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Tunnel Number 33

Tunnel No. 33 is 1.14 km long is the longest straight tunnel in the railways.

Tunnel No. 33 is 1.14 km long is the longest straight tunnel in the railways.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

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An engineer, a gunshot, and a tunnel that he could not complete add up to a great piece of railway history

It is imperturbably quiet. The few locomotives in the yard are motionless. Gangmen go about their work. From the platform’s far edge, one can see the low hills of the Shivalik range, silhouetted against a cloudless sky. There is a hint of moving mist over their wooded tops.

The breaks release and the wheels clang as Train No. 52453 gets in motion. The first, tentative movement is through sal and silk-cotton clusters. Blades of wild grass on both sides of the tracks are speckled with dew that catch the first shafts of light. We are mostly in a silent glide before the engine imparts more combustion to climb higher.

There is the sudden scent of chir pines in the early autumnal air. The bird calls, still audible, are intermittently muffled by the mournful, contrapuntal horn of the old engine. As the foothills turn steeper, the rickety, rackety train puffs and huffs up the sharper gradients over masonry bridges and through endless tunnels amidst dense pines. The grandness of the engineering conception is unmissable.

Trundling through valleys

It’s a two-hour, 40 km journey to the quaint Barog station in Solan district in Himachal Pradesh. The Kalka-Simla Railway is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Trains operate over 880 bridges, over 919 turns and through 102 tunnels. That is the techno-engineering aspect. The slow trundle through the hills and valleys covered with pines, deodars, oaks, willows and blooming rhododendrons is the aesthete’s reward.

When a passing cloud lifts on the back of a strong wind, faraway mountains with snow peaks appear momentarily.

Tunnel Number 33
 

Barog comes after 32 tunnels. The over-hanging pine canopy parts ever so slightly to the sides to reveal the entrance to Tunnel No. 33. This is the longest straight tunnel in the railways and is 1.14 km long. Inside it, the engine’s amiable horn becomes a darkening roar before the train gently rolls into the station yard with two apologetic, staccato horns and pulls along the platform.

Barog station is what an Indian railway station is not. It is unreal, clean, uncrowded, totally jostle-free. The woodwork is brilliant blue with a forest backdrop.

Small tracks intertwine in smooth curvature before disappearing in straight lines beyond the signalman’s cabin in a single track.

Barog town derives its name from the railway station. It is a small hill station. At about 4,500 ft in the Himalayan foothills, it is mildly cold. In the British era, hill trains would stop here for an hour, and sahibs and memsahibs would have a leisurely and elaborate meal. The dining hall with the viewing gallery is still intact. The dusty plains of the Punjab would become peremptorily forgotten strands of memory and the ascent of the hills, with their coniferous crowns, truly began here.

Colonel Barog, a railway engineer, was assigned the work of Tunnel No. 33. The Barog tunnel is precisely 1,143.61 mt long. He made his calculations and as per the usual practice ordered the crew to drill from both sides of the mountain. He had planned that after a while both sets of drillers would meet at the centre and complete the tunnel.

The crew kept drilling but could not come to the meeting point. In fact, their trajectories seemed to have diverged. Morale dipped and everyone grew frustrated.

Col. Barog was a worried man. He soon realised that his calculations had gone awry. The tunnel would not be completed and the project was a failure.

The British government fixed responsibility on Col. Barog and he was fined ₹1 for causing a loss to the exchequer and wasting government resources.

Col. Barog felt humiliated by the censure and became depressed. His professional reputation had been dented.

Dead end

One day he went for a walk near the unfinished tunnel, accompanied only by his dog. Weighed down by despair, he decided to end his life. In that twilight moment, he removed his revolver from the holster and shot himself. Local people say that his terrified dog, who found the master lying in blood, ran to the village. But when people reached the tunnel mouth, Col. Barog was already dead.

The work of the tunnel was reassigned to Chief Engineer H.S. Harrington, who completed the tunnel in 1903. But it is said that he too could not properly align the two segments. He is said to have sought the advice of a spiritual person from Chail, a diviner who indicated the correct course to drill. His name was Baba Bhalku.

The Shimla Railway Museum records, in fact, mention Baba Bhalku’s contribution.

Despite his calculation error, the government and the railways honoured Col. Barog and named the tiny hill village after him.

And where the old village was, is the present Barog railway station. The hillsides covered with pines and deodars lend it a lyrical quality.

Tunnel No. 33, the longest straight tunnel in the railways, is known as the Barog tunnel. It requires constant maintenance like any installation. To aid the maintenance staff, there are 55 lights inside. But often even this is insufficient. So for more light, the staff uses a reflecting mirror to direct sunlight into the tunnel, an old practice that is still continued.

Since light travels straight and the Barog tunnel is straight, the beam reaches up to 800 metres. According to the Station Master, D.D. Upadhyaya, reflectors can be used at both ends if needed.

Villagers believe the good colonel still haunts the tunnel, and that one can hear an Englishman whispering inside its dark confines.

The train from Solan has arrived. It halts for eight minutes. Evening has a transformative effect on Barog. A crisp breeze blows through the trees. The light is decidedly softer. The sky changes colour. You need a cardigan to ward off the chill. I hop aboard as the train moves. Inside Tunnel No. 33, there are no human or other voices. Only a mechanical reverberation.

The writer spends time pretending to read and write. His other interests are photography and Western classical music.

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2018 9:32:50 AM | http://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/tunnel-number-33/article19734497.ece