The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - India, 1980-7
South Eastern Railway Part 1
Ranchi Part 1

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 have been fortunate to visit Ranchi twice, first on 14th January 1980. Traveling overnight from Calcutta I awoke in time to listen to the WG hauling 15 Express on the ghat section to Ranchi. It was still pitch dark when we arrived and the town power was off; a common occurrence at that time in India. 3 years later to the day I travelled overnight from Kharagpur, although with a timetable change I rode train 463 which had sleepers as part of its consist. I was again able to enjoy the train climbing the steeply graded scenic section, a great way to start the morning. This train called at all the halts, restarting on wet rails entailed bouts of wheel spins and slow acceleration.

At Ranchi I found platforms ends had been converted into temporary camps by some tribal people who were running a cottage industry making earrings and other ornaments, whilst their children wandered through the station area begging from passengers. 

On my second visit to Ranchi, on 15th January 1983, WG 10301 departs on the stopping train to Jharsuguda. In the background the narrow gauge passenger carriages await their engine.

On both trips I used the SER Railway Hotel, next to the station. It was a pleasant oasis with spacious grounds and a bit of green foliage to absorb the dust. Breakfast with fresh mangoes as well as the usual omelette was on the menu. The waiters like those in the better railway restaurants wore a white uniform and turban. Travel in India can be hard going, so imagine my delight being able to see the station from my room and be able to walk there in a couple of minutes! 

The 1994 Newman’s Indian Bradshaw described Ranchi as “a premier hill resort in the state of Bihar, 2,200 feet above the height of sea-level.” The 1981 Lonely Planet described Bihar state as one of the most backward and depressed in India. I found the town unremarkable, the usual dusty streets, hovels and down at heel buildings failed to hint that this was once a hill resort.

On the first visit  BS 634 (NW 1922) sits at Ranchi with the morning passenger from Lohardaga. Note the sign opposite proclaiming the delights of the SER hotel at Puri, the temple dancing girl had flesh in abundance compared to the wafer thin guy with stick legs next to the engine.

On the second visit, BS 618 (NW 1915) brings in the stock, passing the grounds of the SER Hotel

Check out Ian Manning's article on the IRFCA site - “Once upon a time Ranchi was a quiet summer resort; an intermediate station on a narrow gauge line 120 miles long, running from Purulia on the plains, westwards up the hill to Ranchi and then on to Lohardaga.” Ian gives a review of the broad gauge lines that replaced the middle section of this narrow gauge route.

On both my visits BS class 2-8-2s (built 1915-24) were in charge of all line workings. The couple of older BC class allocated were either under repair or away for overhaul. The CC class Pacifics were used on pilot duty, if they were available. In 1980 there was a motive power crisis, things were a little better in 1983, but they were desperately waiting for the promised ZE class to arrive.

By 1983 the SER had a new livery for its steam engines and painted the engine number on the tender in large numerals. Most locomotives no longer had shed codes painted on smokeboxes. The passenger train passes the coal stands where the CC class is being serviced. Note the narrow gauge track crossing over the broad gauge to the yard used by the aluminium ore (bauxite) trains. 

Again during the 1983 visit, the front carriage looks ex- works and has a postal section.

I was anxious to ride the narrow gauge passenger on my first morning in Ranchi, but had plenty of time to watch the broad gauge activity as the train from Lohardaga was running almost an hour late. The pilot then brought in the empty stock for the morning departure and sometime later BS 619 (NW 1915) made its way from the shed and was attached to the ramshackle coaches. The coaching stock as well as the engines were in a poor state of repair, I avoided riding in the one had a pronounced tilt and looked unsafe. Another carriage painted in bright red was designated as the postal carriage with its exterior mailbox and inside were sorting racks staffed by two attendants, a bit ambitious for a rural branch I would have thought. I wish I’d taken a photo! The mail service survived in 1983, a newly overhauled carriage retained a postal section can be seen in the pictures. 

On both trips the passenger trains had regular engines assigned, although this was probably as much to do with lack of available engines. My train got away an hour and a half late, timekeeping was an issue on both trips. Passing the shed there was no sign of the CC class supposedly allocated here, (it was in store).

Initially the work seemed easy as the old engine rolled along. Later it had to be pushed and the sound came floating back together with hot cinders from the chimney; these old engines emitted plenty of black smoke when working hard and needed frequent fire cleaning with the quality of coal supplied. Tangarbasuli was one such stop, and whilst watching a fireman operate the ash-pan with his bare toes (!) the station master came up to talk. 

