It’s about 6 am in mid-February at Gwalior railway station. And a train, pulled by a diesel engine, is ready to lurch forward on a 2-foot-wide track for a journey through the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to the town of Sheopur. Hundreds of passengers cram into the six carriages. They have somewhere to go, but I’m here for a more languid pursuit: experiencing a dramatic journey that soon may cease to exist.
The Gwalior-Sheopur Narrow Gauge Express covers India’s longest narrow gauge railway line of 123 miles — at an otherworldly speed of just under 10 miles per hour. Yet it’s this slow pace that allows for a rare voyage in which passengers get a glimpse of daily life in small-town India — sometimes even within touching distance of houses — from a perspective that a car or a faster train won’t provide. And it’s likely that it will soon disappear as the nation prepares to replace the track with a broad gauge line.
The rail line is a legacy that helped shape this part of the country. Built in 1885 by the Scindia dynasty, one of India’s most famous royal families (whose future is now uncertain), the future of the narrow gauge line is also at risk. The rail’s primary purpose was to carry fodder for Maharaja Scindia’s horses, explains Anil Sharma, a former station director of the Gwalior Light Railway and Scindia State Railway. After independence, however, the Indian government assumed operations and made it a regular passenger line. Then and now, railways are typically the country’s most reliable mode of transport — there were 8 billion rail trips made in 2017-2018.
It’s a much-needed convenience for people like Hanuman Das, a priest who sports a long white dhoti and turban and a blanket draped around his shoulders. From the station to one of his disciple’s home in Sabalgarh, his walk is “less than 70 meters [230 feet].” And it’s not only a cost-effective option for 19-year-old Shelu Shrivas, who is traveling home to the Sabalgarh region from Gwalior –- the train fare is 25 rupees (42 cents), and the bus is more than double, at 60 rupees ($1) — but a reliable one. The train “will keep moving, and it doesn’t wait for the passengers like the buses do,” Shrivas says. When the train service was temporarily halted in April because of a crack on a bridge on the route, it sparked a political tussle amid India’s ongoing elections, with the opposition Congress candidate for the region accusing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of dithering on finding a fix.
You’ll see friends playing cards by the track, smoke from chullahs floating above houses and buffaloes bathing in ponds.
For those taking the train as an experience, the journey pays off in perspective. The 11-hour route takes passengers through green agricultural fields and small towns, where residents welcome the train’s daily arrival with waves and smiles. You’ll see friends playing cards by the track, smoke from chullahs (clay stoves) floating above houses and buffaloes bathing in ponds. Near one railway station, bright white bougainvillea blossoms hang so close you can reach out and pluck them.
As the train fills up and personal space disappears, new passengers clamber onto the carriage’s flat roof. Note: There are no railings. There are also no toilets.
When nature calls, you can use the facilities at rail stations — you’ll also find vendors at these stops selling crafts and snacks. At Ambikeshwar and Sumawali stations, delicious samosas, fried green chiles and salted groundnuts with red chili flakes can be passed through carriage windows and to hungry rooftop passengers.
A feast for the eyes and belly, this narrow gauge train is a chance to see a side of Madhya Pradesh that exists beyond its bustling cities, and alongside those on their daily commutes. But with the train’s future up in the air, these commuters are concerned. Passengers tell me they want to move with the times, and that means a faster train — with toilets. But that also might mean ticket price increases. “The fare should be the same [on the faster train],” says Ramdayal Jatav, a concerned milk seller.
Indeed, a faster train will improve transport times, and will likely spur economic development in this region. But it may take a century for the new line to conjure the memories the narrow gauge track has birthed. That alone makes the journey to Sheopur worthwhile. Just go while you can.
This spring, OZY will be reporting untold stories from every Indian state and union territory, introducing you to new people, trends and places. Join us for the ride.