The International Steam Pages
Steam in India, New Year 1997
Heinrich Hubbert's reports on his latest trip to India. You should also read Bernd Seiler's report as well as it covers a similar period.
North East Frontier Rly:
Assam is now open for tourists: Heinz and Berndt visited Tinsukia, Mariani and Bardarpur which will keep steam till the end of March 1997. I must highly recommend this area to anyone who wants to visit India in the very near future, as it offers steam in surroundings different from other remaining steam systems: Lush vegetation contrary to the dry WR-centres, and Assam is - compared with Saharsa - a much more civilized and enjoyable place to stay.
I had no problems with photography anywhere. Delhi Rail Bhavan gave permission for Bardarpur but not for Tinsukia and Mariani. However, shed staff were most cooperative and friendly. The metre gauge trains from Lumding on the mainline to Tinsukia are suffering big delays because of the conversion work up from Dimapur northwards. It is recommended to enter the next b.g. train from Lumding up to Dimapur (which have a clear run) and enquire about m.g. trains to the north from there. Indian Airlines operate daily from Delhi to Guwahati, but the operations within Assam are very uncertain with most scheduled IA-flights cancelled. I left the area after my visit with a flight from Dibrugarh to Guwahati (continuing to Delhi) operated by Sahara Airline, working for the first time after nine days!. The airport is half ways between Dibrugarh and Tinsukia.
In all three locations, the condition of the engines range from nice (for example Mariani YG 3213 pausing in Tinsukia shed on 24th Dec.) up to very filthy ones with brake-blocks missing (pilots, sometimes line-engines!)
M.G. wagons are being cut up at various sites; in Mariani and Makum, the junction east of Tinsukia, where the lines to Ledo and Dangari split up.
Short visit here. This location is not under threat of b.g. conversion yet, as the mainline from Lumding to Bardarpur via the Halflong-Pass will demand intensive construction-efforts. This line is dieselised but should not be missed for a ride in daytime. There is hardly any mountain-railway in India that can beat this line. It is a real jungle-railway with a tremendous alignment, featuring 38 tunnels and even a trestle-bridge in a 90 degree-curve. The journey takes about 9 hours, with the train powered by a YDM4 at each end thrashed to the limit plus generator van. Tribes travel on the roof of the coaches!
The lines to Karimganj, Silchar, Dulabcherra and the Bangladesh-Border (Maishanshan) have steam trains. All engines face Silchar and cannot be turned. The best train for photography should be the 211 from Karimganj (dep. 6.00 a.m.) via Bardarpur to Silchar (arr. 8.45). The scenery features rice-fields, some hills with lush vegetation and villages with bamboo-huts. Contrary to the other sites in Assam, the track is not affected by preparation for regauging (ballast by side). Slow demolition of the shed is in progress. The Shed foremen expect steam to finish in the next few months. This can only be done by dieselisation. Apart from dumped YGs and YPs, there are also the remains of two YF-class. The shed has two interesting portal-cranes of English origin for lifting up steam-locos. These are arranged on an about 4-meter track over a meter-gauge-siding in the shed. Two engines shunt the station yard. Bardarpur sports guesthouses.
Short visit here. The Furkating train is retimed to run at night. However, a train from Jorhat arrived at 1 p.m. on 23. Dec 96, but this was said to be overdelayed". The Moranhat train was reported to depart irregularly at 8.00 am. The area there was declared to be unsafe for foreigners. The Tuli branch train was reported cancelled. The passenger on the mainline to Tinsukia departed at 3.00 pm. One hour before sunset in this part of India. Mariani has a retiring-room.
Five days visit in this area. Steam runs on all branches plus running-in of Mariani locos on the mainline. The passenger to Dibrugarh runs daily. The track is roadside, easy to chase, but features villages, trees, tea plantations. The trains to Dangari and Ledo run every other day. One day on the first, the other on the next. I did not check the Danagari-line, but it is steam. Trains run about an hour late. The Ledo line is full of photographic interest, (by 1997 standards of Indian steam-traffic) and also easy to chase even with an old Ambassador. The line runs through many bamboo-hut villages with palm trees, a forest and is more distant from the road, but nearly always in sight from the car. There is a big girder-bridge before Magherita. Girders are over the track but the light is perfect from the side for the afternoon train. The trains 251/252 are both in excellent light throughout. Around Magherita, the line is out of sight because of hills for some 2 kms and this area should be checked for positions by the visitor. Trains have 2 or 3 coaches, but the locos produce impressive smoke effects all the time, with the coal from Coal India which contains much sulfide. This line should be chased by car for at least two days (because of some level crossings). Broadgauging is in place even in Tinsukia station. The lines to Dibrugarh and Ledo have ballast surplus on some sections, which can make it somewhat tricky at some places to find gaps for getting the wheels of the engine clear for the picture from the side. Conversion work is not under further progress on these branches now. In Tinsukia itself, b.g. track-laying has started.
