A Break on the Line

by Rudyard Kipling

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 6 August 1887

Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, p.139

Gujrat, where the break occurred, is about fifty miles north of Lahore, on the North Western Railway running to Rawalpindi.

The ‘ticket collector’s poetry’ referred to in the third paragraph was the work of a native on the East Indian Railway noticed by Kipling in the CMG on 14 June 1887. The ticket collector had devised a language in which English words were arbitrarily abbreviated, with strange results, as in these sample lines from the poet’s verses on the Jubilee:
‘A grand J’lee conv’ntion to c’rem’nize that grand ’cess’n day’; and

‘Ye No’le Go’rnors and Go’rnor Gen’rals of Ind vast.’
See also Among the Railway Folk (November 1887), and "The Bold 'Prentice" (1895). [T.P.]

(From our own Correspondent)
Lahore, August 3rd

As a sensation, the first telegram that found its way into Lahore on Tuesday was a success. It said: — ‘Line washed as far as the eye can reach’, and bore every evidence of having been compiled by some agitated Aryan. Later on in the day, came the news that there were ‘gaps at mile 76—77 between Gujrat and Lala Musa’, on the way to Pindi that is to say. The nature and extent of the gaps was not specified, but the telegram alluded to arrangements for transhipping passengers and bringing up material-trains.

Now a break in a railway system produces much the same effect as a break in a worm or a lizard. The two sundered sections grow exceedingly lively. On Tuesday fore-and-afternoon, the Gap set up a local irritation on its own account, and sent down to Lahore sheaves of little hieroglyphical telegrams which read remarkably like your ticket collector’s poetry. Lahore, in return, sent up men — Heads of Departments and the like — to soothe the Gap and put things straight. In the mixed train which left Lahore at 10.50 P.M., on Tuesday night for Pindi, if possible, was one of these Heads, and, by singular favour, a Perfectly Disinterested Observer, whose only use in life for the time being, was to look at the Gap. The pleasure, the keen artistic delight, with which one sets out to study an accident that does not block the road to Simla, but merely prevents two or three families from getting up to an inferior place called Murree, must be felt to be understood. The observer, more especially if he be sumptuously entertained in the Inspection Carriage of a Departmental Head, comforted with a big arm-chair and a broad and stately bunk, feels so good, so impartial, so calm — so secretariatish and administrative, in fact. Then, and only then, can he watch ‘another man’s break’ with satisfaction.

After the train had cleared the Shadera Bridge, the Ravee growling angrily among the piers in the watery moonlight, it seemed suddenly and without warning to shoot forth into the deep still sea. Never was transformation more complete. Lahore up till Sunday at least, had been suffering sadly from want of rain: but here was the explanation. All the heavy clouds that for weeks past had come up from the South, circled over our heads and departed, must have spent themselves from Muridki onwards, for the country-side was swamped. The first telegram from the Gap had been perfectly correct, for the railway was ‘washed as far as the eye could reach’. The leaden levels of water were broken only by the line of embankment and, in the uncertain distance, by island-like clumps of trees.

Here the warm rain began to fall and the rest of the journey till dawn was as a journey in a dream. On both sides lay nothing but water — flush it seemed with the culverts and the top of the wire-fencing; when the train stopped, was heard nothing but the noise of a hundred waters — the murmur of the rain on the carriage-roof — the lap, lap, lap of water by the side of the line, the gurgle of tiny streams running down to the borrow-pits — and the sullen splashing from the eaves of the carriage. At the stations, very wet gentlemen in white uniforms, with lanterns, talked about the Gap. There was a certain ‘Bill’ supposed, like ‘Bill the Lizard’ in Alice in Wonderland, to have done or left undone everything that was possible. The wet gentlemen would talk of and at him, and the luckless Bill, very wet, would strive huskily to defend himself. His voice seemed to come from under the carriages for the most part.

Then the train would stand out to sea, and in a moment, all trace of dry earth would vanish. It was a nightmare of a journey, for the Disinterested Observer’s mind was vexed by the notion that the train might find out yet another Gap through the simple process of falling into it. There seemed to be water enough on the premises generally to drown the whole North-Western Railway. But the Departmental Head was asleep, and there was comfort in the knowledge that, if any thing happened, he would be washed away with the rest. The Chenab was ‘up’ — so much so, that it seemed nearly level with the girders of the Alexandra Bridge, and the wash of the waves — real waves — among the piers was unpleasant to listen to. Especially when the Observer remembered that on the previous night the Chenab had beaten and chopped like the Channel — the Channel full of yellow mud.

Lastly came Gujrat and the drenched and draggled dawn, showing the indigo-blue Jummoo hills on the East, with black cloud above them and stretches of water almost up to their feet. The Gap was, as nearly as possible, midway between Gujrat and Lala Musa, and at Gujrat the train stayed pending developments. This was at 6 A.M. During the night, many passengers from Sialkot, bound for Murree, had entered the train at Wazirabad. They appeared depressed and inclined to grumble. To be sure they had not spent the night in an Inspection Carriage with ‘every thing handsome about them’ and their leaves might have been limited, but they were surely needlessly concerned. They did not turn to admire the hundred tints of grey — from almost black to pearly blue — that made up the landscape; nor did they trouble the engine-driver with questions as to how Gaps were found out; whether by stumbling headlight first on to the cow-catcher or otherwise. On the contrary, they wanted to know: — ‘When are we going forward?’ Decidedly, they were a narrow-minded, selfish people on whom it was so easy to look down.

