Monday, July 27, 2009

Bharathapuzha and the Railways...

Nila, or Bharatha Puzha (loosely translated as India River), originates in Anamalai hills on the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu, and flows to the Arabian sea, covering a distance of over 209 kms. Most of the distance is in Kerala. The districts of Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram are served by this river. The river is often referred to as the Nile of Kerala. The river is entwined with rich culture and is often very closely associated with the history of Kerala. Bharathapuzha formed the border between the Princely state of Cochin and the British ruled Madras Presidency.

When the British laid the first railway line in Kerala, circa 1862, the line followed a more-or-less parallel alignment with the river, starting a little away from Palakkad till Tirunnavaya. The line was laid in a manner that the line never had to cross the Bharathapuzha, except for a tributary of the legendary river. The railway line crosses the Toothapuzha, near Pallipuram. The river also marks the boundary between the revenue districts of Malappuram and Palakkad.

The Bridge across Tootha....

Bharathapuzha has dried from a lively, rushing river to a small stream - a process which was more of man-made than natural. Endless sand mining ultimately resulted in the river ending up in a sad state, that it is now in.

The bridge across Bharathapuzha, near Shoranur...

The first railway line across the river was built by some time in 1901-1902. The bridge was part of an ambitious plan by Shri Rama Varma XV, the Maharajah of Cochin, to build a railway line from Cochin to Shoranur. This line was intended to connect the Madras-Beypore line built by the British. The bridge was initially carrying a metre gauge railway line, which was later converted to Broad Gauge. The metre gauge railway line was taken over from the Cochin State Railway by the South Indian Railway in 1916, and was converted to broad gauge in 1930.

A favorite scene among film makers... train on the bridge across Bharathapuzha...

The bridge across the Bharathapuzha has been a favorite spot for innumerable film makers in Kerala. Bharathapuzha, in itself, is often associated with romance and many film makers are known to have gained inspirations and marvellous story lines from this river. Many movies, notably Dileep starring Sallapam, had most of its sequences shot in or around the river bridge. The bridge is approximately 750 metres in length.

From my innumerable trips across the bridge, in the past many years, had inspired a desire in me - to visit the bridge once. The sight of a train crossing the 14-span metal bridge is one that anybody would enjoy. My desire to visit the bridge was full-filled this Sunday. Myself and fellow railfan, Deepak Murali, headed to the bridge to spot some trains. We had a brief session, with a good majority of it away from the bridge.

The Mumbai bound Garib Rath express, on the Bharathapuzha bridge...

The most notable of our sightings was the Mumbai bound Garib Rath... the red coloured locomotive with a green-and-yellow liveried rake made for a heavenly sight. The short and sweet railfanning session solved a long-time desire of mine. The bridge continues to be an inspiration to scores of writers across the state. The river is also considered religiously important, and many believe that those cremated on the banks of this mightly river attain nirvana.

In the meantime, the railways continues to hug the river and its romance with the mighty lady continues unabated.....

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The first Shatabdi experience

I saw the first Shatabdi express in my life, way back in 1998. That was the Coimbatore - Chennai Shatabdi Express, and I still remember the distinct livery and the soft music inside the coach. Shatabdi expresses trace their roots back to 1988. These trains were introduced on the Centenary year of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (the first Prime Minister of India). (Shatabdi, in Sanskrit, means Centenary). Shatabdi Expresses, like their long distance counterparts - Rajdhani - have all-inclusive fares, and meals are served on board the train.

The First Shatabdi Express in India ran between New Delhi and Jhansi, which was later extended to Bhopal. The Bhopal Shatabdi (numbered 2001/2002) is the fastest in the country and is also the longest (in terms of distance covered). Shatabdi expresses have only sitting accomodation, and all coaches are airconditioned. There are two classes, viz, Second Chair Car and Executive Chair Car. While the former has a 2x3 seating arrangement, the latter has 2x2 seating. As on date, the railways operate about 12 pairs of such services. Of the 12, 8 operate out of New Delhi (the single largest operator of Shatabdi Expresses).

My first journey on a Shatabdi express was scheduled to happen on July 16, 2009. The excitement on traveling on a Shatabdi had left me sleepless the previous night. I woke up at around 0500 in the morning. An autorickshaw was arranged to drop up (myself and my dad) at the Railway Station in time for us to get into the 2006 Kalka-New Delhi Shatabdi Express. The Auto was to pick us from our place of stay (in Sector 31D of Chandigarh) at 0545 in the morning - but the blue-coloured smoke-spitting contraption managed to reach our place only around 0600. The diesel-powered engine (which emitted more smell of Kerosene than Diesel) had just two gears, and it couldn't manage more than 40kmph. While I am not fan of speed, this journey was agonisingly slow and irritating. Quite a few radio taxis overtook us on the way. We soon passed the CTU bus depots and turned towards the railway station.

The railway station was crowded at the time, and it should be noted that the only departure at that hour was that of my train. Traffic cops standing outside had a tough time making vehicles move away from the "drop-off" area of the station. We paid the rickshaw driver and walked into the railway station. There were no trains on any of the platforms, while Gonda's WDM2 #16726 was seen roaming around the station for some odd reason. After roaming around the platform for a while, I decided to take some snaps of the station building. After a couple of snaps, I was back on the platform.

