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Bankura's Iron Horses
... Bagnalls, Deltas and more

Bill Aitken

E-Mail this story to a friend We are apt to forget the drastic swerves in policy that characterise the history of most rail lines.

If the Ranchi-Kotshila narrow gauge section was rudely torn up to leave Purulia out on a limb, it revealed the compulsions of Ranchi's expanding economy. And what was this short stretch of track compared to BNR's original 149 miles north of Nagpur, that in 1887 was hoiked up to accommodate the broad in preference to the metre.

Locomotives too were messed about and the BNR saddle tank locust began life as a broad gauge engine on the Oudh and Rohilkhand Railway. Only after 30 years service was she acquired by the BNR and then went through a slimming operation at the Motibagh works in Nagpur to emerge as a narrow gauge loco. In 1916 she moved to a third company the BDRR -- the target of my mission from Ranchi.
I was advised not to travel by the overnight passenger train lest I wake up in my underpants. Train travel in timeless Magadh is highly educative to the sociologically inclined. For example the daily train from Patna to Gaya is said to hold the world record for the improper use of the alarm chain.

The bus however also provides its challenges -- such as whether you will be able to fight your way to a booked seat through the obstructing melee before your destination arrives. I was lucky in making it to my seat half way to Bankura, at Purulia. The crush on board made it impossible to see Purulia's very attractive low-slung station building though I could glimpse the 2'6" line that ran alongside the road, hosting (before the advent of diesel) asthmatic ZEs.

As a great admirer of the Bengali genius proclivity to add to civilisation, I was disappointed to find that Bankura's international reputation for craftsmanship (symbolised by the pricked ears of the Cottage Emporium's clay horse) was not matched by any concern to address the problem of hotel plumbing. Every place I looked at seemed to be worse than the one before and I began to wonder if Bankura (like the Isle of Rum) was not at the epicentre of magnetic disturbance that cause the bathroom drain to flow backwards.

Such mundane reckoning were soon forgotten when I cast my eyes over the railway station. Tottering, tatty and woebegone, it was everything a narrow-gauge steam lover could wish for.

Grass grew between the lines that led to the loco shed and this held out the rare promise of some overlooked treasure rusting in the sidings, too modest in her scrap value to arouse the lust of railway economists.


Bankura had them all. Samples of the rolling stock that covered the line's entire history.

While Bihar's cute, light railways had been owned and operated by Martin Burns, the Bengal quartet was managed by McLeod & Co. The oldest -- opened in 1913 -- has now gone to Bangladesh, while the newest -- Kalighat to Falta -- has been closed. The line with most character -- Burdwan-Katwa-Ahmadpur -- continues its trundle for some 100 km though the Bengal countryside to echo the industrial prowess that once went with good quality coal at hand. (A relation of Tagore's controlled the first coal bunkering of the Ganga's steam boats).

To every railway man Jamalpur in West Bengal rings a bell of pride. Not only did this original railways township produce India's first locomotives (from the ingenious fashioning of imported spare parts) but it continues to produce another crucial asset, the line of mechanical experts who are considered the best material for chairmanship of the Railway Board.

McLeods like the Gaekwad's Dabhoi line, favoured the Stafford company of Bagnall and all four lines were serviced by a sturdy tank engine, followed by a slightly lighter version called Delta Class. This did not refer to the delta of the Ganga but to that of the Nile where the engines ordered for the Egyptian Delta Light Railways were found ideal for Bengal. The Bankura-Damodar River Railway still runs two mixed trains daily from Bankura to Rainagar (some 97 kms distant) though the BDR on the side of the tank should actually read SER (South Eastern Railway).

Running through impoverished terrain the line somehow manages to yield classic images of what the railway did for rural life. Photographed countless times on the bridge over the Damodar river, the Delta tank steams gingerly with a light load to argue its superiority over the bullock carts left stuck in the mud of the river bed.

These unremunerative lines remain open for what the railways describe as 'social costs' and it seems only a matter of time, with the swing away from international socialism, that such free loading services will get the chop. Not even the most left-leaning of passengers in Bengal considers it his right to travel free by bus. But once the BDR was prised away from the Scots capitalist to be run by the state, why pay for a ticket?

Both Bagnali and Delta class lie in Bankura and when I was there a few years back some of the handsome CC class had been sent up from the Baripada shed in Orissa to help out in handling the traffic. These locos of the North British Co predate the Bagnall fleet and I felt privileged to watch the last paintings of these 1906 engines doing their thing 70 years later.

Visitors to the Delhi Rail Museum could see the shape of things to come on the BDR in its No 8 box like Sentinel. Popular for mixed traffic these modern (ugly) profiles housed a vertical boiler and chain drive. The sentinel Wagon Works in Shrewsbury designed these coffin-like locos in 1929.

The fashion to give steam shunters the blank armoured look arouse from the economic ascendency of diesel traction. The first main line diesel shunter in Britain was introduced at this time and what a sad sight it looked alongside the steam master -- pieces of Gresley and Stainer. The Leeds company of Hunslet pioneered the painful switch in loyalties and in 1934 their first passenger diesel went into service -- on the Egyptian Delta Light Railway.

The relationship between companies and suppliers (not necessarily British) occasioned by the special needs of Indian lines went very deep. (Was there a scam one wonders when the very last batch of imported locos to India were sent by Baldwins of America at twice the tendered price of Japan and Germany?) The Hunslet Engine Co does have a tenuous link with the BDR because they built the first engine for the line-in theory.

A batch of broad gauge locos sent to north India in 1870 (as we have seen) found their way south and we know of at least two who were trimmed back to a narrow gauge styling at Nagpur (Locust and Bee). The former having been re-gauged in 1902 was then rebuilt at Kharagpur workshop in 1908 prior to joining the newly opened BDR line in 1916.

The extraordinary workmanship that went into these old steam locomotives is what sealed the bond between a railway company and a distant manufacturer. For example the loco used for film Bridge on the River Kwai filmed in Ceylon in 1950 had been built in 1900 in the same Leeds suburb that gave birth to Locust.

Courtesy Sanctuary Features

Sketch by Dominic Xavier

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