Trip Report of Shantipur-Nabadwip Ghat NG section
by Samit Roychoudhury
For photographs, visit http://www.samit.org/trips/stb.htm
To mark Jason's rather short visit to Calcutta, We decided to celebrate by traveling the Shantipur - Nabadwip Ghat narrow gauge line on 21st July 2004.
Shantipur is a terminus on the Sealdah North suburban section of the Eastern Railways. From here, a 2'0" Narrow Gauge line begins, traversing 16 kilometres to Krishnanagar City (which is a junction and EMU terminus on the Sealdah-Lalgola line) and then heads westward towards the Ganges, another 12 kilometres to end at Nabadwip Ghat.
We woke up at very early 4.30 am, to get to Sealdah to board the 6.00 am EMU to Shantipur. We had a pleasant journey on it, primarily as the morning kept cool. The EMU floor was very dirty, but at that early hour (and against the office rush), thankfully not crowded. The stations passed by in a flurry, as is wont here, interspersed by a variety of greenery, and little ponds. As the suburban habitations gave way to the lush greenery, it made us brighter and cheerful, looking forward to the day. There are four tracks upto Kankinara, three upto Naihati Jn (where a pair veer off to the west to cross the famed Jubilee Bride into Bandel Jn) and then double line uptil Ranaghat Jn. From Ranaghat, the old main double lines continue to Gede, and in the pre-independence days right into Bangladesh. Also, from Ranaghat, a single line branches off towards Krishnanagar City Jn (and onwards to Lalgola). This track is in the process of being doubled. A little out of Ranaghat, the track to Krishnanagar further bifurcates, and a branch line proceeds to Shantipur, which is what we took. I have seen in old records that in the early part of the 20th century, these were all narrow gauge routes (except the main line towards Gede).
The train made short work of the last part of the route, and skipped Bathna Krittibas, the last station before Shantipur to reach at 8.15 am, just about five minutes late. We got off the train and headed for the booking office. There was a rush of people there to take the local that had just brought us in, so the ticket counter clerk entertained them first, and as the train left, he handed us our tickets (Rs 19 each) to Nabadwip Dham. We crossed to the narrow gauge platform where the train was already waiting. Did a bit of photography and then approached the driver for footplating. The driver was most happy to oblige, though he said he could only accommodate one of us at a time. So I sent Jason in first.
In the meantime we had a look at the train. Looking at the coaches, it seemed they weren't very old at all, about 10 years or so. The train consisted of one railbus power car (powered by a Ashok Leyland engine we were told). The drivers had their own cabin up front, while the rest of the car was for passengers. It had one center door, and seating along (and parallel to) the windows. I found it surprisingly spacious. The other two cards were similar - without the driving cab of course, except one which had a tiny (and I mean tiny) guards compartment. At the most it must have been about two feet in length. It contained a tiny stool and a brake wheel to give him company.
The train started off at about 8.45, with Jason in the driving cab, and me seated in the compartment immediately behind that. It wasn't so crowded at first. Everyone got to sit. The driver started aggressively, and it felt like that was the most this contraption was designed for. We rattled along, sometimes the reverie (if you can call it that) invaded by sharp jolts. It seemed the jolts were only on one side, so I guess the track joints were not even. Another rather interesting visual as we passed through the fields and the scrub, the leaves brushing past the cars, was as we passed, it seemed the leaves and branches were bowing down towards us, no doubt brought about by the airflow as the train rushed past. At the first and only stoppage at Dignanar, a sick looking woman boarded, and I found from the ensuing talk that apparently she had tried to poison herself. I then gave my seat to an elderly lady and stood by the door. We soon reached Krishnanagar City, where I told Jason to make way for me J. The driver told us that we both could get on. Hopped on just before the train left, and in true Calcutta minibus style, we were both seated on the bonnet.
What immediately struck me was the great view the windscreen provided, especially compared to ZDMs where it's a task in itself looking ahead. This one had bus like windows, affording an unrestricted view ahead. The assistant sat on the left. He hardly had anything to do. so we were chatting with him. Jason showed him his photos. Right in the front was a large drum of diesel. The assistant had a few bottles of water and a small tank, from where he kept filling the radiator tank. The driving controls were rather simple. a gear level and a small cluster of instruments, notably the speedometer, which Jason said did not cross 30 (which is creditable especially as some parts have a speed limit of 10). The track wasn't in too good a condition. In places the foliage invaded the tracks and the driver was mentioning at times the overgrown grass aided by dew on the tracks caused wheelslip. They did carry a pail of sand somewhere, he mentioned.