The coach position indicators were busy displaying "NR", and there was no sign of any coach position being displayed. The PA system came on often with the characteristic Windows start-up chime, and a lady voice announced, "Train Number Two Zero Zero Six, Kalka Shatabdi from Kalka to New Delhi via Ambala would arrive on Platform Number one at its scheduled arrival time.. six.. hours and... forty eight... minutes". The same announcement kept repeating itself every three minutes. Even as the digital clocks on the platform went past 0640, there were no sign of the coach positions being displayed. I checked up with a guy manning a refreshment stall on the platform, and he provided some hints about the coach position.

The platform was getting filled by the moment, and this Shatabdi surely had most of its patrons joining from Chandigarh. The clientele varied from weary looking passengers (intending to connect to other trains from New Delhi) to well dressed business executives. A short toot was heard a while before 0644, and a while loco appeared from the horizon at around 0645. I was high on hopes about getting an LHB rake (The newer generation high-speed coaches, manufactured on a Transfer of Technology agreement signed by the Indian Railways with the German coach maker Linke Hoffman Busch). However, the loco slowly moved across the points to reveal a tired looking ICF Generator Car. That conveyed to me that my first LHB ride is still away.

My 2006 Shatabdi snaking across points, into Chandigarh Railway Station...

The train slowly crawled past the points, and painfully progressed towards the starter. On judging the speed and the arrangement of the first coach, I guessed that my coach would stop pretty far from where I was standing. I signalled my dad to start moving ahead, and what ensued was a mad dash on the platform, with almost all passengers running towards the loco. The train came to a dead halt at 0649, about a minute delayed on its scheduled arrival time. My coach - C11 - was almost entirely booked from Chandigarh, and so was most of the coaches at the front end of the train. To make matters comfortable to the boarding passengers, the coach attendants decided to keep only one of the doors open. There are another stampede resembling rush at the door, and it took agonisingly long for the 68 passengers in that particular coach to get on board.

WAP7 #30222 of Ghaziabad, that worked my train, at New Delhi

The train showed no signs of movement even as the clock ticked past its scheduled departure time. The loco gave off a short toot, and inched forward sharp at 0656, late by 3 minutes now. The loco incharge of my train was WAP7 #30222 of Ghaziabad, and my coach was NR 15854 (appeared to be on the early 90s). My coach was the 5th in the 16 coach rake. A while after the train moved back on to the main line, a feeble sound from the PA system announced "Indian Railways welcomes all passengers joined from Chandigarh on board the Shatabdi Express". The train sped up to about 110kmph by now. The waiter onboard came around, shoving off a tray on my table. The tray had a packet of Marie biscuits, two eclairs toffees, one stainless steel spoon and a paper packet, aptly named tea kit, containing a packet of dairy whitener, two packets of sugar and two tea bags (of some local unheard of brand).

The waiter then came around distributing thermos-flasks containing hot water. Then began the tea-making exercise. The real challenge came as the cup filled to 80% its capacity, and the train sped to 110kmph. The horizontal oscillations were too high for those speeds and I managed to finish the circus called tea-making, not before spilling a few drops of tea on the tray. I managed to gulp down the tea, and settled down to read the newspaper that the waiter had distributed. An RPF officer came around asking each passenger to identify their baggage (kept on the overhead rack), and a small red sticker was pasted on each bag, conveying a message that the bags have been 'checked'. By now, the train slowed down and we were soon approaching Ambala Cantonment railway station. I headed straight to the door for a couple of photos. The Train Superintendent objected to me standing at the door, and I decided to move to the next coach. Ambala welcomed us in with a WDP1 working an unknown passenger, and the celebrated WDP4B working another passenger train.

We stopped at Ambala, at 0733, perfectly on time. Very little passengers joined us at this station. The train started from here at 0739, late by a minute. The PA system came alive yet again to welcome passengers, this time for those boarding from Ambala. Soon after the train cleared Ambala station limits, the waiter came around distributing Welcome drinks (Yeah! We were welcomed into the train a long 43 minutes after I was on board). A small tetra-pack of Jumpin Mango Punch was our welcome drink. A while after our trays were cleared, the waiter came around throwing another tray at each seat. This tray had our breakfast.

The Breakfast comprised of two slices of bread, one small butter chiplet, a small packet of Jam, a packet of tomato sauce, two miniature pieces of Veg Cutlet, some boiled green peas, two rectangular pieces of potato (which was affectionately called by the caterers as French Fries) and some odd pieces of boiled vegetable. The entire serving would equal what is consumed as a normal adult with evening tea. The overall serving was disappointing, and no normal person would have alighted the train without being hungry. Another tea was distributed, helping a lot of us wash down the disappointment of the abysmally small serving of breakfast. Another Tea@110kmph exercise followed, and I got the better of this one by preparing tea without spilling even a drop outside!

Interiors of my coach, after all passengers had alighted at New Delhi

We had a steady stream of crossings, and a very good number of trains crossed us on the Ambala-New Delhi Run. The list of crossings also included two LHB Shatabdis. Needless to say, each LHB rake did add salt to my injury. My coach, although chilling cold, appeared to be pretty badly kept. The seats had old rexine upholstery, and the seating was very uncomfortable. I headed to the door as the train crossed Naya Azadpur. The speed to a crawl as we crossed Subzi Mandi. The signals lined up showing up amber and double ambers. A couple of EMUs overtook us on the other line(s) as we crawled past the coaching yard. The loco trip sheds were filled to the brim as usual, and my train made a very slow progress towards New Delhi railway station.

