By Rail Enthusiasts' Society
Author: Ravindra Bhalerao
The narrow gauge railways in India conjure up images of vintage B-class locomotives and diesel hauled trains chugging over multi-tiered arch bridges up in the hills. Yet, the most extensive narrow gauge rail networks were not in the hills. The two biggest narrow gauge hubs were around the cities of Nagpur and Vadodara (earlier known as Baroda), respectively.
Passenger gets ready to board the train by Ravindra BhaleraoRail Enthusiasts' Society
In 1913, the Satpura line was the largest narrow gauge railway network in India. These narrow gauge lines were introduced in the adjoining Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra areas, mainly with a view to transport agricultural produce and famine relief.
The train soon proved to be a boon for the villagers. With its arrival, both Nagpur and Jabalpur were connected with the district of Chhindwara, with additional links going all the way to Nagbhir and Chanda Fort.
Nagpur Station by Ravindra BhaleraoRail Enthusiasts' Society
At the time of independence, in 1947, Nagpur and Vadodara covered 1,650 km (of the total 5,198 km) of the narrow gauge track that existed in the country.
Uni-gauge has spelt the death knell for both these networks, as a result of which the major narrow gauge lines on the plains are now broad gauge.
A narrow gauge train arriving at Nagpur by Ravindra BhaleraoRail Enthusiasts' Society
Train services on the Satpura Lines have been progressively phased out, with the Railways keen on introducing broad gauge. Among the last to be struck off the roll was the Nagpur-Chhindwara Passenger, which saw its very last service on 30 November, 2015.
The only service yet in operation is between Nagpur and Nagbhir - a tiny remnant of a complex rail network that was powered entirely by steam in its heydays.
Nagpur Railway Station's attractions
On Nagpur railway station, there are primarily two heritage attractions. One is the 'C Cabin', manned by a Station Master who controls all the narrow gauge trains from Nagpur. The second heritage attraction is Itwari station and its gabled roof. Itwari lies about 5 km away from the main business district of Nagpur. Both, the narrow gauge and the broad gauge tracks converge at Itwari.
The workings of Nagpur Railway Station
Although the South East Central Railway's 'C Cabin' is manned by an Assistant Station Master, there are many others who work at the station, including points-men and lever-men. The points-men and lever-men get busy as soon as a narrow gauge train arrives. Their duties sometimes stretch out to 12 hours.
A recent narrow gauge time table of the SEC Railway by Ravindra BhaleraoRail Enthusiasts' Society
A time-table hangs from the ceiling of the roof at the railway platform. Written in Hindi and English, the time-table shows which trains will arrive and depart at what time.
Pointsman uncouples an engine by Ravindra BhaleraoRail Enthusiasts' Society
The narrow gauge trains here belong to the South East Central Zone of the Indian Railways, but the operating staff is from the Central Railway.
The South East Central Railway only looks after the maintenance of locomotives, carriages and signals.
Even the land here, on which the railway is built, belongs to the Central Railway.
A family staying entertained while waiting for a train by Ravindra BhaleraoRail Enthusiasts' Society
Hundreds of tiny villages and the people who live there relied entirely on this train. Shopkeepers and merchants from the villages made weekly trips to Nagpur to re-order their stocks.
The Railway was much more than a mode of transport – it was a lifeline for them.
Family cooking food while waiting for the train by Ravindra BhaleraoRail Enthusiasts' Society
There is just one service in operation, which may be likely to shut down at any time.
Nagpur platform, filled with passengers by Ravindra BhaleraoRail Enthusiasts' Society
For people living close to the line, there will be no respite until the broad gauge track to Chhindwara and other towns is in place.
Till such time as the full-sized railway arrives, these passengers will find themselves on their own, abandoned.
Author: Ravindra Bhalerao