Freight legacy of Bengal Nagpur Railway

On May 17, over 100 railway officers, some retired, mostly serving, assembled at the magnificent building of South Eastern Railway on the bank of the Hooghly river in Kolkata. The officers had several things in common: they were all from IRTS (Indian Railway Traffic Service) stream, had served the undivided South Eastern Railway (SER) and some even its predecessor Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) and all of them are emotionally attached to the glorious past of BNR/SER. The oldest among those present was nonagenarian Peter Impett, a 1948 batch officer.

There was a prelude to it. While through the freight information papers on January 21, G.K. Mohanty, Chief Operations Manager (COM) of SER, was pleasantly surprised to note that the previous day, the three zonal railways — SER, East Coast Railway (ECoR) and South East Central Railway (SECR) — each had loaded more than 6,000 eight-wheeler wagons. In other words, these three zonal railways together, all parts of undivided SER, had handled more than 18,000 (8W) wagons, which, he felt, called for celebration. Mohanty called his counterparts, B.K. Joshi in SECR and G.D. Brahma in ECoR and they congratulated each other. All three had served undivided SER.

Blast from the past

From April 1, 2003, two new zonal railways, ECoR with headquarters in Bhubaneswar and SECR ( Bilaspur), came into being. ECoR and SECR were carved out of the areas served by SER, till the previous day. As on March 31, 2003, undivided SER handled a revenue earning freight of 201.6 million tons. After 10 years, SER, ECoR and SECR together handled a little more than 409 mt, comprising 133.41 mt by ECoR, 124.61 mt by SER and 151.57 mt by SECR.

In 1989-90, SER had crossed 100 mt of freight traffic and it took another 13 years to double the figure to reach the level of 201.6 mt in 2002-03. However, the throughput of 409 mt was achieved by SER, ECoR and SECR together in 10 years. The question being asked is: could SER, if it had remained undivided, double the freight throughput in 10 years? Most certainly, was the view of many present at May 17 event. In fact, some felt, SER perhaps could have achieved even more. The single most significant feature of undivided SER’s freight movement was that over 80 per cent of its traffic originated and terminated within its own system.

To many, SER is still known as BNR which was registered as a company in 1887 with the office in London. T.R. Wynne was the Agent and Chief Engineer in India and Robert Miller the Chairman. By the time, Wynne joined the Railway Board as its Chairman in 1905, BNR was already on a firm footing. Wynne became the Director of Indian Railway Companies in 1908, a position he held till 1914. He came back to BNR in 1914 as its Managing Director and continued till 1939. BNR, taken over by the Government in 1944, became SER in 1955. From 1887 to March 31, 2003, BNR, and its successor SER, strode like a colossus in the country’s rail transportation scene. It was the largest freight loading zonal railway, covering seven States and handling the largest volumes of both coal and iron ore. Till 1976-77, the shares of coal and iron ore in SER’s total traffic volume were more or less the same. In fact, the share of coal was slightly less than that of iron ore. The coal share started rising from 1977-78 onward when thrust was laid on open cast mines as a means to boost coal production. After trifurcation, SER became an iron ore centric zonal railway as the major coal loading areas, which were earlier served by it, came under ECoR and SECR.

To its credit

Both BNR and, subsequently, SER had other attributes not known to many. Visakhapatnam port was constructed by BNR between 1927 and 1933 and operated by it till 1935 and again by BNR/SER for 10 years from 1946 to 1956. The Raipur-Vijayanagram line was opened in December 1931 after the construction of the Titlagarh-Theruvelli section, which complemented the movement of port traffic.

BNR/SER also had the distinction of running two top-class hotels, one at Puri and the other at Ranchi, which no other zonal railway can claim to have. Also, a letter from the agent of BNR to Tata Sons, as early as 1916, only confirms that Tisco’s plant at Jamshedpur (then Kalimati) virtually survived on regular transportation of iron ore, coal and other materials to the plant by BNR.

Yet, BNR lost its identity immediately after Independence, when the country’s railway system was reorganised. N. Gopal Swami Iyengar, the then Minister of Railways, brought BNR under Eastern Railway, which was formed in April 1952. However, it was soon felt that BNR must have a separate identity as before. Thus, SER was born in August 1955.

SER has many firsts to its credit and these include introduction of special stock circuit and internal circuit, CC+2,long haul rakes, engine on load, CC rakes and new design wagons, among others.

Steam rides back at rail museum

From Sunday, visitors to the National Rail Museum can take a historical train ride. A restored relic of the country’s first monorail—Patiala State Monorail Tramway (PTST) – is ready to spew steam and smoke again. Although the original tramway ran two routes in the princely state of Patiala between 1907 and 1927, at the museum the tiny engine will do only a 10-minute loop run.

Railway historians say the Patiala monorail was conceived in the early 1900s and was built in the reign of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, under the supervision of the chief state engineer Colonel Bowles.

“As a young engineer in 1900, Bowles was laying the site of the Bengal-Nagpur Railway works at Kharagpur in Bengal. He faced trouble with the narrow gauge contractor tracks and tried, successfully , the Ewing monorail system. In this arrangement, about 95% of the weight of a vehicle is taken on the single rail and the rest on an additional wheel on an outrigger. In later years, Bowles used the same technology for a 15-mile monorail line from Sirhind to Morinda,” a historian told TOI.

One of the objectives of the tramway was to put to work more than 500 government-owned mules. But in 1909, four locomotives were built and delivered by Orenstein & Koppel of Germany (O&K) at a cost of $500 to $600 (about Rs 7,000 in those days) each.

A locomotive and a saloon of the erstwhile PSMT have been restored for the museum after an effort of several months.

“With help from the (railways’ ) Amritsar workshop, Rewari Steam Shed staff and NRM staff the loco has been brought back into operational condition,” said NRM director Uday Singh Mina.

A ride will cost Rs 200 for adults and Rs 100 for children . The number of runs in a day will be governed by the number of visitors. “It takes up to three hours just to light up the steam engine, but after that the train will run without problems as one keeps charging it with coal,” added Mina.

Of the three other locomotives built by the German company, one is exhibited at a workshop in Amritsar and the other two have been lost. NRM managed to acquire locomotive number 4 in the 1970s and it has been exhibited since then.

“To get the engine operational again, the boiler had to be dismantled and cleaned. The smoke tubes were in bad shape and had to be replaced, where required. The pipline is regularly inspected for choking and breakages,” added an official. The saloon has been restored by a Chandigarh-based heritage conservation agency.

The PTST and the audioguide facility for visitors were inaugurated by Railway Board chairman Vinay Mittal at the 37th Museum Foundation Day this week. The audio guide system will relate the historical significance of exhibits like a story, in Hindi and English. It will also ease the crowding near specific exhibits. The museum gets up to 5,500 visitors in a day, with the average being 1,700-1 ,800, said officials.