My Shatabdi crawling amidst EMU trains near New Delhi...

The train slowly crawled on to Platform 1. Another mad rush ensued at the doorways now. Me and my dad remained seated at our places till most of the crowd made its way to the platform. After most passengers alighted, we unloaded our baggage, and my dad slowly walked outside. I took some snaps of my coach before I alighted. Platform 1 was now crowded to the brim. The exit gate was packed. Since we were connecting to a different train from New Delhi, I had to find information about the platform from where my train would leave. I went out to the common area to find a huge board displaying details of trains departing later in the day. I found that my train would depart from Platform 3, and we lugged our baggage to the platform. Later, WDS4 #19651 of Shakurbasti came around, and pushed the rake to the yard... ending a long awaited journey on the Shatabdi Express.

While Shatabdi expresses are a good alternative to airlines on short routes, the service on board these trains leave a lot to be desired. The basic problem is the attitude of the staff on board, and more importantly the quality and quantity of food served on board. While the train scores well in terms of speed, passenger comfort is bad in old coaches. I look forward for a ride on a Shatabdi running with the newer LHB coaches.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Northern Hop: Complete

The great trip to the land of the whites finally concluded this morning. The final two parts of the three part journey was interesting and exciting in their own respects. The first - of the last two - hop was on the 2006 Kalka-New Delhi Shatabdi Express. I was in coach C11, and the loco that worked my train was WAP7 #30222 of Ghaziabad. The train had an amazing run from Chandigarh (from where, it started with a slight delay) to New Delhi (where it arrived early). I saw a WDP4B in flesh for the first time in my life, at Ambala Cantonment.

The second - the third of the journey - hop was on board the 2626 Kerala Express from New Delhi, to my "nearest railhead" - Thrissur. The loco allocated to my train was WAP4 #22666 of Erode. We left New Delhi delayed by about 9 minutes (there were two incidences of Emergency Chain Pull, and each incidence delayed us by 3 minutes). The arrival at Thrissur was delayed by about 2 hours and 50 minutes. The train was more-or-less on time till Palakkad. We were regulated at Ottapalam, Wadakancheri and Mulagunnathukavu, due to a traffic pile up caused by a landslide between Ankamali and Korattyangadi stations in Kerala.

Expect more details in a new post, slated to be posted soon... now too tired by the week long continuous travel.. images would come up very soon...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Northern Hop: Hop 2 & 3 commences tomorrow

The last two hops of The Northern Hop begins tomorrow. The tickets were booked just yesterday night. Hop 2 would be on the 2006 Shatabdi from Chandigarh to New Delhi, and Hop 3 would be New Delhi to Thrissur on the 2626 Kerala Express.

I just hope that the tradition of surprises continue on this journey too. Expect more updates to pour in, as time and network permits....

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Northern Hop: Hop 1 complete...

Marking an end to "Hop 1" of the Northern Hop, I reached Chandigarh yesterday evening at 1853, delayed by about 38 minutes. The journey had quite some surprises and an even bigger lot of disappointments.

My train, 2653 Kochuveli-Chandigarh Kerala Sampark Kranti Express, was worked by WDP3A #15532 of Golden Rock, from Kochuveli to Vadodara. The train was late right from Thrissur (the point where I boarded), all the way till we changed locos at Vadodara. The 3100-hp rare specimen of ALCOs in India (this loco becomes rare by the fact that it is the only diesel loco in India to have twin cabs), did a marvellous job with my 20 coach train. The run on KR was amazing, and we were allowed to run through at most occasions, without having to stop for crossings. The technical halts in the diesel run segment were at Ratnagiri (Pilot Change), Chiplun (Watering), Roha (Pilot Change and Vasai Road (Pilot Change).

My train was overtaken by both the Rajdhani's from Mumbai and also by an unidentified express train. I couldn't witness the loco change since I fell asleep not-so-long after Surat (where we were made to wait, in order to allow the Chennai-Jodhpur Express go ahead). I woke up the next morning, just as the train came to a dead halt outside Kota Junction. We reached Kota, early by about 20 minutes, and left on time. The horn of my loco sounded too much like a WAP7, and I eagerly ran to the loco at Kota, only to see WAP4 #22678 of Vadodara doing the honours.

The loco did an amazing job with my train. We were made to crawl through Mathura to let the Delhi-Agra passenger pull into the station, and then the train took full advantage of the greens ahead. We were made to ride yellows after we crossed Palwal, and the train was left to crawl at about 50kmph all the way to Hazrat Nizamuddin, including a slightly prolonged wait at Nizamuddin home to let the Nanded bound Sachkand Express clear a platform for us. The run from Nizamuddin to New Delhi was another interesting section, where we were riding the yellows again. We "overtook" the Lucknow-NDLS Gomti Express at Shivaji Bridge. Gomti had WAP4 #22546 of Kanpur leading its way.

We had a prolonged halt at New Delhi - a station where I almost attained nirvana spotting the first ever WAP5 in life. To make my life happier, my train was welcomed into NDLS station by WAP5 #30006 working an unknown train. We were taken on Platform 7, while WAP5 #30014 was on Platform 9 with the Chandigarh (Una Himachal) bound Jan Shatabdi Express. I almost called it a highlightable day of my life as we started from NDLS. The whites were dominating most of the electric trip shed, and I almost lost the count of the whites I saw over the day.

