The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - India, 1980-7
Calcutta and Darjeeling

Terry Case writes about his travels for steam. Further tales will follow from time to time covering more of Australia, India, South Africa, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Click here for the Case Notes Index.

For other Indian tales in this series, please see:

I had spent several days in Agra and on 7th January 1980, I had seen a CWD hauled train departing from Agra Fort for Tundla Junction..

I left Agra on the Toofan express to Calcutta which departed 30 minutes late hauled by a NR CWD. Not far out of Agra the engine blew a piston ring on the single line section. The train was stranded for two hours in the warm afternoon sun before a WG arrived to tow the train to a siding and then run round and couple in front. This meant we were 4 hours late at Tundla Junction where an electric backed on to be the power for the o/n run to Mughal Sari.

The night journey became a horror after the train was swamped by passengers who also invaded 1st class sleepers. A compartment designed to sleep 4 now had 17 occupants. Those who could not get a seat spent the night squatting on the floor chewing and spitting out betel nut. The carriage guard was an ageing Sikh armed with a blunderbuss to protect us from dacoits (armed robbers). The thought of that ancient weapon being fired filled me with fear, however there was no way a robber could enter the carriage with the numbers crammed in!

A sleepless night ensued relieved by some good early morning stack talk from the WP that had replaced the electric. En route to Futwa I saw two HPS hauled locals heading for Patna, they looked smart in ER green and black livery. It was to be the final year of HPS working there, but I did not know it at the time. 

Futwa provided a real surprise as I glimpsed a ng engine in steam at the head of an incredibly crowded train waiting departure. The line was supposedly closed. (It had re-opened and it closed yeas later). There are many pictures of this line elsewhere on this website.

Jhaja had a small engine shed opposite the station. The shed was filled with gleaming black & silver WPs & WGs, not like what I expected after the horror stories of the Eastern part of India. We exchanged train engines and a banker was added. I peered through the bars of my window as our new WP in green and black livery attacked the fierce grade with gusto, the bark from its exhaust echoing against the sides of the cuttings, with a brief glimpse of the engine as it rounded a curve. We topped the grade in fine style and dropped downgrade to the small station of Simulta, where an XE class stood light engine in a bay waiting its next banking turn.

We were now in the coal field area and a couple of block trains were double-headed and banked by WGs. (For more details of this area see Ian Manning “The Damodar coalfields”).

Heading towards Asansol I was to see a HGS 2-8-0 on a coal train, a rare beast in India, at this time. At Asansol steam was replaced by electric traction for the final part of the journey. Approaching Howrah in the dark I could see HSM 2-8-0s busy on pilot duties. A WT was seen silhouetted against station lights, this was one of the few surviving 2-8-4Ts designed for suburban work, which had a brief working life. By contrast the unmistakable shape of an ancient SGS 0-6-0 was seen in the carriage sidings.

I had planned to arrive in Calcutta in the afternoon. The bad reputation of this city had me worried, train was so late that we arrived in Calcutta late at night. A porter kindly bundled me into a heap of scrap metal that claimed to be a taxi. I was thankful this was one of the few places I had pre-booked my hotel.

I was very nervous as the taxi slowly edged through congested streets scraping past rickshaws and other vehicles. Calcutta was the only city in India to still allow traditional rickshaws; it seemed the rickshaw coolies were all small and incredibly thin; whilst their clients were large and obese. The taxi windows would not close, besides it was too warm and stifling. Instead I had a close up view (and smell) of straining animal and human power. Large carts overloaded with goods were pulled and pushed by teams of three men, all barefoot and looking half starved. Stagecoaches were still in use, like those seen in Wild West films; but pulled by skeletal ponies. Ancient buses and trucks fouled the warm air with noxious smoke as they leaned into enormous pot holes that looked like bomb craters whilst ramshackle trams packed with humanity bumped and grinded their way through the streets.

It was to be on later trips that I grew to like and respect the city and the incredible people who lived there, this night it was just a feeling of sheer relief when the hotel was reached. After a day in a crowded dusty compartment and away from the horrors of the city I did not feel too guilty as I fell asleep between clean crisp sheets.

