The Shahdara(Delhi) - Saharanpur Light Railway

by R. Sivaramakrishnan


June 1968: During a brief vist to Delhi, I took a day off to travel by this 149 km-long, 2' 6" railway, operated by Martin Burn, a private company. There should be, in various archives, technical accounts of this line. My narration is more on the personal level.

Boarded #331 New Delhi - Amritsar Pass. at Delhi Jn at 06:10; crossing R. Jamuna, reached Shahdara, 6 km to the E. at 06:25. That b.g. train would have taken me, by a 171-km long loop, actually the mainline, via Ghaziabad, Meerut and Muzaffarnagar, to Saharanpur before noon. I descended the 15' high embankment on the Nn. side to reach the n.g. terminus which had a rather impressive facade. 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 n.g. Saying, "No one goes to Saharanpur by n.g.", he 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; he scribbled the prevailing fare on it. The platform had two tracks on either side, with sidings, goods shed, tranfer yard, loco shed and turn-table to the E, beyond which the line curved into N. At 07:05 a 0-6-2 tank engine was attached to the train, which was to run through to Saharanpur, but had to await the arrival of a down number.

I had got into one of two carriages in the front meant for milk vendors. There was a crowd of them, with large cans, returning to their villages after having delivered the morning milk to the suburbs around Shahdara. Finding me a stranger, they started posing questions. Though I could make out what they were asking, my ability to reply in Hindi was nil, but a young milk vendor, who had passed 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 them that I was no less patriotic for that, and they became sombre. Then someone asked me my name; when told, their suspicions vanished and gave way to trust and even some reverence. For these plain Jats, I, who bore the names of the three highest gods of the Hindu pantheon, could not be a renegade, after all!

As the train started at 07:28, some of them burst into a folk song, and one of them, to my horror, lighted up a 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 scarecely 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 tender was watered - water was filled in at three more stations, 49 Baraut, 88 Shamli and 119 Nanauta. More people got in and so the train was still packed. At Baraut (48 km, a 10:10, d 10:44), some fair or festival had been in progress in the town to the W, and a large crowd was waiting to board the train. There was a small stall vending snacks; being famished, I hastened there to eat something. Most of the items had been sold out and only so me sweet stuff remained. As I do not like sweets, I did not buy any of them. Meanwhile, the two milk vendor carriages had been detached and left on the loop. 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. But 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 Jamuna-Ganges doab is, and the soil 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-storyed, brick houses popped up in tight clusters amidst the fields. The townships around the major stations, hallmarked by a cinema house and perhaps a sugar mill or some factory, had pucca houses, many with two storeys. 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 travelled on the roof, disconcerted by swings accompanying the steady trot of the ride, which I timed at about 28 kmph between stations. Then disaster struck, nearly. The air suddenly got chilly 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, 12:35) 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, 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, a 12:50, d 13:03). I got down from the roof of the carriage and inside a compartment, feeling immensely grateful for the security it offered, irrespective of the crush. That was the first, and the only, occasion I travelled 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 between the termini, with sidings beyond a sizeable goodshed. Many stations had two loops and even some of the halts had a loop. Apart from the curve to the N out of Shahdara, and a gentle one, past a factory, the n.g. loco shed and turn-table, just approaching Saharanpur (149 km, a 15:49), there was no curve to speak of. The n.g. terminated at a wall, past which was the b.g. loco shed of the junction.

Took #20 Dehra Dun - Bombay express, running some 20 minutes late that day, Saharanpur (177 km to Delhi, d 1655), via Meerut, reaching Delhi Jn. at about 21:15.

The SSLR was later taken over by the government and absorbed in NR; it was subsequently converted into broad. The conversion should have been effected in a short time and at minimal costs, considering the nature of the route. I have not been on this line again, which now has 5 through trains each way, incld. a Pass. up to Hardwar, and an express which covers the distance in just 4 hours. All other trains stop at almost every station, incld. the halts, underlining that they serve a population which 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 n.g. would have undergone many changes during the last 38 years, but also that their hearts remain much the same, broad as ever.

N. B. 1) An Australian friend of mine, travelling on this route a year earlier, had noticed other tank engines, 0-6-4 and 2-6-4, mostly Hunslets, and also "a little bogie railcar with an underfloor engine that strained and spouted blue smoke as it drew a couple of ordinary carriages as trailers."

2) I am certain that there have long been regulations against continuing the running of trains during gales and I do not understand why they were flouted that day. It is well-known that the area experiences many aandhi's every summer but the one that day was particularly severe; according to an English-speaking co-passenger, it was the fiercest he had seen in many years.

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