The driver meanwhile concentrated on driving, having to keep a lookout since the line ran through some populated areas and there were people moving out, not to mention stray animals. A couple of the level crossings were guarded but I was surprised by one on the main road (the track is right by the road between Krishnanagar and Nabadwip Ghat) where the road crossed without a warning really. There was no clear view either, so it could have led to accidents if the road traffic got careless.
The two stations between Krishnanagar and Nabadwip Ghat, at Amghata and Maheshganj have been closed now. The driver mentioned there was no revenue at all from them, forcing closure. There were initial protests, but a 10 day police presence took care of things.
We learnt that there used to be 5 pairs of services earlier, and that involved crossings. This has been reduced to only 3 pairs now, all by the solitary rake going up and down. There are two other rakes, but they are used only when the first one is under repair. There is just one more engine. There is no signalling on the route, except at Shantipur, which issues the driver a token, which is given back at the end of the return trip. There is walkie talkie communication between the drivers/guard and the stations, but the set with the drivers wasn't functioning. I learnt from the assistant driver that in case of derailment, the train carries jacks, which are used to get it back on track. The workers have to be fetched from the station though. The drivers don't seem too happy being posted here. They have short duty hours and therefore the changes of getting overtime are very remote. They work 5 hours on one return trip a day. They get a day off after 10-12 days. The drivers didn't know much about the history of the line. They weren 't even able to tell us what was used for services before these railcars came in, or when steam was removed. I learnt later from Mrinalda that there was a smaller railcar in service earlier, which was rather cramped.
We reached Nabadwip Ghat at about 10.30, on schedule. There another oddity greeted us. Here the engine is turned around on the turntable and attached to the front of the train. It seems the railways has not employed anyone to operate the turntable. The drivers are entirely dependent on the enthusiasm of the local kids, who do the job smilingly. On this day, our presence with cameras cheered them even further. We watched (and helped) as the engine moved into the turntable, and then the drivers got down, and with the help of the boys they kept pushing at the engine ends from both sides and turned it a full 180 degrees, alingling it to the tracks rather expertly. The latches were attached (to prevent the tracks from braking alignment) and then the engine was driven off and coupled to the front of the train, ready for departure. Our offer to treat the drivers for tea was strongly refused. They insisted we were their guests. They took us to a small stall in town where we enjoyed tea and biscuits in the shade of a neat cottage, with cable TV!!! We were very hungry by then but had no time to eat. On the way back to the station they made a short detour showing us the bank of the local river (didn't quite catch the name) and this is the point where it meets the Ganges, which was visible too.
On returning to the station, we decided to make the return trip only till Krishnanagar City to cut down on the journey time. So accordingly we bought the tickets and boarded the train. Jason was pretty amused at the cardboard tickets in use. We boarded the engine once again. And the sub-one hour journey soon passed. We bid our adieus to our wonderful hosts, with Jason promising them photos once he had them printed. We ran over to book tickets for Sealdah and then positioned ourselves on the overbidge, watching the narrow gauge train weave it's way out, slowly, but in style, it's extraordinary existence carried out with confidence. knowing fully well it's days were numbered. We waved at the departing train, and soon our EMU headed in. We looked for the motorman, asking him whether we could footplate, and as expected it was met with a stern 'no'. so we quietly went in and sat down, tiredness and hunger creeping in. The train moved in. most of the journey a blur, keeping time but increasing in crowdedness as the journey progressed. We reached Sealdah just after 2.30 pm, the return journey itself uneventful, the only thing I really remember were the brakes dragging in our coach. We did a little loco spotting on the return too, but was pretty tired and dozed off a couple of times. Upon reaching our destination, we ran for a taxi, to head off for a good lunch of steak and drinks.
I had been looking forward to do this trip for some time, especially so after having made the Katwa-Bardhhaman trip. It was well worth it. Thankfully nature too played it's role, nd the usual heat somehow didn't beat upon us so ferociously. It kept cool and cloudy for mostpart, yet it didn't rain to mar our plans. The train gods must have been smiling that day!