One thing that I noticed at the coaching depot is that the EOGs of all Rajdhani/Shatabdi trains were kept running, even though their departures were a long time away. We had a very painfully slow run from NDLS to Subzi Mandi. The run ahead was amazingly superb, with very little signs of a stoppage or a slowdown. My train was allowed to run with enough importance through the section. We made a brief halt at Kurukshetra (about a minute long halt) and then continued the run.

Ambala was reached late by around 15 minutes. The Haridwar-Amritsar Jan Shatabdi entered the station just behind us, while the Jammu Tawi-Hapa Express was waiting at a platform line. We were made to stop twice on the Ambala-Chandigarh section, for crossings. The first was with the Himalayan Queen, while the second was with the Kalka-NDLS Shatabdi. Both the trains had WAP7s. We finally reached Chandigarh at 1853, welcomed by a WDP3A heading a passenger train to Ambala, and an Abu Road WDM3a with the Jaipur bound Garib Rath. Post alighting at the station, I made my first ever ride in a LPG run Ape autorickshaw.

What made the visit most surprising was the fact that it rained a while after we reached Chandigarh. This surely made for a grand welcome to the first planned city in India. It rained pretty well on our way as well, forcing me to remain indoors most of the time, especially on the KR route as well as in Rajasthan!!! I wish to write a more detailed write-up on this journey very soon... images too would be online as I reach back in Kerala... hope to have a blast on Hop 2 and 3 as well!!!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Northern Hop

A trip out of the blue, to the land of the whites - this is what can be said about a journey of mine, that I commence today. The journey is about 5833 kms long (all on trains), planned to be completed in 8 days - starting and ending on Saturday. The journey begins today at 1030 hrs (July 11, 2009) and would end on July 18, 2009, perhaps at 1030 hours itself.

The trip would include just three trains, with the first one alone lasting about 2400 kms and 53 hours. The approximate trip schedule is: Thrissur to Chandigarh on the 2653 Kerala Sampark Kranti, Chandigarh to New Delhi by 2006 Kalka-NDLS Shatabdi (on the 16th of June) and New Delhi to Thrissur by 2626 Kerala Express (departing from NDLS on the 16th of June).

Its a no-brainer trip, intended to have very little railfanning other than the ones while traveling. I do hope to keep updating the blog, but all that depends on GPRS connectivity (Thanks to BSNL, that has a different access setting for each circle, much to the 'help' of roaming customers!).

The land of the whites.... here I come...

Psst! The phrase whites is derived from the railway lingo for 3-Phase Electric Locomotives... throw away that racism :)

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

On the legendary Parasuram, to Kannur

Parasuram Express traces its origin to the early 1970s, as the 49/50 Link Express to Shoranur. Later, the then Day Express (numbered 49/50) was introduced between Cochin Harbour Terminus and Cannanore (now Kannur). Not much later, the train was extended to Trivandrum Central and Mangalore, and named Parasuram Express. The train is still fondly called as the "Day Express" by many people - and the train, true to its name, covers most of Kerala in broad day light.

The train has a very glorious past, but is now reduced to mere tatters of what it once was. This train makes a grand 41 halts in its 634 kms run from Trivandrum Central to Mangalore Central, averaging a royal 45.83kmph. (The train averages only 44.49 kmph in the opposite direction, taking 43 halts over the 634 kms distance). The train takes a halt, on an average, every 18 minutes. The shortest gap between two halts is just 4 minutes (between Divine Nagar and Chalakkudi) and the longest is one hour (between Kasaragod and Mangalore Central).

My earliest memories are of a 13 coach train headed by a WDM2. I used to door-plate all the way from Shoranur to Thrissur on the Netravati Express, which used to ferry me from Mumbai to Thrissur atleast thrice every year, just to see this train. The train length grew by leaps and bounds over the past few years. It jumped up to 16 coaches soon after the train got electrocuted in mid 2008. The train started getting a WAP4 between Trivandrum and Shoranur from May 2008. The introduction of a WAP4 link indirectly helped the train, as the length of the train started its upward journey.

The train lost its pantry car around the same time, making another dent to the train's already tattered past. Parasuram express got a boost as the railways recently increased the number of coaches on this train to 21 and reintroduced the pantry car. Recently, some social obligations mandated a visit to Kannur (the erstwhile terminus of this very train). While the primary choice was an overnight train, and Maveli Express was chosen as the best option, since it departs just past midnight from Thrissur. However, it appeared that too many people too had the same opinion, and seats were sold out on this train. Malabar Express was the next call - the odd departure time from Thrissur was a major roadblock. Tickets were hard to get, and we finally settled for the Day Express.

I decided to do the ticketing part through a PRS counter, instead of IRCTC. That was a visit to the counter after a very long time (to be more appropriate, about a full year later). Booking was a breeze. On the day of the journey, June 26, 2009, we (yours truly and my parents) started from home at about 1030, for a train that departs at 1240. It was pouring at that time, and the journey to the bus station was in a totally covered diesel autorickshaw. From Kodungallur, we got into a bus heading to Thrissur. We reached Thrissur a while past 1200. It was raining even as we alighted from the bus, and an autorickshaw was hired to ferry us from the bus stop to the railway station, a 0.59km journey.