Another train, which had preceded the ‘10—50 mixed’ had been stopped, and all the native inhabitants put into the latter. They bought sweetmeats — terrible sugar flap-jacks — and talked of their family affairs. The line they explained had been smashed by reason of too much water, but a “raport” had been made, and a bundobust (system) was even now in course of construction. After a time, a long time, appeared an engine manned by an Assistant Engineer — white, wet, and muddy. He had come from the Gap and, by the earth-works with which he was adorned was it possible to judge of the state of the Gap. This engine brought the news that two Heads of Departments with coolies and a material-train had come down overnight and were ‘packing the bad bits as fast as they could’. In the meantime, the Lahore train was to advance as near as might be to the Pindi train from Lala Musa, and the passengers would then be transhipped. The next train would be got over the Gap which had showed itself more important than had been at first estimated.

Then everybody in authority gave orders at once to the engine-driver of the Lahore train. He drank tea stolidly till the tyranny was overpast, took out his engine and executed manoeuvres in and about a siding — apparently to show that his charge had not suffered from the damp journey. The procession formed itself, and the train was taken out gingerly to the Gap — six or seven miles away. Men said that the Bhimbar river, which comes from the Jummoo hills and runs more or less parallel with the track, was the real cause of the Gap. Whatever it was, the rush of the water when the flood was at its fiercest must have been a grand sight.

The posts of the wire-fencing were wreathed with the raffle brought down by the flood, till they looked like so many haycocks; weeds were piled on the sleepers, on the piers of the culverts, through which rushed an angry yellow flood, and the pure green tussocks of jungle-grass had been beaten flat and most ingloriously crowned with mud. It seemed as if miles of the line had been under water since 11 o’clock on Tuesday forenoon when the first spate began. Now the waters were abating off the surface of the earth, and the desolation of the scene was complete. The fields were under water; only a ripple-mark showing where each boundary ridge ran. The trees were out of water and so was the Grand Trunk Road; there was little else clear so far. But in every direction the water was slipping down to a lower level — from the village-gates to the well outside, from the well to the fields and from the fields, in a thousand mud-cut channels, into the borrow-pits (pits where gravel or sand has been dug).

Half an hour brought the train to a halt amid gangs of muddy coolies, and here the passengers were ordered to disembark. It was now possible to see what the flood had done. From a flood’s point of view it was not much. The water had merely formed on the embankment, as on a dam, and, when the pressure was sufficient, gone through — and out the other side. The red brick of the ballast lay scattered far across the fields as if it had been puffed out from under the rails. Elsewhere the metals were bowed sideways and sleepers tilted. These amateur alterations had been carried out in a few hours, at various places over a distance of half a mile.

The coolies with crowbars, pickaxes, and lumps of Tarakhi stone were busy packing the line. Already, during the hours of our detention at Gujrat, much had been done but there were places where the metals waggled when a hand was laid on them. In the middle of the ‘slurry’ — the wet sand, earth and stone — were two Heads of Departments who, at that hour, it would have been gross flattery to have called ‘loafers’. The Assistant Engineer before mentioned was a speckless cherub compared to these gentlemen. They were girdled with prickly heat as with a garment; up to their knees was solid mud laid on with a palette-knife; they were hot, flannel-shirted, ammunition-booted, damp-haired, mucked, mired and laborious. When they were not platelaying, they were showing the coolies how to fit the jagged blocks of stone between the sleepers. This was a revelation. If gentlemen who have secured the thanks of Government, and command of Divisions, are forced, at a moment’s notice, to quit the decencies of the Punjab Club to labour after the fashion of navvies, Railway service must be a highly dangerous and exhausting department.

Up till that time, the Disinterested Observer had believed that breaks were mended by telegrams and written orders from an Office with a punkah in it. This impression is now dead. One of the two gentlemen owned an engine with which he was exceedingly anxious to test the other’s packing, and neither seemed to object to laying their heads along the rails to see if the metals were coming back into position. While the Disinterested Observer sat on a pile of stones and felt how truly great is the dignity of labour, when some one else is working, the passengers were being transhipped and were walking over to the Lala Musa train. Yet another Departmental Head was superintending this; and, since a lady, even with both hands free, cannot walk comfortably in inch-deep slime over the tails of sleepers, took, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, a certain small and very much astonished baby from her arms, and bore it half a mile, issuing orders meantime. The quaint little face among the turmoil of hissing engines, clanking crowbars, and pickaxes, grunting coolies, rattling stone and all the hard realities of labour was a pretty touch. ‘It took to me’, said the Head of the Department gravely and solemnly, as he came back with a few hundred of the passengers from the Lala Musa train at his heels.

A new and peculiarly venemous variety of prickly heat grows by the side of lines. Also, Tarakhi stone cuts boots very badly. Gaps are not nice things to linger over, unless one is working on them.

The passengers had been all transhipped, and it was time to return to Lahore, and leave the Heads of Departments to their toil which they seemed to enjoy. The gentleman with the engine announced his intention of testing the next few yards of packed track; but before this was done the train went away to Lahore. At 11 o’clock on Tuesday morning the waters were up, and doing damage; at 4 in the afternoon they were down. At 3 A.M. on Tuesday night in the rain, when all men hoped for a moonlight night, the work of packing began, and by 10 A.M. on Wednesday the Gap was practically repaired; though the rails had been left hanging in twenty-yard lengths.

Let us all be deeply thankful, therefore, that our share in Railway work is limited to travelling over the line, and writing furious letters to the papers when a break occurs.