... home of the world's working population of steam engines
Chances 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.
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.
Lord 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.
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.
Sure 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).
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.
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.
Not 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