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June 20, 1997


Dabhoi Junction

... home of the world's working population of steam engines

Bill Aitken

A vintage steam engineChances are that the ordinary rail traveller will never have heard of Dabhoi in Gujarat. The small town near Vadodara (nee Baroda) is distinguished by the tastefully ornate city gates of the Solanki Rajputs, erected in the thirteenth century.

Its other claim to fame had to wait for six centuries and refers to engineering works of the horizontal kind. Dabhoi is not only the centre of the world's oldest narrow gauge railway system but still houses the greatest number of narrow gauge steam engines anywhere on our planet.

The narrow gauge is apt to pluck the heart strings of even the least mechanically minded. So in travelling the fascinating and multihued metals of the Indian Railways it is appropriate to start with the first of the light lines to be laid. The width of the gauge is the most agonising decision any railway promoter has to make.

In Britain, today's standard gauge, derived from the plodding wagon-way coal horses of George Stephenson's Northumberland, has proved in hindsight, to be a poor second choice to Isambert Brunel's marvellous fast and safe broad gauge which with seven feet between the lines allowed Sherlock Holmes to lie back in luxurious unswaying compartments, explaining, between puffs of Turkish tobacco, how elementary it was to assess the speed of the train by counting the flick of passing telegraph poles.

A narrow-gauge trainLord Dalhousie, wise to the chaos engendered by conflicting gauges - with the attendant horror of trans-shipment -- plumped for a broad gauge to serve the whole of India. His dictum did not survive two decades before Lord Mayo, weakened in transport resolve and from economic compulsions, decreed that the metre gauge would cost less for the rugged terrain of India's outback.

Already narrow gauge (defined as lines less than one metre apart) had become fashionable and towards of the end of the century princely rulers jumped on the bandwagon as a point of prestige, Scindia and the Gaekwad showing the way. A practical handbook for light railways for the UK, India and the Colonies was published in 1896 wherein John Charles Mackay "set forth the principles on which light railways should be constructed, worked and financed".

In the comparative tables for working expenses we note that the Gaekwad's Dabhoi Railway (on a 2' 6" gauge) in 1892 produced a higher net return on capital than the illustrious broad gauge Bengal Nagpur (for "Beaner" as the local contraction went.)

Originally the tramway between Dabhoi and Miyagam was too light for locomotives and from 1863 to 1873 bullocks hauled the good trains at 3 miles an hour. The passenger trains went somewhat faster being hauled by "trotting bullocks". From the short haul of 33 kms from Miyagam Karjan to Dabhoi junction, the Gaekwad's little lines spread out in five directions to cover 359 kms.

Known as the GBSR, its owner the Maharaja remained steadfastly loyal to the Bagnali loco company of Stafford, "makers of locomotives of all descriptions" according to the full-page advertisement inserted at the end of Mr Mackay's handbook. (Judging by the name on the tender of the handsome "compound" displayed, the Maharaja's loyalty was hardly reciprocated. The name of the engine is "Republic" - in emphatic capital letters - no doubt bound for the banana realms of South America.

The chopping and changing of locomotive shapes, converting tank engines into tender behinds, was a feature of light railways where axle-weight was crucial.

A coal horseSure enough when I turned at Dabhoi some years ago I saw an ancient but beautifully maintained 'p' class loco simmering gently on the platform while its new shunting crew signed the coal register. She had a curious, lean and hungry look and the smoke-box door looked a bit like how I feel when I have glissaded off a mountain sideways (and require to have my navel massaged back to dead centre by the local vaid).

Obviously this lovely but lop-sided old engine had started out from Stafford as a tanker and the exigencies of the narrow lines of Dabhoi had made it necessary to remove her side-tanks. The locomotive lover must be forgiven for his penchant to personify old iron mares as competition for Mae West, but scientifically speaking there is little difference between surgery of the bosom (adding silicon bags) and the round-house mechanic's equivalent stripping of superfluous storage space from around the boiler.

Even worse chopping and changing is done with vintage locomotive numbering and the student has to be cautious in matching the manufacturer's plate with many re-numberings occasioned by transfer to another region or shed. Tentatively I concluded the Bengal shunter (No.605) was of 1929 extraction.

The Dabhoi shed is characteristically the home of that classic narrow gauge engine 'ZB'. Handsome and un-fussy, this little 2-6-2 tucks the miles behind her with great eclat. To ride behind her is to experience the study reliability of these feeder lines which once served the rural passengers more sportingly than any trotting bullock.

She sounds great and looks great and while lacking the vital statistics of Mae West, the 'SB' engines to be found around Baroda powering the lines out of Dabhoi are wildly photogenic objects at speed. I bought a ticket out of Dabhoi for the Narmada pilgrim ghat of Chandod. The 'ZB' zipped along with Mozartian music emerging from her German pistons.

I caught a ferry across to Rajpipla and next morning took the narrow gauge branch line to the main track to Ankleshwar where I spotted the first of the 'ZB' stable a Bagnali built 'ZB-1'. Spruced up in the Western Railway livery of black and maroon with yellow lining, the fleet of 'ZBs' were imported first from Britain in 1929 and again in 1952 from Germany and France.

The post-war 'ZB' tender capacity was curtailed slightly. Perhaps this foresaw the drought that would come to haunt these dated lines of Gujarat. However the main blow was not from the servicing of steam but from the blaring diesel fumes of competing Tata-Mercedes buses. (The Gaekwad's subjects had moved far in their tastes from the bullock cart of their grandfathers!)

At Rajpipla, the former princely station, the station master told me his grandfather had been in charge of the station before him. Now along with the guard and driver of the 133 Down Ankleshwar Passenger hauled by a German 'ZB' (as light a stepper as Marlene Dietrich!), he accepted the wrench from the sweet rhythms of old.

An old fashioned  black beautyNot only steam traction but the entire narrow gauge system was doomed. Road transport was favoured by all the rural folk except those with bulk consignments and that other natural enemy of the privately owned internal combustion engine - the ticketless traveller.

As if to make up for the pangs of separation 'ZB'-58 put up a spirited swan song, chugging with Teutonic efficiency to clear the Karjan bridge, then getting into sibilant stride gave a melodious rendering of Schubert Lieder. What poetic precision was echoed in her silent ghostings to a halt. One marvelled at how skillful her mechanics were to keep this 35 year-old number free from creaking and wheezing. She ran with rare elan demonstrating the love her loco shed staff had fired her with.

Courtesy Sanctuary Features

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