The Palace Hotel, Tinsukia is just by the station with view on the station area from the upper-rooms. Cars can be arranged on a good rate by the reception; an Ambassador for a full day up to Ledo for 450 Rs plus fuel (300 Rs). Best place is the deluxe East International (former Ashoka-Hotel) of which the restaurant has to be recommended. Dibrugarh works still use a filthy MAWD for shunting.
Coal India, Magherita
Permission in advance is necessary here. The visitor has to report at the local police in Magherita. The brickwork train and the Tipong colliery train run with one steam engine each. The former can be sandwiched in the lunch-break, when chasing the m.g. train from Tinsukia up to Ledo, giving a full day packed with steam action.
I felt safe all the time (much more then in Saharsa), but when leaving Assam, my train got stuck in Jalpaiguri for 12 hours on the way from Guwahati to Mansi because of the bomb blast that affected the Brahmaputra-Mail at the year's end. Fortunately I was not in this train, but traffic out of this part of India was affected for several days. The Bodo-terrorism is most serious now but this area is not of enthusiast interest and can be avoided by using aircraft. The lowlands of Assam are reported to be relatively free of ULFA activities. Avoiding overland bus rides in the dark would be wise.
North Eastern Rly:
On the last day of 1996, I met up with Bernd Seiler's group in Saharsa. Check his report for more details. The retiring room in Saharsa is probably the worst one of the entire NER. The Koshi-Niwas Hotel is near the station - best to stay there.
I transferred to Udaipur and met up with two other German enthusiast. With the decline of steam in Udaipur, we chased the Bari Sadri train and transferred to Chittaurgarh for chasing the 89/90 from Mhow - the only steam turn now. Harish Kumar guided us and he arranged a TRAX, a vehicle suitable for the bad roads in Madhya Pradesh (Ambassadors are not permitted and not recommended) together with an excellent driver, Jagdish. The best chase I have ever had on the Subcontinent, for 1200 Rs a day. A diesel can appear on the steam turn, if the steam engine fails. However, with 10 coaches and a thrashed engine, this is the best steam turn which can be chased nowadays in India. Train 73/74 was now diesel. My friends proceeded to Assam, I went to Gujarat:
Visit here on the last 2 days of my trip. This isolated m.g. system had exactly the same operation as on my first visit in April 1996 with 100% steam!. The shed hosts 10 YGs, some without smoke-deflectors. Yes, steam-hauled goods-trains are running here in 1997's India!!! There is daily salt-train (about one day per week it doesn't run) from Navlakhi to Wankaner (where the salt is transshipped to b.g.) with about 10 four wheel box-cars and a caboose. Several railwaymen stated that nothing will change until 1998 when broadgauging is expected. The passengers are operated very much on time, because they are linking with the b.g. Saurashtra-expresses which run two times a day only from Rajkot to Ahmedabad/Bombay. The rakes are two coaches only, but these are old types in good condition with fresh paint. All engines face Wankaner (except YG 3430) and cannot be turned but are equipped with cow-catchers on the tender. Light is tricky for the impressive station in Morbi (also written Morvi) and for the huge road cum railway bridge just south of the station, but with patience, the impressive Jain temple, dominating the city skyline and just beside the tracks can be taken into the picture. Beside the nice stone viaduct before Dhuva, there are embankments and hills around Rafaleshwar and also another Jain temple near the station. Engine 3430 should provide more photo opportunities when in service, especially within Morbi.
Sadly, the retiring room in Morbi Jn was declared to be closed. The frenzied SS and ASM on one shift caused trouble with photography, because Morbi was not on my photo permission, but Wankaner shed was (no problems there)! This also happened on my last visit, so be prepared by demanding Morbi on the permission. Next place to stay is the very clean Tulsi Guesthouse some hundred metres from the station down the road to the city. Morbi is a fascinating place with an impressive old city but is very backward. Beside the odd cows, many pigs stroll around. Streets are clean, but hardly nobody speaks any English and all signs are written in Gujarati. I was not able to arrange a proper taxi in that short time, which is necessary to get the train more then two times. However, roads are doubled, tarmaced and in excellent condition. Open three-wheelers run frequently and give access to the line.
Ashok Sharma of Special Tours of India, Delhi, a well known tour-operator who also guided Bernd Seiler's party, told me that Ooty is indeed closed because of an avalanche but is expected to be reopened by the beginning of the next season (Mid-April).