Story of a bridge on the River Tawa

K Raghavendra Rao Mumbai | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on March 09, 2015

A train en route to Jabalpur exits Bagra Tawa tunnel number 1 aftercrossing the Alfred via-duct; (inset) the Mumbai Howrah Mail


Celebrating 145 years of the railway link between Bombay and Calcutta

On March 9, 145 years ago, Viceroy Lord Mayo struck a silver key with a silver plated hammer at Jubbulpore (now Jabalpur) to signal rail connectivity for the first time between Bombay and Calcutta.

The Duke of Edinburgh, who inaugurated the line, preferred to give it an extra royal tap on the occasion. That day the link between the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (GIPR) with the East Indian Railway (EIR) was also established.

The event was recorded in detail by Robert Maitland Brereton, the civil engineer who completed the junction with the East Indian line at Jubbulpore on March 8, 1870, in his book Reminiscences of an Old English Civil Engineer. It took Brereton 19 months to construct the unfinished portion of the line from Bhosawell (now Bhusawal in Maharashtra) to Jubbulpore. This was after he took over the work in July, 1868. He completed the job 18 months ahead of the Railway Board’s expectation.

With the aid of carefully selected staff from GIPR, Brereton overcame language barriers, hot desiccating weather hindering masonry construction in those days, hostile terrain of the Deccan plateau, outbreak of cholera and famine, besides rains hampering construction work for four months making roads of black soil of the Narmada valley impassable.

A bridge over the River Tawa (then called Towa), the largest tributary of the Narmada followed by a tunnel was the toughest to execute as the tunnel about 300 metres curves towards the left. Had these two – bridge followed by the tunnel, not been constructed in record time, connectivity between the metros would have taken longer.

Storywriter JW Best in his short story - The Luck of John Fernandez- aptly describes the terrain. The story is about a cash strapped engine driver in the 1920s at Itarsi who wants to smell good roasted meat in the house again for Easter, besides presenting a gramophone to his wife and how his prayers to St Anthony were answered.

“Some ten miles away from Itarsi, the railway crosses the sandy bed of the Tawa River by a bridge, then dives into a tunnel to emerge into in that little finger of jungle that stretches over the line near Bagra. Here on the Railway, Fernandez found the answer to his prayers,” writes Best.

“Time is a very worrying factor in the engine driver’s life; he has to keep it not lose it. John Fernandez had five comfortable minutes in hand as his train thundered over the Tawa bridge disturbing the blue rock pigeons that circled between its piers. As the engine roared into the tunnel beyond, Fernandez looked for daylight. Emerging, the train took the curve and the cutting and as it did so John saw in the straight ahead of him a confused mass of bushy tailed dogs scrambling over the carcass of a deer.”

The engine had hit the dogs and John made ₹150 from 10 dog skins, the author pens. The Tawa bridge was inaugurated on March 9, by the Duke, a day after the Bombay-Calcutta route. The Imperial Indian Mail was the first train from Bombay to Calcutta and was known for its dining car.

Cut to 2015. The same train is now the Howrah Bombay Mail via Allahabad. It takes more or less the same route deviating from its original route only between Mughalsarai -Asansol and Barddhaman-Howrah. (A shorter route to Calcutta via Nagpur opened in the 1880s after the connection of the Bengal Nagpur Railway with GIPR.)

The Tawa Bridge and the Bagra Tawa tunnel are still on the same eight kilometre stretch of single track between the stations Sontalai and Bagra Tawa even today with the tunnel having a small Bheel Baba shrine within and a dargah on top of the hill.

Published on March 09, 2015
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