The Darjeeling Mail of 1944

This is from a much-copied Bradshaw from June 1944. However, by then the Eastern Bengal Railway and Assam Bengal Railway had been merged in a short-lived marriage resulting in the Bengal & Assam Railway in order to facilitate the war effort against Japan. The US armed forces had then taken over most of the train traffic going into Assam. For once, the British took a back seat in India.

It would be instructive to compare these timings with those of the pre-war period (say 1939) as wartime shortages and military traffic may have reduced speeds considerably. Wartime exigencies caused a number of branch lines in different parts of India to close by 1940, some never to reopen.

The timings of the up and down Mail:

Darj Mail 001

Note that the full details of stations and trains between Sealdah and Ranaghat are not given above. They are given below:

Ranaghat1 001
Ranaghat2 001

Here is a departure board from Sealdah from around the same time. The Darjeeling Mail’s departure time is not clear, but probably close to the 15.45 given in the timetable.

Coming back to the main timetable above, the future border stations of Gede/Darsana and Chilhati/Haldibari can be seen. Not exactly, as Gede station was built after Partition. The last station on the Indian side in this timetable would be Banpur. On the Pakistani side, the existing Darsana station was felt to be too close to the enemy border so a new Darsana station was built a little further east, which lay on the new main line from Khulna to the north. Similarly New Gitaldaha was built somewhat further from the earlier Gitaldaha which was close to the border.

The old network of the EBR was so Calcutta-centric that important towns in the western half of East Pakistan had never been connected before. Even for that a new line had to be constructed between Jessore and new Darsana, somewhat like the far more complicated Assam Rail Link which India built in 1948-50.

The Hardinge Bridge is near Paksey station.

Also note the station of Hili which lies exactly on the border. The Radcliffe Commission stated that in that area the border was defined as the railway line is. Even till the 2000s  it was considered the easiest place to come and go between India and Bangladesh.

At the northern end, the terminus of Siliguri later became the unimportant station of Siliguri Town, between the newly built major stations of Siliguri Jn to its north and later New Jalpaiguri to the south. The NG line was later extended south to New Jalpaiguri to connect with the broad gauge.

You can also see the BG Assam Mail up to Parbatipur. The MG Assam Mail ran from there via Lalmonirhat, Gitaldaha and Golakganj to the Brahmaputra ferry which ran between Aminigaon and Pandu, with a shuttle connection to Gauhati. Wagons were connected to goods trains going further east. Much of the freight ended up on the Ledo Road to China and the numerous air bases from where US transport aircraft flew to China. The toll of men and machines on these flights over the Himalayas were huge, and many crashed aircraft have not been found even 70 years later. Others continue to be discovered by dedicated researchers: see http://www.miarecoveries.org/

There was the Surma Mail (from the first page) which had a rather tortuous route-Sealdah to Ishurdi and Sirajganj Ghat, connecting steamer to Jagannathganj Ghat, connecting MG train to Mymensingh, Akhaura and Chittagong.

The Calcutta/Ranaghat pages show trains which went to Goalundo Ghat with ferry connections to Narayanganj (for Dacca) and Chandpur (for Silchar). At some time there was also a connection from Chandpur to Chittagong.

After partition:

This train continued to run from Sealdah to Siliguri for some time after partition. By 1950, the Indian government decided to stop Pakistani trains from entering North Bengal. The lines north of the border (which lay between Chilhati and Haldibari) were converted to MG.

However, a form of the Mail continued to run until all cross-border services were closed during the 1965 war. In the timetables of the early 1960s we see the East Bengal Express which ran from Sealdah to Parbatipur via the Gede-Darsana border. This included a slip coach between Sealdah and Sirajganj with transfer at Ishurdi.

There was also an East Bengal Mail which followed a similar route to Goalundo Ghat, with a ferry connection to Dacca. And the old Barisal Express continued to run via Petrapol-Benapole to Khulna.

No scheduled passenger service ran between India and Bangladesh until 2008, when the Maitree Express started running from Kolkata terminus (not Sealdah) to Dhaka Cantt via Gede-Darsana and the Bangabandhu Bridge.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in 1943

We have all heard of the train to Darjeeling, but there was more to it than the single line from Siliguri to Darjeeling. This should be apparent from these timetable extracts from 1943. These are not from the Bradshaw which had rather poor print quality, but from another source (more about that later).

DHR TT 001

First, this is an extract from the Bengal & Assam Railway. See its logo showing that it was founded in 1942. This was an emergency measure following the outbreak of World War 2 in Asia. The old stalwarts Eastern Bengal Railway (HQ in Calcutta, main station Sealdah) and the Assam Bengal Railway (HQ in Chittagong) were merged to form the B & A Railway to make it easier to manage rail transport east of Calcutta. Essentially the running of the railways was taken over by the US armed forces.