I was in the Darjeeling area on 12th and 13th January 1980, with time short I opted to fly to Bagdogra, where I could quickly obtain an aliens permit for Darjeeling. This avoided days of frustration seeking it in Calcutta. That part of the plan worked fine, but the flight from Calcutta was delayed for half a day and I reached Darjeeling after dark.

Darjeeling was sheer pleasure as I spent time chasing and riding, the winter service consisted of a train running the full length of the line in two parts and the Kurseong train (which ran to a different schedule than when I next saw it in the 1990)s. I did not have time to investigate the shuttles between New Jalpaiguri and Siliguri.

The early mornings were beautiful and clear with wonderful views of the mountains draped in snow, whether seen from the hotel or Tiger Hill. However I was to find how quickly the weather changed on the mountain, and almost all my photos for the two days here are on the section below Kuresong, because mists obscured the top section during most of my brief stay.

Using a taxi the first train I would see on my first day was the morning local from Kurseong. Here the train with B 803 (North British 1925) on the front awaits departure at Ghum. The taxi rank outside this station was the monopoly of early versions of the Land Rovers; whilst Tibetan kids were using the rails to run their skate board on.

I thought this encapsulated the Darjeeling experience. Crew bustle around the engine whilst passengers offer comments. This was the morning train from Kurseong seen taking water from a small stream that fed into the tank seen on the outskirts of Darjeeling. Flared trousers and long hair are definitely “in”.

The 1st division from Siliguri would be intercepted out of Sukna. On both days uphill trains ran late. On my first morning I had spotted a freight emerging from the mist out of Kurseong, reluctantly I decided to continue downhill seeking clearer weather. 

On 12th January I chased the 1st section with its 4 coach consist that included a Postal coach as far as Agony Point. I then went down to Sukna where the 2nd section on a 3 coach load arrived hours late to cross the 1st downhill section!  The 2nd Division train was powered by B 785 built in Glasgow in 1904 by North British. As the engine was watered and the fire cleaned, a young girl collected cinders, her family ran the station kiosk. No doubt the chai I was drinking had been heated by windfalls from the engines. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent photographing the second section, as far as Kurseong (reached at 3pm), where heavy mist prevented further photography. Instead I rode the train for a couple of hours and listened to the superb stack talk as the train twisted its way upgrade. The whole operation was mind boggling and the only discordant note was the whistle which was of the whoop/hooter sound, rather than a chime whistle.

At Tung the return working of the freight (3 wagons) was crossed, but the mist was so thick that I did not take even a record shot. I transferred back to my taxi but the drive was slow with horns being sounded, and almost driving blind in sections. Around 5pm, on the outskirts of Darjeeling we overtook the 1st section the 2nd would not have reached here till after 9pm.

On 13th January, the 2nd section races along out of Sukna, passing the Forestry Division building. 

This is a close up taken a few seconds later.

The 2nd section pulls away from the water stop on 12th January, the fireman breaking up lumps of coal has just caught a cinder in his eye.

With the water stop in the background the 2nd section heads to Rangtong on 13th January..

On 12th January, the 2nd section is pushed uphill on a zig zag near Rangtong. Rob helped me correct some of my photo descriptions as I mixed up the dates and he also queried the p.w. trolley attached to the train. I think this was attached at Sukna and would have been detached where the gang was going to work, leaving them to free wheel back to base! I saw this sort of operation on a number of visits, chains were used to attach the trolley to the coach.

This is the 1st section on 12th January, note the postal carriage lined out in red.

The 2nd section negotiating the Chunbati spiral on 12th January 

The 2nd section races along next to an almost empty road on 12th January. By my last visits in the mid 1990s it was much busier.

On 13th January, the 1st Division seen near Tindharia again had 4 coaches but none was a mail coach.

Whether road or rail, constant maintenance was needed and it was man or woman power that did the job, usually with no mechanical help.

This is just below Mahanadi with the top of the zig-zag visible behind. The picture shows the first section on 12th January..


Rob Dickinson