The International Steam Pages

Case Notes - India, 1982-5, Round 2
Part 8 - Burdwan and Katwa

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, which includes many earlier Indian tales.

If you enjoy this tale and would like to see more pictures of this system, then please visit the Raj Steam section.

In 1991 I returned to visit this system, only this time I was going also to see the night action using my video. I had flown into Calcutta on 24th December 1991, that night I took a taxi to Howrah.

The roads were incredibly crowded and vehicles were trapped in a slow moving, parade towards the great bridge. Trucks spewed out noxious clouds; whilst boys struggled with overladen handcarts in the midst of the traffic. It took almost an hour to reach the station which was getting towards the end of the evening peak service, then I had to find which of the numerous ticket counters sold suburban fares for trains to Burdwan.

The first few suburban trains to leave were so crowded I did not attempt to join them, waiting till I saw one with some standing room, it seemed every set of eyes in the carriage focussed on me. Most seats had been removed to create more space so I joined the strap hangers. Once I had overcome the smell of hundreds of sweaty bodies in close proximity and the constant spitting and throat clearing, I was able to observe the commuters. Regulars rapidly settled to card playing schools, squatting on the floor, after first spreading newspapers. A chess game was exciting interest whilst a blind man and his daughter sang for their supper.

The train first made a headlong rush through the dark passing a number of inner city stations before settling to an easier pace. Near Burdwan in open country the train stopped a couple of times as a huge electrical storm raged outside, rain lashed in through the windowless carriage. By this time there were few passengers left, I now had a seat from which I could watch the lightning which seemed to strike repeatedly close to the stationary train. When the power came back on the train jerked forward and water sprayed through the carriage. The journey continued spasmodically through lightning strikes to Burdwan, arrival was at midnight; one hour late.

25th December 1991

Happy Christmas, my present was a narrow gauge steam hauled train; (one of the few to be seen now two railcar sets were in action on this line). The narrow gauge platform was scarcely lit and the carriages were locked; departure was scheduled for 03.00. The crew were wrapped in blankets on the footplate of the engine which was quietly sizzling on glistening rails from the heavy rain which had swept the station: the loco was AK 2 (W.B.1914). I had been worried planning this trip whether this ng system would remain open; there had been persistent stories of impending closure.

At the main station there was plenty of activity with many passengers camped out waiting for trains, the mozzies were feasting on us. Electric locomotives brought in a continuous flow of late night trains from Calcutta heading to distant parts of India, by early morning the flow would be reversed. The rain continued falling and by 03.00 tiredness and jet-lag were catching up with me, but it was the steam activity here I had come to see. I watched WP 7612 shunt empty carriages to add to 337 Gaya passenger, which had arrived behind an electric from Sealdah. The train now loaded to 10 carriages, it made for an interesting video as the WP shunted under wires that were glistening with the rain and station lights reflecting off the wet platform. As departure time neared the fireman threw in a couple of large rounds into the glowing fire. The driver looked back along the platform and blew the whistle with increasing impatience as starting time came and went and the loading of parcels continued. When they got the green lamp from the guard it was acknowledged by the 2nd fireman sounding the whistle encouraging recalcitrant passengers to board as the train made a slow departure with the engine working hard to lift the load; it was magic to watch!

A WG awaits its next passenger working at Katwa, 22nd December 1993

There was more WP activity to be seen. Steam billowed up in the night sky, engine whistles filled the air and were joined by the ng train; it was time to witness its departure. The crew put on a show for me, the little engine making a faster departure than usual and the whistle getting a real workout as it headed into the darkness.

Back at the main station I watched the pilot and another two WP hauled trains, the night hid defects and they looked good standing together. I watched as the fireman on the Kiul train started building up his fire the driver soon had the whistle demanding clearance from the platform supervisor and the guard, once more green lamps were waved and the engine whistle sounded as the heavens opened and the WP departed into a rainstorm.

The station was footbridge witnessed the beginnings of a new day as it became populated by coolies carrying large sacks of produce between the bg and ng stations; it was time to return to Calcutta.

26th December 1991

The previous night had been a success of sorts, now I varied it by catching the night ng passenger from Burdwan to Katwa, to get me there nice and early. I must have been mad! Disappointingly the ng train was a decrepit railcar, the design process had gone wrong as the units were reminiscent of something from the 1930s, yet they had been built comparatively recently. The railcar pulled 3 coaches, in terrible condition, the departure was in torrential rain that continued throughout the night.

The train was full and had no lights, but soaked passengers waited at most halts, they were met with resistance from those inside who tried to block their entry and bitter arguments would break out, until inevitably they and their enormous loads (bound for the Katwa market) were admitted. The little train like its passengers grumbled its way through the dark hours.

At one little halt the seat next to me became vacant and was grabbed by a passenger who had no idea he was sitting next to a foreigner, when he said something and got a reply in English he jumped with surprise giving others a chance to chuckle. What was this mad foreigner doing?

I wish I could say it was worth it, Katwa was reached at 06.30, there was no sunrise, just a gradual lightning of the sky and an easing of the rain. At the shed the night foreman was about to leave and the day foreman had yet to arrive so I sheltered from the rain under the large water tanks near the station which gave a view of both the broad and narrow gauge lines.

Wet day at Katwa. Even the swine herder has an umbrella. 26th December 1991

I ventured out to photograph a WG over the ashpits; the gang of kids sifting ash for coal bits turned their attention to me in the hope of some easier money. The crew of the WG invited me in the cab and I found they were a working shuttles from Katwa to Azmiganji, taking over trains from Bandel locomotives.

Katwa station scene, young boys have the chai ready for passengers. It was sold in clay cups that would then be smashed to prevent caste contamination by re-use. The sleepers are covered by broken cups. The railway policeman, in army clothes with the rifle over his shoulder has just bought a single cigarette, selling cigarettes in packets was no use to poor people. 

A brief dry spell enabled me to watch a Bagnall 0-6-4T (AK 7) wheeze around the ng yard at walking pace. As the rain returned I retreated under the Tank to watch a Delta 2-6-2T take out the Ahmadpur working. A diesel rail car which had earlier been towed up and down the yard by the pilot in an effort to start it eventually left with 3 carriages in tow for Burdwan.

28th December 1991

I finally cracked it! When I arrived to be greeted by a cold and clear morning, hooray! 

By 07.30 three narrow gauge engines had moved off shed, Delta BK13 (WB 1953) being the highlight. Both the Ahmadpur and Burdwan trains were steam hauled, the latter going out behind BK1 a 1914 product, a third engine AK 7 was on pilot duty. I found the large pool near the station gave good reflection shots, but a wary eye had to be kept on the many small snakes here.

I was no nearer finding the mystery hotel, when I asked locals the response was that there was no hotel. I guessed they meant there was no hotel in their opinion suitable for a foreigner. Heading back to Calcutta for the final time I glimpsed what I took to be an abandoned ng Sentinel built in 1930. They were last used in 1967; Delhi Museum housed one of the other three built for McLeod’s. 

With 3 engines in steam the morning got off to a good start.


Delta BK 13 (WB 1953) proceeds to Katwa station yard to collect its train.

Katwa station pilot AK 7: 


Time to reflect! AK 7 on pilot duty: 

Other Round 2 Indian Tales:

Rob Dickinson