It was raining, albeit slightly, even as we alighted at the railway station. The ticket counters were buzzing with activity, as ever, with over 6 trains scheduled to depart over the next one hour. We headed straight to Sassya Restaurant on the platform, and purchased lunch packets. We were not sure if lunch would be available on our train, and did this as a precautionary measure. A while after we arrived, the Ernakulam-Nizamuddin Mangala Express arrived, with WDM3A #14139 of Ernakulam doing the honours. The train was pretty crowded, with families return after their annual vacation. Just as Mangala arrived, the Trivandrum bound Parasuram express pulled into Platform 1, with an unidentified WAP4.

Both the trains departed from Thrissur in about 3 minutes, from their arrival time. A while after Parasuram left Platform 1, the Kochuveli bound Kerala Sampark Kranti Express arrived. Itarsi Jumbo WDM2 #17847. The same loco had worked the same train the last week too. This train was at Thrissur for a slightly prolonged period. After the Sampark Kranti left, the Hyderabad-Trivandrum Sabari Express was taken on to Platform 1. WAP4 #22270 of Erode did the honours. The station dipped into silence a while after Sabari Express too left. The PA system crackled to life at around 1300, announcing the arrival of my train.

WAP4 #22281 of Erode arrives at Thrissur with the Mangalore bound Parasuram Express

My train, Parasuram Express, arrived at 1304, with WAP4 #22281 of Erode doing the honours. My coach, C1 - WGSCZAC 94151, was the 11th in the 21 coach formation. The coach was refurbished at the Rehabilitation workshop at Bhopal in 2008. What caught my attention in a split second was the "To seat 75" marking outside the coach. I was perplexed on seeing this mark since the coach actually had only 73 seats!!! I re-counted again, and found that the railways had conveniently forgotten seat numbers 3 and 73!!! The train started at 1308, delayed by a whole 28 minutes.

The WAP4 pulled out the 21 coach rake in no time, and we were cruising at decent speeds in no time. We had our lunch as soon as the train started from Thrissur. I had Veg Biriyani for lunch, while my parents had Veg Meals. Both were really tasty. The train made a brief halt at Mulagunnathukavu home, for a while. This was to let a twin WAG5 hauled tanker rake to pull on to the loop line. We started as soon as the tanker rake stopped. Our next scheduled halt was at Wadakancheri. The station is situated on a marvellous curve and one can see the entire train, from loco to SLR, when the train is at the station. The station is surrounded on all sides by hills, and low flying clouds hugging around them made for very good visuals.

Low hanging clouds, slight drizzle and the lush greenery made my journey a very pleasant experience...

The day was overcast, and the weather was pleasant. We started from Wadakancheri at 13:35, delayed by 35 minutes. The coach attendent appeared sad at the delay. The section ahead of Wadakancheri is even more picturesque. The entire section from Thrissur to Shoranur is unofficially called a Ghat section, and has numerous turns and grades. The entire section from Shoranur to Ernakulam has an MPS of only 80kmph, due to constant turns and grades. The train continued a medium paced run till we reached Shoranur Outer signal.

The line from Ernakulam to Shoranur was laid by the then Maharaja of Cochin, back in 1902 as a meter gauge line. The line connected Cochin state to the railway line laid by the British, connecting Madras (now Chennai) to Tellicherry (now Thalassery). The basic layout of the railway line continues to be the same even today. The Ernakulam-Shoranur line is treated as the 'Main' line, and the newly laid by-pass line is treated as a 'loop' line. The entry to Shoranur is controlled by a signal placed on the banks of the river Bharathapuzha. This signal also marks the entry into Palakkad division. After a long crawl from the signal to the station, we stopped on Platform 5 of Shoranur Junction at 1400, delayed by 25 minutes.

I jumped out of the train, and rushed towards the loco, to check out the new loco that would take my train. The WAP4 was just getting uncoupled. The loco went out quickly, and our 'new' loco was let on to the line soon. WDM3D #11239 of Erode was to work my train from Shoranur to Mangalore. The loco came in quickly, but the coupling took a very long time. A railway officer, working in the Construction department, questioned the pointsman on the excessive delay in changing locos at Shoranur - he had no reply to state. I rushed back to my coach soon after the loco came close to the couplers. However, the departure took even longer.

WDM3D #11239 of Erode, comes in to take charge of Parasuram express at Shoranur...

The attendent was now worried if the Dehradun express would overtake us - which was a probability if our departure was getting more delayed. That was not the case, and we started moving out at 1422, delayed by 42 minutes. The loco change at Shoranur was taking too long, and was surely nullifying any time advantages that the electric loco brought to the train. While we started, WAP4 #22660 of Erode arrived with the Hyderabad bound Sabari Express in tow. While there was a perceivable difference in the starting torques between the locos, the diesel did maximum justice to the 21 coach rake. The young lady pulled out the rake in style, letting out very little smoke.

The run from Shoranur to Karakad was pathetically slow, owing to track doubling works. The work on this section is on since late 2006, and is still at a very early stage. Land movers were working hard to level land around the railway tracks. The Nilambur line gave company for a while, and later disappeared into a dense teak jungle. My train slowly picked speed as we crossed Karakad Home signal, and sped up its way through the main line. We crossed an unknown train a while after Karakad. The track condition is pretty good beyond Karakad, and we had a very smooth ride. We reached Pattambi at 1435. The loop line - this station has only one loop line, and that is kept between the two main lines - was occupied by a BOBYN (Hopper) rake, led by WDM2 #17141.0 of Erode.

