Every morning at 7:00 am, a loud train whistle preceded by the clang-clang sound of the stationmaster hitting an iron gong with a mallet woke up the residents of the sleepy little town of Birgunj. Amidst the sound of the guard blowing his whistle and frantically waving the green flag, the train would slowly leave the platform with a loud whoosh sound of released steam on its four-and-a-half hour daily journey to Amlekhgunj, 35 kilometres away.
About 15 minutes after departing from Birgunj, the train entered the forest belt known as Charkoshe Jhari. In summer, the windows of the passenger compartment had to be closed. The forest on both sides of the train was so thick that overhanging branches of the trees would enter the compartment and could easily hurt people sitting near the window. It could also bring in uninvited guests like snakes coiled in the branch inside the compartment. In winter, the foliage was lighter.
Stations like Parwanipur, Jeetpur and Adabar were smacked inside the jungle. They were mostly watering posts where the engine would collect water for steam. Limited staff at these stations locked themselves in after the train left for Birgunj in the late afternoon. The platform then became the prowling ground for wildlife, who came to drink water from the open cemented tank built to store water for the engine.
After the arrival of the train at Amlekhgunj, for the passengers bound for Kathmandu, it was a bumpy truck ride to Bhimphedi through the legendary Chure tunnel for night halt. The next day would be an arduous hike via Chisapani Gadi, Markhu, Chitlang and the steep and high Chandragiri pass to Kathmandu.
For people travelling the other way from Kathmandu the train, leave Amlekhgunj in time to arrive in Birgunj about 4.00/04.30 PM. The return leg was quicker as the trip was mostly downhill from Chure hills. Sometimes the train had to make unscheduled stops midway to allow a herd of deer to cross or because two groups of Langur monkeys fighting it out smacked on the railway track. The terai was unbelievably wild those days.
Maharaja Chandra Sumshere envisaged the idea of the railway in 1924. He delegated Martin & Co of British India to survey for a Railway from Indian Raxaul to Amlekhgunj with a total distance of 39 km. Martin & Co, headquartered in Calcutta, were the narrow gauge expert, and operated seven narrow gauge railways under the name Martin Light Railway (MLR) in West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh during the period of British India.
There might have been two reasons why Chandra decided to end the railway at Amlekhgunj. The first reason may have been that the Chure gradient reached a steeper height after Amlekhgunj making it difficult and expensive for the train to operate. The second reason may have been more emotional. Bicchakhori, the former name of Amlekhgunj , mentioned as Bichko by the British in books on Nepal, was selected as the settlement ground for freed slaves in 1925 AD and renamed Amlekhgunj .
It is a different story that the liberated slaves were unwilling to be resettled in this place due to malaria and hardship and preferred the cooler climes of the hills instead. But credit must be given to the farsightedness of the Rana administration that they had thought about 'what's next' for the liberated slaves so their descendants could live the future with dignity. Chandra Sumshere did not call it 'the end' after liberating the slaves. He also thought about their future.
Work on the Railway line began in March 1926 and ended in a record time on 16 February 1927. The Nepal Government Railway shortened to NGR was born. The initial fleet was 7 engines, 12 passenger carriages and 82 waggons.
The large number of waggons would mean that Chandra's idea was to give more importance to cargo to keep Kathmandu well stocked and also export timber and edible products to British India.
Out of seven steam locomotives, two were Garratt engines constructed by Beyer Peacock & Co, UK . The Garratt locomotive is the most powerful steam engine known for its speed and pulling power. The Garratts were redesigned to operate on a 2-feet 6-inch wide rail-line by the UK company for Nepal only. Nepal was the only country in the world where these specially built engines operated.
The operating base was Birgunj with a workshop for maintenance of the engines plus the operational headquarters. Martin & Co managed the Railway for some years and then handed over the management to the Go vernment of Nepal in 1932. As Nepal they lacked trained workers, an advertisement was placed in The Statesman, Calcutta requesting applications for management posts. That is how my grandfather landed up Nepal as the Chief Accountant of the railway interviewed and selected by General Hiranya SJB Rana, who was then the Hajuria General of Prime Minister Bhim Sumshere and probably was also delegated to look after the railway.