Of course, the B & AR was broken up after partition and its tracks are now spread over the present Sealdah division of ER, the NFR, and Bangladesh Railways.

Now we look at the timetables of the DHR. These lines were not part of the B&AR, but it was the practice to include adjoining smaller railway systems in the timetables of larger systems.

DHR TT 002

There are several points here that many railfans may be unfamiliar with. To begin with, this system was the 2-foot narrow gauge unlike most other narrow gauge lines in India which were 2 ft 6 in. Only a handful of 2-foot gauge lines in India survive today, including the mountain railways to Darjeeling and Matheran. The other lines in the plains have been closed by 2022.

The Siliguri station here was the BG terminus where long-distance trains such as the Darjeeling Mail used. It was located at the station now known as Siliguri Town. Note the connection between the Mail arriving at 06.44 and the NG train (also called the Mail) at 06.59, and in the reverse direction when the passengers presumably had their dinner at Siliguri.

The present Siliguri Jn was opened as part of the Assam Rail Link in the late 1940s. It is located near the former wayside station of Siliguri Road seen above. But it is not at the same location.

When New Jalpaiguri (NJP) station was opened in the early 1960s, the NG line was extended south from Siliguri Jn to there passing through Siliguri Town, which had gone from being a major terminus to an unimportant wayside station.

Panchanai Jn was the point where the DHR branch to Kishanganj turned towards the left. There is no sign of it now. There have been various other changes pertaining to loops and reverses. One result of this is that Chunabhati station is no longer on the route. This timetable does not show the numerous halt stations which have mostly vanished without a trace, though Batasia is now a stop for the joyride trains between Darjeeling and Ghum.

Now for the rest of the DHR:

DHR TT 003

The Siliguri-Kishanganj Extension and the Teesta Valley Extension were built later (dates given below). The Kishanganj line provided a connection to MG trains from Barsoi and Katihar side. Being in the plains, it did not need the special B class engines but used more conventional ones. Apart from the usual 4-6-2s, there was also a Garratt.

This line became the starting point of the Assam Rail Link, enabling MG trains from the Katihar side to enter northern Bengal. Note that many of the stations (including Naksalbari and Baghdogra) became part of the MG line though there were some changes in alignment. For instance, the new MG line went directly from Matigara to the new Siliguri Jn without crossing Panchanai (where the station was demolished).

The Teesta Valley Extension had an unfortunate end. Initially the Assam Rail Link included a new mixed gauge line from the new Siliguri Jn to Sevoke. The existing NG line between Siliguri Jn and Sevoke was abandoned.

Here the TV line turned north while the new MG line crossed the Teesta just east of the station and continued eastward to join the existing MG system at a place which became known as New Mal Jn, and finally to Fakiragram and beyond.

The terminus at Gielle Khola seems to have been known as Kalimpong Road in the earlier days. A ropeway connected Riyang to Kalimpong, and is shown in railway maps of that time.

But this line did not last long after Independence. Severe flooding damage occurred in early 1950 which resulted in the line being closed permanently. Though the tracks ran close to the highway towards Kalimpong and Gangtok, you are not likely to see any trace of the line now unless you take the help of local experts. And the NG line from Siliguri to Sevoke was pulled up as it no longer had any purpose, leaving a pure MG line behind. In the  2000s the entire MG route in this area was converted to BG.

Some historical notes here:

DHR History 001

Note the stamp issued in 1982.

The above information is from a nice little booklet called “A guide to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway” by Richard Wallace, first edition in 2000. There is a more detailed second edition published in 2009.

There is another useful book by R.R. Bhandari which may be available at the bookstall at the National Rail Museum at Delhi.

Numerous other books (mainly of British origin) are also there. Some may be available from bookshops in Kolkata and the Darjeeling area.

Other useful links include:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darjeeling_Himalayan_Railway

and

https://abn397.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/railway-history-construction-of-the-assam-rail-link/

Railway History: Construction of the Assam Rail Link

One of the important chapters of post-Independence Indian Railways was the somewhat complicated task of building a new rail connection with Assam (and the rest of North-Eastern India) which had been broken when East Pakistan was formed. Here is the story pieced together and originally created as a ppt presentation in early 2007 at a convention of the IRFCA (Indian Railways Fan Club Association).

The stress is on what happened in 1947-50. Some mention has been made of subsequent developments but this is not to be regarded as a full account of railway construction in the Northeast after independence.