We left Pattambi at 1439, delayed by about 46 minutes now. The run past Pattambi was eventless, barring a stop every 15-20 minutes on an average. We had halts at Kuttipuram, Tirur, Tanur and Parapanangadi, before reaching Feroke. I was seating inside the coach for most of the time, and could not check out the crossings that we had over this period. As we approached Feroke, I noticed a BTPN rake backing up on to the UP main line. The loco was a WDG3A (other details unknown). The rake was pulled out of an IOC Fuel depot besides the railway station, and was being prepared for departure towards Shoranur later in the day.

As we sneaked on to the loop line at Feroke, I noticed a departmental rake occupying the Down Main Line. This train had about 4 BRNA (flat) wagons, one Caboose and WDS6 #36015 of Golden Rock heading it. The BRNA wagons had about two mechanical cranes each. These cranes were being used to pick up old rails from track sides. We left Feroke station, after a brief 2 two minute halt, at 1600 - late by 45 minutes. We had a crawl from Feroke to Kozhikode home signal. Made a brief halt at the home signal, and slowly crawled on to Platform 4. Kozhikode station was recently re-modeled, improving train operations greatly.

WDM2 #17108 of Ernakulam waiting at Kozhikode with the Ernakulam Intercity in tow... notice the old towers of Kozhikode station in the background

The Kannur-Ernakulam Intercity was waiting for departure on Platform 1. WDM2 #17108 of Ernakulam was in charge. WDM2 #16875 of Golden Rock was waiting at the Shoranur end of Platform #2. There was a huge crowd waiting on the trackside near Platform 4, waiting for my train to get in. A very huge crowd alighted at Kozhikode, only to be replaced by a similar number of passengers. That was my first visit to Platform 4, I made good use of the time my train stopped there to explore a bit of the platform. The platform was not very good in shape, and facilities - in terms of catering provisions - were bad.

We left Kozhikode at 1620, delayed by 30 minutes. The railway line started off as a double line, and sized down to a single line just past the LSS (which also doubles up as a Gate signal). The train crosses a Level Cross, and then again expands to a Double line. The home signal for the UP line is while past the point where the line re-expands to a Double line. Undoubtedly, the Level Crossing is the bottle neck that the railways face in complete doubling. The train picked speed as we approached Vellayil. I was back inside the coach now. The next halt was at Quilandi, and then at Vadakara. We were about 26 minutes late as we departed from Vadakara. We reached Mahe at 1718. Mahe is the gateway to the erstwhile French conclave called Mahe (Called Mayyazhi locally). Mahe is currently under the rule of the Union Territory of Pondicherry. The station, interestingly, is located in Kerala.

The starter turned green in exactly two minutes after my train stopped there... but the train showed now signs of moving. We finally left at 1724 - delayed by 32 minutes. We made yet another halt at Thalassery, and left at 1737. We crossed the Mangalore-Trivandrum Express here. I was at the door after Thalassery, all the way to Kannur. There were no crossings in this section. Our baggage was moved from the luggage rack to the door as the train crossed Kannur South station. The train slowed down as we neared Kannur, and made a complete halt at the home signal. A few seconds, I noticed a train coming from the opposite direction. That was the rake of Kannur-Kozhikode passenger being shunted out from Platform 1A to Platform 2. The loco doing the shunting work was WDM3A #14124 of Ernakulam. The loco stopped just short of the LSS. We started moving soon, and pulled into Platform 1. The train came to a complete halt on the platform at 1801, late by 26 minutes.

Entering Kannur...

My brother was at the station to take us to our destination, some 20 kilometres away. There ended a journey on the legendary train. Although the train was delayed and I missed most of the crossing enroute, it was a journey that I enjoyed most. The train badly needs a rejuvenation. It makes lots of halts, and the railways should think of introducing a passenger train to serve the needs of passengers at smaller towns, and run a faster day connection between Trivandrum and Mangalore. Images of the journey can be seen here...

Monday, July 06, 2009

A trip to a reservation counter.....

The advent of online railway ticket reservations, through IRCTC, changed the way many Indians book their train tickets. While the system offers loads of advantages, it comes it its share of dis-advantages. The extra cost incurred becomes a huge minus for the cost-conscious, while security of the transactions worry many others. I and my family have been using the system since its initial days, and we were overwhelmed mainly by the convenience of booking a ticket sitting at home.

However, the charm of having a physical ticket in hand, hard-earned after waiting at the reservation counter in a queue, is something that IRCTC cannot match. I had been to the reservation counter, about two weeks back to book a ticket and the experience was interesting. Today, I faced yet another reason to be at the reservation counter. I had to book a Tatkal ticket for a train that departs on Saturday. I woke up late at morning, unmindful of the fact that it was opening day for Tatkal booking. I logged on to the website at some 1030, to find all tatkal seats in AC Three-tier sold out! About 12 seats (the entire quota) was vacant in AC Two-tier, and I decided to take a risk by heading to the reservation counter instead of booking it online.

I left home at about 1105, and headed straight to the bus stop. Got into a bus by around 1120, and I reached the railway station (about 36 kms away) by around 1225. The first thing that I did on entering the reservation counter was to take a token. The reservation counter at Thrissur works on a Token System. Token numbers are called, and one can make a reservation at the counter that displays his/her token number. This system allows people to be seated comfortably, and proceed to the counters only when the number approaches close. My token said that my serial number was "502". The last number called then was 370. I was still 132 people away!

