The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - India, 1980-7
South Eastern Railway Part 2
Ranchi Part 2

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:

Mornings at Ranchi were busy with 4 broad gauge steam departures plus the narrow gauge passengers. By mid-morning the rush was over and diesel freights dominated until late afternoon when steam hauled trains reappeared. On 16th January 1983, WG 9561 departs with the day train to Jharsuguda.

In 1983 I had a depot permit and planned my visit to see the BS class being prepared for the evening freight working to Lohardaga. The foreman told me he had a shed full of engines, hardly any of which were ‘fit' for work, but which nevertheless would be forced out! Ranchi now had a second pacific CC 681 (NB 1907) to act as pilot, it was over the pits having its fire cleaned. CC 679 (NB 1908) which was in good external condition was out of use. The foreman obviously liked the old engine and asked for his picture to be taken also with the modern narrow gauge steam crane, numbered 007, (built in Italy in 1957).

At the coaling stands were BS 635, 638 and 618. Any notion of “the romance of Indian Railways” suffered a severe bruising after watching coolies, in this case mostly women collecting a heavy basket of coal, heaving it onto their heads then walking up a flight of steps to topple it in the tender. Then I started thinking how many basket loads to fill a tender and this is how they earned their daily pittance. Still they were better off than those who had to carry their loads up flimsy ladders to the higher tenders of a WG class engine. 

BS 640 undergoing repairs in a two road shed with low inspection pits on 15th January 1983. The engines had to be separated from their tenders to fit in the cramped confines. The lack of depth to the pit meant fitters had to couch and crawl in the oozing sludge, yet this was a relatively clean and well-ordered depot. The only BC class engine I was to see on either visit was 651 (NB 1910) which had been separated from its tender and jacked up on sleepers whilst its wheels were removed. (BS class were built with superheaters, BC were earlier built and converted to superheating).

I watched the CC Pacific move off shed and cross to the narrow gauge yard where it prepared the evening freight with its empty bogie ore wagons. I then returned to see the two BS prepared for the evening freight. I joined the foreman who told me they had been “patched up” and hopefully would be ok.

Here BS 618 and 625 are ready to move off shed.

The engines backed off and were then coupled together, but had to wait for the broad gauge steam hauled pass from Jharsuguda to arrive. The sun had dropped by the time they were ready to make their departure.

The SER hotel was a colonial gem and it offered the possibility of staying in bed on mornings when the smog had not cleared and watching trains from the room. As in 1980 late running could result in two WG hauled trains heading in the same direction stood together in the station, on 16th January 1983, WG 9561 was on the train to Raurkela and Jharsuguda, it was joined by 9992 on the late running 463 passenger. I took a rickshaw to the bridge from where I watched 9561 make a spirited exit on its light train. CC 681 was busy as the narrow gauge pilot and made an interesting contrast with its big cousin. . The morning pilot duty consisted of breaking up the ore train and pushing the narrow gauge wagons up an incline so they could be loaded into broad gauge wagons below.

BS 639 was regular power for the Lohardaga train on 15th January 1983. In the background the CC pacific is being coaled together with a tender.

Not much had changed from my 1980 trip, the narrow gauge passenger trains were hours late departing and arriving each day, the freights ran to erratic times. The staff were admirable, they did not take the easy decision to cancel trains, they battled on. Elsewhere in India “coal shortage cancellations” was sometimes an excuse for not trying.

BS 633 & 631 depart on aluminium ore (bauxite) empties on 16th January 1983

Evenings were spent watching trains whilst having a few beers at the hotel, the scheduled narrow gauge arrival was due at 16.10, but it regularly arrived after 20.30, meaning the departure would also leave two to three hours late. At the time of my visits there were also 4 steam hauled evening trains. These included two express trains (16 to Howrah and 89 to Jharsuguda). Timetables for this area were drastically changed by the time my 1994 Newman’s was published. Not only were timings quite different, some trains now travelled in different directions from what I observed as there are a number of routes connecting Ranchi to Adra and Kharagpur.

On my final day in Ranchi, 17th January 1983, I found a broad gauge 1957 Italian built steam-crane in the station which formed a nice backdrop for WG 8461 on a morning passenger to Kharagpur. As this train departed another WG arrived on 15 Express from Calcutta. This train was running in the reverse direction to when I rode it in 1980.

The palm trees in the background mark the station entrance. 

To take a break from Ranchi I rode the ‘express shuttle” to Muri this train got the express description as its coaches were attached to the Tata - Amritsar express. WG 8093 did the honours with a paltry 6 coach load; it was a quick run downgrade to Muri. The countryside remained well forested, but the train carried large contingent of wood cutters. 

Muri Jn turned out to be an isolated spot with two long platforms. Walking up the steep path from the station I came the station restaurant where I whiled away some time. I was not surprised to find my return train, 339 Passenger was running late. The sun was going down when the train left to climb the grades to Ranchi. Stood by an open door I watched he engine working hard as it tackled the many curves as it climbed through the forest. Hot cinders were thrown up into the night sky. With a good load, steep grades and frequent stops to collect woodcutters and their loads; this was a good way to finish my visit. journey. The 2nd class carriage, which become full as bundles of wood were crammed into every available space, I had to retreat to a window seat. The stops to pick up cutters and their loads were so brief the train often re started before all of the gang had boarded, with lots of shouting going on. Ominously we had a strong railway police contingent who had their rifles at the ready as the train stopped. Dacoits (armed robbers) were probably known to be in the vicinity.

Not far out of Ranchi the train was held to cross two WG hauled trains and on entering the town I saw all the lights go out, so the station was pitch black on arrival. I just had time to grab a torch and make my way to the cloakroom and retrieve my bag. Then to the reservation chart and relief to see my name against a top berth in a 3 tier 2nd class carriage, a short wooden bench would be bed that night. I found 89 Express was running late, so had time for a chai as it entered the station behind a black freight link WG. My short narrow wooden bed was uncomfortably close to the ceiling fans and it was not the sounds of a steam loco I fell asleep, but to a carriage full of snorers; from the sublime to the ridiculous!

Rob Dickinson