The train, popularly known as Rail Gadi and the first mass transport system in Nepal, never ceased to be a fantasy for the general population. The train featured in many songs including 'Sawari mero railaimaa' by the then famous singer Melwa Devi and other folk songs by Gaines. 'May you ride the train in your lifetime' was a popular blessing given by the elders in the villages of that time.
Birgunj Railway Colony
Officials were offered free housing and the houses were grouped right behind the station. Work ethics was different from now. Station staff appeared only at the time of departure and arrival of the train.
Ganesh Chhetri, whose job was to change tracks, was on duty for a few minutes a day in the morning and evening attired in his office, issued khaki shorts and shirt. The track-changing lever was located right in front of his house. Thereafter he went home if he had no other odd jobs at the office. No electricity, dusty roads, thick foliage and snakes made Birgunj a wild and adventurous place to live.
The Flight-Train Nexus
After 1950 with the end of the Rana regime, Kathmandu started being serviced by a daily airlines flight from Patna. The flight was extended to Simra on certain days a week by Indian Airlines. The airport had a grassy patch and two thatched huts served as the terminal building. The takeoff and landing was visual as there was no tower or radio link in Simra in those days.
The 15-minute flight shortened the arduous hike to Bhimphedi for those who could afford it but the train still ruled Supreme.
On flight days, passengers, airline staffs, loaders, refueling staffs plus drums of fuel boarded the 7-am train from Birgunj to Simra, the station just ahead of Amlekhgunj. The flight arrived about 10:30am and after the flight took off the passengers from Kathmandu waited for the return train to Birgunj. Most of them carried their own lunch from Kathmandu as there were no eating places. They all returned together on the same train.
Sometimes the train was late and the DC3 would be waiting at Simra. Staff would arrive, loaders would unload loaded baggage and refuel, and after a hectic check-in, the flight would be off to Kathmandu.
Thrill of Travelling
Sometimes the flight was late and everyone in Simra missed the afternoon return train. The airlines then had to hire the trolley (which operated on train tracks, pushed by 2 men) from the Railway. Staff and passengers got on those trolleys and travelled through Charkoshe Jhari. A full-moon night would be advantageous as one could see ahead. On a dark night, the Railway issued storm lanterns and personal flash lights were the only sources of lighting. People shouted at the top of their voices to scare the wildlife away. One could imagine the thrill of travelling through a dense jungle on railway trolleys in the dark of night. The group usually arrived in Birgunj very late at night.
After 1956 with the completion of Tribhuvan Raj path, the link to Kathmandu became easier. People could drive direct to Amlekhgunj from Kathmandu and catch the train the same day. I last travelled on the train in 1958 when my mother, my aunt and I bid final adieu to Birgunj.
I was to be enrolled in school in Kathmandu and my aunt to complete her paperwork to study nursing in Delhi. My uncle had already settled in Kathmandu with the newly formed RNAC. We travelled to Amlekhgunj by train, from where a pickup van drove us to Kathmandu in just under 4 hours, along the newly built highway. Things were changing very fast in Nepal.
By 1965, the highway linking Bhainse with Birgunj via Hetauda, bypassing the Chure tunnel, had completely come into operation and the final curtain was drawn on the NGR forever. The engines and bogeys were transferred to Janakpur Jaynagar Railway and they were driven to Jaynagar via India.
With the closure of the NGR, its 38-year dominance in the transport scene Nepal came to an end. With it also ended a unique travel experience that could never be repeated in anyone's lifetime. For the songwriter, the pretty girl would stop waving her handkerchief to her departing lover travelling in the train and Melwa Devi's "Sawari mero railaimaa" would become history.
(Banerjee, a travel trade entrepreneur, is a witness to the transition in the transportation system in Nepal