The Reservation Office at Thrissur Railway Station

Thrissur has infrastructure for 6 counters, of which 4 are in usable condition. Out of the four, only three were working on the day. After filling up the reservation requisition form, I headed straight to the railway station for some railfanning. Got a platform ticket in a couple of minutes. Just while entering the platform, twin Golden Rock diesels rushed towards Shoranur with a BCNA rake in tow. The station was not very crowded, being a working day. There is an exit for the station, which opens directly in front of the reservation office. I decided to stay around that exit, so that I could check the status of tokens at the reservation office.

Very soon, the PA system came alive with the characteristic chime, and a very irritating advertisement. Following the advertisement was another chime, and then the announcement that Mangalore bound Parasuram express was expected on Platform 2 very soon. The train arrived at 1250, with WAP4 #22341 of Erode doing the honours. I took a snap of the train while it started from Platform 2. A little later, the Hyderabad bound Sabari Express arrived behind WAP4 #22669 of Erode. The station became silent after Sabari left, and there were no arrivals or departures expected over the next one hour. I headed back to the reservation office now.

The last token number called had now jumped to about 430 (60 tokens cleared in about 40 minutes). I noticed then that the numbers were dropping at a very slow pace now. It was then that I found that one window was being used for Bulk booking by a party (booking for a group of 72 passengers heading to Goa!). The booking took well over 40 minutes to complete, and this delayed the speed of reservations badly. From about 2 tokens per minute, the speed suddenly dropped to about two minutes per token. The countdown to the shift change was now ticking at a steady pace. Meanwhile, I headed off to the station to check on the Guruvayur-Ernakulam passenger, that was now expected to arrive. The passenger (a 11 coach rake) arrived with WAP4 #22728 of Erode at 1356.

The LP stopped the train pretty away from where the train would normally stop, and passenger made a mad dash behind the train to get on board. I returned to the reservation counter now, to see that one counter had already closed for the break, while others too were closing. They would re-open only at 1415. I headed out to have my lunch now. I headed straight to Sassya Restaurant on Platform 1. While the waiter served my lunch, the Trivandrum bound Netravati express pulled in behind WAP4 #22213 of Erode. Post lunch, I headed off to the reservation counter, only to see it still closed.

While standing outside the reservation waiting hall, I noticed a thatched roof building with the insignia of the Maharaja of Cochin (under whose rule the area was, pre-independence). I had heard about a Maharaja's Rest Room at Thrissur, but never ever imagined that it was right in front of the station. The building itself appeared to be well-kept, but was not being maintained with the prestige that it should hold. The room was being used as the Porter's room, and some other miscellaneous railways offices.

The Maharaja's rest room at Thrissur...

After capturing a couple of images, I headed back to the reservation office. The token numbers had now crossed 485. I decided to hang around the counters itself. One counter was again blocked for bulk booking, and the numbers were dropping at a very slow pace now. The clerks manning the counters were strict at not entertaining people without a token. At around 14:30, Counter 3 flashed "502". I headed straight to the counter, and person searched for availability! Bingo! The entire quota was yet to be touched. He quickly issued tickets, that were even matching to berth preferences!!! While it took me hardly an hour on the previous experience to book a ticket, this time it took me two hours. Being a Monday, action at the station was at pathetic lows.

Just before I left the station, Asansol's WAG5 #23353 rushed through with a BCNA rake, ending a short railfanning session. After this, I headed straight to the bus station for a round of bus fanning, and then a journey on a bus of my favorite operator back home!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The scary private bus...

The roadway public transporation scene in Kerala - the southern-most state in India - is controlled mostly by Private operators. According to anecdotal figures, there are over 30,000 private buses operating on scheduled routes as of today. Private buses make up more than 75% of the public transport system, with the state-run KSRTC operating only about 5,000 buses as of today. While KSRTC handles most of the long intra-state and inter-state routes, private buses were restricted to shorter routes around smaller towns and villages.

The scene changed a while back with private buses too operating on ultra-long routes within the state. Private buses taken longer routes to circumvent operational restrictions. Private stage carriages are not permitted to operate on routes notified as "nationalised" routes. Earlier restrictions only implied that they could not run more than a specified distance on such routes, and to avoid such problems, they run for some distance through smaller roads. New restrictions imposed recently make even these operations impossible.

A Private bus driver exhibiting his overtaking style...

Private bus operators are mostly single bus owners, and there are quite a few fleet operators. Roads in Kerala are normally narrow, with very little breathing space to move side-ways. Tight operating schedules, and narrow time-gap between two buses result in buses running at break-neck speed through these routes. An over enthusiastic focus on earning more per trip also result in crew trying their level best to avoid a following bus overtaking it or even letting it come close. The crew are always in a hurry to get the bus run, while also trying to get in maximum passengers.

These operators are also known to open niche routes, which were later encroached upon by KSRTC. Some operators are known for their quality of service, punctuality and good bus maintenance. One such operator in my part of the state is KK Menon. These operators are known to stick to the schedule, and their staff are well behaved. Overall, private bus crew are known to be rude and often uncivilised in behaviour. Typical private buses have three to five crew manning it. There would be a driver, a conductor (city buses, often, have two), and a cleaner (or two). With higher number of staff associated with each bus, overspeeding (which ends up consuming a lot of fuel), the operating expenses associated with private buses are on the higher speed.

