Over the last decade or so, India has accelerated the pace of replacing its narrow and meter gauge railways with the bigger, faster broad gauge. While the socio-economic benefits of the broad gauge are many, its arrival has ended the era of the slow, leisurely travel – the kind that a few hopeless romantics like me still yearn for.
Travelling on these lines meant taking in the country at its own pace. Plenty of time to mingle with the locals, be a part of their lives and their landscapes. There would be time to walk out of the station to catch a chai and a samosa at a halt. A chance for a long conversation with the stationmaster or khalasi. These vanishing railways are blurring the faint line between Bharat and India.
Sharing a few memories from my extensive travels along these lines.
Sadhus or wandering holy men are a common sight across Indian trains – the desert outpost of Nawalgarh being no exception.
Packed to the rooftop, a narrow gauge trains trundles across the rough country that forms the outer edges of the Chambal valley. For most villages in the region, the train remains their sole link to the outside world to this day.
A late evening service blazes into Umred, a mining town in Central India. Once part of the largest narrow gauge system in the country, this line now the only survivor, with the rest fallen prey to broad gauge.
A roving mendicant watches as an afternoon service leaves Ramganga station for Kasganj. This line served as a vital link connecting the vast meter gauge network in the north and east of the country with those in the west and the south.
At the height of its meter gauge glory, Sikar played host a series of freight trains hauling cement from the local factories. A role now taken over by lorries on Rajasthan’s vast desert highways.
A gatekeeper guards the passage of an afternoon narrow gauge service from Nagpur to hinterland town of Nagbhid.
A late morning passenger crosses the dual gauge bridge over the Ramganga river, on the outskirts of Bareilly. The bridge allowed both Meter and Broad gauge trains to traverse the river without having to invest in an expensive second bridge, while the transition between gauges took place.
A Rajasthani woman in her traditional attire gets off at Ratangarh, while the locomotive changes ends for the day service to Delhi.
A crowded narrow gauge train takes a breather a Sumaoli. It was bringing in hordes of passengers from the hinterland of the erstwhile Scindia state, to the provincial town of Gwalior. Once part of an extensive system built by the local kings, this sole 2′ line is now the longest of its kind in the world.
Semaphore signals block the passage of the Bikaner – Delhi express at a wayside station in the Thar. These lines were often single, necessitating long waits for crossing trains.
A crowded passenger train arrives at Ringas – a busy junction. Given the vast distances and sparse populations of the desert, the trains were often the primary source of transport for most locals.
The Ratangarh – Sardarshahr branch connected latter with the larger network, while passing through the sandy terrain of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan.
Passengers eagerly await the arrival of a long delayed train from South at Kalakund. Punctuality wasn’t exactly a virtue on the smaller gauges, but the unpredictability had its own charm.
Fatehpur Shekhawati station was the scene of a celebrated Bollywood feudal drama Ghulami. Over the years, the station’s rustic charm had been overshadowed by the advance of the urban sprawl.
An array of levers stood proudly at Sikar – a nondescript town otherwise made famopus by a 4 line junction that connected important meter gauge lines in Rajasthan.
A meter gauge train to Sardarshahr in the northern reaches of the Thar Desert, passes a rare oasis – reflecting on its last days of service.
Jewels in the Dust
To Digpa Ratsa Ri