He told me there was going to be a crossing here and indeed a train was visible in the distance brewing up. It took the ailing single BS 625 three attempts to restart the heavy ore train, but it couldn’t make it as far as the station and stopped short for another blow up, eventually struggling in belching clouds of black smoke and mercifully reaching the sanctuary of the yard. The freight was rostered for 2 BS, but a severe motive power shortage was on and they were expecting replacement ZEs. Possibly they had let standards of maintenance slip; it was to turn out the ZEs were quite a few years away! 

The guard from the freight wandered over to join us and gloomily said it would take another two hours to rebuild the fire and get underway once more! I reflected on the way the fire had been cleaned on our train, using stones and bare flesh to handle the ash pan, it seemed they didn’t have any fire-irons, or did not bother to use them! Lots of clinker had been cleaned out, the poor coal used causing the need for frequent cleaning and poor steaming.

The rest of the journey was uneventful but it was 15.00 before we arrived at our destination, I was disappointed to find there was no freight train here (one was due to depart before the passenger returned). The guard told me the scheduled half hour turn around was going to be more like an hour and expected to be back in Ranchi by 8pm, four hours late.

I decided to return to Ranchi by local bus, this proved to be an adventure in itself. I was stuck in a seat designed for two, but shared by three as was common practice here. The bus had no windows, next to me the window frame had split metal below it from a scrape that attested to the rough handling it endured. It hurtled along between stops, where the two conductors endeavoured to keep it as full as a sardine can. We stopped at villages where huge sacks of peas or beans were hauled up on the roof along with the other produce. Once underway it was a continuous game of chicken with oncoming trucks and buses on the narrow road, with continuous use of the horn. It was after dark when we reached Ranchi and I was back at the hotel, in time for dinner (set serving times were the rule).

After breakfast on my second day in 1980, I strolled over to the station where WG 8975 on 15 Express was held for 30 minutes, being joined by another WG on another passenger bound for Hatia. BS 619 had in the meantime brought in the stock for the day train, then retired back to the shed. At 09.30, after a series of whistles, WG 8975 on the Hatia express got underway. Both WGs were based at Adra, denoted by ADA codes on their smoke boxes. 30 minutes later WG 8379 also headed out for Hatia. 

In the station yard I saw BS 640 on a broad gauge transporter wagon, without its tender and the boiler stripped of fittings, whilst the motion had also been removed and tied down against the boiler. In the next truck was a narrow gauge carriage also awaiting its trip to the works.

The narrow gauge stock still had no engine as the morning arrival had yet to put in an appearance. A farce started when two ticket inspectors bail up the sole occupant of the first class carriage, an amused crowd gathers to hear him explain the ticket office is out of 1st class tickets and sold him 2 seconds instead. This is not good enough for the inspectors and they insist he buys a ticket from them. An argument ensues with both sides pleading to the gathering audience, who also shout advice back! The Inspectors insist as he does not have a 1st class ticket he must travel 2nd class and things get heated. The passenger is stroppy about the money he paid; get a refund they suggest; this brings howls of mirth from the audience. Eventually they Inspectors win and write out a 1st class ticket leaving him to grab prospective passengers and try to get some money for his second class tickets, the crowd disperses and the passengers boring wait resumes. Three cows listlessly wander around the platform and the narrow gauge lines, two goats are more competitive and elicit the odd snap from one of the starving dogs that compete for what food can be foraged. One of the cows solemnly steps off the platform and peers in the open doors of a carriage and takes a discarded newspaper to munch on; the morning drags on.

AT 10.30 the narrow gauge ore train, double-headed today made a quiet arrival at the exchange sidings. Finally I gave up waiting and left my small audience to take a rickshaw and seek out a bank. This turned out to be another time consuming exercise as many forms had to be laboriously checked by a series of clerks in ascending ranks of importance before I got to see my money. The bank was the only one in this large town able to do foreign currency transactions, it was guarded by an elderly Sikh armed with a blunderbuss. 

Later, returning to the station I stopped to photograph the BS from the freight (616 & 618) as they crossed the broad gauge lines and negotiate their way back to the shed.

On 16th January 1983, WG 9992 departs on train 463 to Hatia. The narrow gauge line to the right is the shunting neck.

Back at the station on my second morning in 1980, BS 619 was now standing at the head of the day train. It had been cleaned down with oily rags whilst on shed and made a pleasant photo, even if the cleaning stopped short of the dusty tender. 

It was 11.40 before the opposite passenger rolled in, it took another twenty minutes to complete the safe working arrangements allowing the Lohardaga train to depart; by now it was over three hours late. The locomotive had a loud ear piercing whistle that was put to good use and it left under a cloud of phosphorous looking smoke that had been polluting the platform and the food stalls for the previous hour or so. I retired back to the hotel.

Rob Dickinson