However, operators earn profit from these services - mainly by resorting to tactics like using Kerosene with fuel and replacing buses with mini-buses, which provide tax concessions. Regional Transport Authorities (the government body that controls route permits provided to operators to operate stage carriages) have taken note of this tendency, and have come down heavily on such downgrades recently. The authorities have consistently rejected applications to replace full size buses with mini buses.

City buses in Ernakulam and Kozhikode are operated almost entirely by private operators, while buses in Trivandrum City are monopolised by KSRTC. City buses (in both Ernakulam and Kozhikode) are known as killers on the prowl. Accidents are a daily story. Overspeeding and rash driving are known reasons for accidents, which end up risking innocent lives. As a person who spent more than 22 years of my life in places outside Kerala, I often get my heart missing beats very often while traveling on these buses or even seeing them run on the road. Private buses currently form the lifeline of most passengers in Kerala - in simple words, righteously, called Necessary Evil.

One of the many funky liveried buses now on roads in Kerala...

Private operators have monopolised themselves on many routes, with their flashy buses, with funky accessories and psychadelic paintings. The bus crew hire shouters in public places, who shout out the destination of the bus along with its route when the bus is at a public place - they are paid on the spot for the job they do. Most private buses in Kerala are known to not issue tickets to passengers for the fare tendered. In some cases, unnumbered tickets, or small chits with some random numbers on it, are issued to passengers. Non-issuance of tickets is in strict contravention of Section 72, of Motor Vehicles Act 1988. The law clearly states that (only relevant portions are below)

(2) The Regional Transport Authority, if it decides to grant a stage carriage permit, may grant the permit for a stage carriage of a specified description and may, subject to any rule that may be made under this Act, attach to the permit any one or more of the following conditions, namely:-

(xv) that tickets bearing specified particulars shall be issued to passengers and shall show the fares actually charged and that records of tickets issued shall be kept in a specified manner;

Here are some interesting titbits that I gathered over the past few of travel on some of these private bus operators: About two weeks back, I was on a journey from my home town in Thrissur district, to the district headquarters in a bus operated by a very reputed local operator. The bus was a couple of minutes late compared to its schedule. The cleaner was getting restless by the second, and was talking to the conductor continuously. He was constantly worried about the bus getting late and was blaming the driver for driving it like a bullock cart. Later the conductor started mocking at him and it turned out that the bus had made up most of the lost time by the time I alighted.

Crew are paid a collection allowance, which is basically a percentage of the total collections. Therefore, higher the collections, more the take home salary the crew gets. However, lesser collections would result in an unwarranted confrontation with the bus operator, who may even sack the crew for the dip in collection. Rampant corruption among controlling bodies had resulted in buses running at a n interval of under 2-3 minutes on many routes (this is now history on most routes). Such low intervals among two consecutive buses result in drivers remaining on tenterhooks, to ensure that the bus following them does not go ahead.

A bus operated by KK Menon, a reputed bus operator in Thrissur District, on the Kodungallur-Thrissur route...

In addition to a closely following bus, the drivers are also under constant pressure to stick to their schedule, despite all odds and frequent stops. Road conditions and traffic also contribute to their miseries. To make matters worse, many buses are operated by inexperienced people who end up being unable to control the bus once the speed increases. Although there exists a government rule that all buses should be installed with speed limiting devices (that limit speed to 60kmph), most buses are operated in violation of this rule and on most occasions, these buses run at much higher speeds.

The moment these buses stop, the crew pressurise passengers to get off the bus at the earliest, while also shouting out at other passengers to jump in quickly, so that they could fly away. Quite a few earlier posts on this blog had described the F1 styled driving of private bus drivers down south in this state - often acclaimed as God's Own Country. While Private operators provide a much needed competition to state-run services (which could improve the quality of service), uncontrolled expansion of private operators have resulted in a situation that risks the lives of passengers.

The Government should work out on measures to cartelise operators into co-operative societies or perhaps support fleet operators. An operator with a high number of buses has many advantages in terms of sharing staff, common inventory of spares, government concessions on tax for purchasing spare buses and also lesser support staff. Currently, private operators end up having a cleaner for each bus, while a major operator can go with just one or two cleaners. The number of staff per bus could be brought down by increasing the number of buses under each roof. Cartelisation would also reduce competition between buses, which could reduce accidents on roads. Instead of allowing only one cartel to operate on a said route, the government could allow, say, two bodies on each route. This would be fair competition.

A co-operative body formed by current bus operators, which I beleive currently exists on some places in Idukki/Kottayam, would help current operators in a lot of ways. They can share staff, spares, buses, and even overhead expenses like ticket printing. A co-operative body will also provide equal exposure and opportunities to current operators, who could become stakeholders of the said society. Although nationalisation (i.e., reserving all routes for the state run KSRTC) is a good move to control road accidents resulting from rash driving by bus operators, it would take ages for the government to replace the 35,000 buses (government records show that about 17,000 buses would be immediately affected due to the latest order for nationalisation) with its buses.

The government could take a stake in district wise co-operative bodies in exchange to allowing such bodies on nationalised routes. These bodies could also provide healthy competition to KSRTC. While the government continues to sleep on the nationalisation order, let me continue my life, rather fearing for it, as I continue traveling on private buses for my local commute.... more local titbits coming soon...