that passenger halt stations would pop up in the middle of dense forests without any semblance of a road or habitat close by. The crews even told us that it was not uncommon for them to spot a tiger or leopard in these areas! We weren't to be that fortunate on this occasion but as an aside, Mohan had in fact spotted a deer crossing the path of our train on the section east of Seoni the previous day!!
We had our first of 3 crossings with the Balaghat bound Satpura Express at Ghansor. Other than the passenger halts, all stations are manned and have signals and points in working order. All stations with signalling on the Satpura lines follow the system of an outer and home signal with the starter, advanced starter missing. This was similar to what I had seen last December on the MG lines in Saurashtra. The crew confirmed that this was standard practice for B class stations on single line sections. I wonder if there are BG lines which follow this practice as well? Most stations would have 2-3 tracks - a platform line, a crossing loop and a siding line with the goods siding no longer in use. While station building architecture on these routes was nothing to write home about, most stations were well kept and clean. Our second crossing was at Shikara where we had a leisurely halt for almost 20 minutes. Breakfast was had here which consisted of some excellent 'bhajiyas', milk cake and of course the all essential cup of tea!
The next big attraction on this route after the ghat sections was the bridge over the river Narmada. The bridge is almost 400 metres long and is located a few kms short of Gowarighat, one of the main bathing ghats for the Narmada. The NG route approaches it on a giant sweeping curve heading east and the bridge can be seen for quite a distance before it is crossed. There is of course a speed restriction on the bridge which gave us ample time to take in the sights of the magnificent river which was upto its brim with water and provided us with a spectrum of blue and green shades as we viewed it from one bank to another. It also seemed a lot less calm here as compared to what we say in Mandla the previous day. Soon after the bridge Gowarighat station was reached and with that came our 3rd and final crossing for the day headed by ZDM3 194 which was named 'Dr.Ambedkar' for some reason! The crossing should actually have taken place at Howbagh but since we were already late, it happened at Gowarighat and that in turn served in delaying us further! The outskirts of Jabalpur kicked in soon after Gowarighat and a caution order for built up areas was maintained throughout till our arrival at Howbagh. Howbagh is where the NG carriage depot for the Jabalpur area is housed. Howbagh along with Nainpur and Motibagh are the 3 carriage depots that service the rolling stock on the Satpura lines. Howbagh was a laid back little station with a small sized yard containing the inspection pit (much smaller than Nainpur!) and a depot line. 2 passenger rakes were under maintenance at the time and 2 ZDM's stood on the stabling line - powered down of course on their lay over. Soon after Howbagh we caught sight of the BG main line from Itarsi and then ran parallel to it all the way to Jabalpur station.
Jabalpur NG station is a single platform, 2 track affair and although smaller in size to its Nagpur counterpart is a whole lot better maintained. Arrival was eventually 30" late and after bidding goodbye to the crew we made our way to the retiring rooms where once again we found accommodation quite effortlessly! The retiring room was most definitely the cleanest I have ever encountered on IR thus far and the attendant was efficient and professional! Had a much needed hot water bath and then headed out on a cycle rickshaw for lunch. Basheer's (recommended to us by a friend) was closed so we walked into the nearby India Coffee House which served up quite a good meal! With our hunger satiated in more ways than one, it was now time to head back to where it all started - Delhi!
We made our way back to the station, picked up our stuff, checked out from the retiring room and boarded the 2A portion of the composite coach of the Gondwana Express. Departure was on time led by Katni WDM2 16553 which brought us into Katni on time. There was a plethora of locos at Katni - most of them electric - and that came as a real surprise to me. I had visited Katni last in 1996 and at that time the Bina - Katni line was not electrified. Today however it is and that's what justified the presence of so many electric locos there - all on lie overs! There were 3 Bhilai WAM4s, 4 Itarsi WAM4s, 1 BRC WAM4 and 1 BRC WAP4 apart from a host of diesels from Katni, Itarsi and Patratu. On the east side of Katni station was plinthed an F class NG steam loco no.723. We had seen another plinthed example of this class of loco outside of Jabalpur station. Quite a long way away from home, these locos worked the Barsi Light Railway till the late 70's. Itarsi WAM4 20568 took over for the journey north west to Bina with an on time arrival there. After the amalgamation of the Bhusawal/Nagpur part of the Gondwana with ours, WAP4 22296 from Kanpur took charge of our 24 coach train and even though departure from Bina was right time, we made it to Nizamudin 1 hr 40 mins late! From then on it was back to work and back to reality for us with memories from the Satpura lines lingering on..