Satpura Railway was among the world’s greatest Narrow Gauge (2’6″) railway systems. Commissioned under the aegis of the Bengal-Nagpur Railway (BNR), the system comprised more than a 1000 km of line stretching from Nagpur in the west, to Jabalpur (Jubbulpore) toward the North and Chandrapur (Chanda) in the south, covering large parts of present day Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
In the late 1990s, the mandarins at Rail Bhavan felt the need to convert this entire network of lines to Broad Gauge (BG) for better
integration and connectivity with the larger Indian Railways’ network. As a result, various lines of this system were progressively uprooted and replaced with the ubiquitous BG trains.
The last surviving line of the network, was also among the last ones of the built. Starting from Itwari, a suburb of Nagpur and running south-west to Nagbhir via Umred – Bhiwapur was the branch line that provided a shorter route to Chanda. Work commenced on the line in 1904 and traffic started on the 109 km line stated in 1908. This was a key route, serving the western portions of what is known as the Vidarbha region of Central India.
For nearly 110 years, the line ran several trains a day, first under steam and later under diesel traction. These images were shot in 2017, in the last few weeks of its service.
The morning service from Nagpur to Nagbhir approaches the coal mining centre of Umred. The station was one of the major stops for trains on the route.
The station master’s assistant handing over the token hoop, which acted as an authority for the train to proceed further on the single line section. Visit this post for more details on this practice.
The fairly long halt at Umred also served as a tea break for the operating crew. All across India, there is always an arrangement with the local tea stall owners, who are kind enough to deliver the beverage and snacks to the loco.
Ready for departure with a customary wave of the green flag. This is another Indian Railways’ tradition that has stood the test of time. Despite the widespread use of wireless communication, a visual ‘all clear’ indicator is still considered paramount.
The Nagbhir bound train approaches Kargaon Halt. The line ran along the western and southern edges of the Umred-Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary, and through an active tiger movement corridor. Locals and railway staff often reported seeing tigers near the rail tracks.
Exchanging green flags with the gatekeeper at the level crossing with the Nagpur – Gadhchiroli Highway. For many years, the highway was little more than a dirt track, and the train used to be the preferred mode of transport for villages and towns in the interiors.
The line then entered the famed chili growing region of Bhiwapur. For many miles along the track, farmers would grow the chilis and then lay them out to dry, before being sent to the markets.
Due to its commercial importance, Bhiwapur too was a major station enroute and often a crossing point for trains in opposite directions. Here, the Nagbhir bound service waits for its pairing train as schoolboys and a host of other folk arrive at the station.
The crossing train from Nagbhir approaches. Both trains were being operated by ZDM-4A locos based at the Motibagh shed in Nagpur. Indian Railways NG locos were designated ‘Z’ for the 2’6″ gauge, was was the case here. And ‘N’ for locos operating on the 2″ gauge.
The station was dominated by a massive tree, that dwarfed the trains and the crowd that disgorged. Such trees have often been a hallmark of wayside stations in India. Sadly, many of them lost, when stations were expanded to accommodate the larger BG services or electrified.
As the 234 resumes its journey towards Nagbhir, it crosses local ladies who are returning from the market with the day’s purchase. With fares as low as ₹10, the train continued to be a preferred mode of transport in this low income region.
A motley crowd awaits the arrival of the train at Bhuyar, a minor station as shown by the PH (Passenger Halt) designator. This meant that the the station had no arrival or departure signals, nor any loop lines. Just a basic platform and a ticket office. Station board names on Indian Railways also highlight its altitude above Mean Sea Level, 261.24m in this case.
The train having departed, the tracks were once again the domain of the local boys and their games. The images were shot in January, around the Sankranti (harvest) festival, when kite flying becomes a national pastime across the India.
The Narrow Gauge services terminated at Nagbhir Junction. This was a changeover point for NG services towards Chanda and Gondia. However, the Chanda – Gondia section had been converted to Broad Gauge (5’6″) and electrified, as can be seen on the tracks towards the right in this image.
As the shadows lengthen, the 234 exits Nagbhir with the return service to Nagpur. The unusual height of the semaphore was to aid signal visibility around the sharp curve. The section was operated using Lower Quadrant Semaphore signalling. These too will be replaced by modern colour light signals in the BG avatar.
The last light of the day sees the Nagpur bound train cross the Maru River near Bhiwapur. For me, the image also signalled the end of my love affair with the Satpura Railway. The greatest narrow gauge railway system in the world, lost to the sands of time.