Metric Musings: Yet again!

More than a year after the last trip on a Metre Gauge train, two musketeers from the same team join yet again for another metric exploration! This was again a trip on a very historic line - again a line laid by the Maharajah. The trip this time was on the Punalur-Shencottah line. This line was part of a huge Metre Gauge network in South India - with direct trains running from Kollam to Chennai on Metre Gauge. This small section, from Punalur to Shencottah, is the only surviving part of this grand line that was opened way back in 1903 by the then Maharajah of Travancore.

The 50 km long stretch (Punalur to Shencottah) is entirely in a ghat section, with speeds restricted to only 30 kmph. The gradients are in the range of 1 in 60 or so. This run takes about two hours, with about 9 stops in between. The run is entirely in a 'forest' route, with twists, turns, sharp rock cuttings and a few tunnels peppered between. The Kollam-Punalur stretch was closed on April 30, 2007, while the Thenkasi-Tirunelveli section was closed sometime in 2008, and Thenkasi-Shencottah in 2008 (or 2009?).

A plan to travel on this line was on the cards for a very very long time - especially since I missed traveling with RailKeralites a few days before the Kollam-Punalur section was closed. The Kollam-Punalur section is now getting ready to be inaugurated, and is expected to commence services very soon. The proposal for a trip meet with a very luke response - thanks to the short notice and the wrong dates (end of march!). Finally after rounds of mail, Jayasankar decided to join in! The trip was set for March 27, 2010.

On March 26th, I left home around evening. I headed to Kodungallur in a private bus, and then got set to get into another that would take me to Thrissur. Akshay Marathe from Mumbai called up to break some surprising news on buses. While the talk ended, my bus pulled in. (That was an old Leyland from an operator 'Nandan'). The seats inside were very narrow and the leg space was absymally small. Sitting at a 90 degree angle was painful. The bus driver was at his usual F1 style, zipping through narrow streets at high speed irrespective of traffic. A little more than 20 minutes into the journey, I realise that my phone was now missing! I checked inside both pockets, inside my bag and beneath the seat! No sign of the phone!

I did miss a couple of heart beats, and could feel my heart beating - I could hear my heart! I rang to my phone from my "private" number - the phone was ringing, but could not be heard anywhere. I kept trying the number again and again - at the sixth attempt, i heard a "hello" from the other end! Now, who was answering my number!!! I spoke out, and it turned out that my phone fell down while boarding the bus, and a shopkeeper got hold of the phone. Thanking him for his kind heartedness, I called up home and arranged for the phone to be picked up. I could hear my heart beats till the moment I got a call from home that the phone has reached home safely.

I reached Thrissur around 2130 after a hair-raising run in the bus. I headed straight to the KSRTC bus station for some bus fanning, and then headed to the railway station. First on the agenda was a visit to the food plaza for my dinner - downed my favorite dish: Parottas with Veg Kuruma, washing it down with Grape Juice. I was back on the platform for some railfanning now. Atleast half a dozen WAP4s came down in the next two hours. I headed straight to the waiting room for some rest - the room was too hot to be inside. I rushed out and sat under a fan for some time. There was a continuous flow of trains through the time - but all had WAP4s, and I was least interested in them.

My train - the Palakkad Trivandrum Amrita Express - came in around 23.55 behind a WAP4 (I never cared to look for its number). The ASM kept announcing that my train will go via Alappuzha that day. (The announcement was: "6344 Amrita express is go to via Alappuzha") I was in S4, on a side upper berth. I straightaway headed off to the berth and fell asleep. I was woken up by the TTE a while later for checking my ticket - he did not want to check my Identity, just asked if I had it with me. Slept off in moments, and woke up around 0400. I could feel it was pouring down outside - the door was open (I was on Seat #72) and could feel a cold breeze. I slept off again, and then woke up at 0430. I got down from the berth, just to find that we were already at Kollam outer. We reached Kollam before time - this train had a habit of reaching well past arrival time for the past few days.

Headed straight to the retiring room for some sleep and a quick shower. Had some sleep and woke up around 0545. Headed straight for a quick shower. Jay called me around 0600 to inform that he was at the bus station already. I hurried out, and took a rick to the bus station. The bus station is certainly a heaven for bus fans. I met up with Jay, and we decided to get into the first bus heading out. Fortunately for me, Jay too loves buses, and we never had the lack of a topic to discuss on - the topics ranged from buses to trains all the way.

The bus that took us to Punalur, from Kollam.

It was a 2005-make Ashok Leyland bus, RT897 of Kollam. The 45 km run from Kollam to Punalur took a shade over an hour - started off at around 0625, and reached around 0745. We headed off to a small hotel for breakfast and then hired a rick to the railway station. The queue at the ticket counter scared us off - the queue was certainly as long as the ones we normally find at a busy BG station. It took about 10 minutes to get a ticket - the fare was Rs. 8 per head. After getting hold of the ticket, we headed straight to the platform. A Plasser machine was standing on the new BG lines. Two RPF constables were roaming around the platform. The MG platforms are the farthest from the entrance, and was pretty crowded by this time.

The station has four platforms - two for BG, and two for MG. There is one island platform housing both BG and MG lines. The station has two "end buffers" - one for MG and one and BG. The MG section was lively, while the BG section continued its sleep. The train from Sengottai arrived at 0813, behind YDM4 #6724 of Golden Rock (now at Sengottai). The train had all of 7 coaches, including two SLRs. The crowd, although it appeared humungous, was pretty small. The loco was quickly uncoupled, and headed towards the end buffer for reversal. The points were set manually and the loco reversed. While reversing, the LP gave curious look at us.

YDM4 #6724, all set to take us out from Punalur

The starter - a multi-aspect colour light signal - turned amber dot at 0840. The LP gave a long hoot, and the train slowly started off. However, we stopped again to accomodate a few more passengers running in. We finally started off at 0845 on the dot.. the line was picturesque in every sense, with twists and turns every moment. Trees hung low on the line, and the train kept brushing on the trees every moment. Even at low speeds (the mps of the section is only 30kmph), the coach kept rocking heavily. The passengers in the coach were mainly regulars, with very little tourists - and nomads like us! The line was a real life line for many - and that was evident. The road gives company to the train almost all the way from Thenmala to Aryankavu. A lady selling hot fried bananas got in at Thenmala - at Rs. 3 a piece, it was a good bargain. The product was amazing.

During our pep talk at Punalur, the LP had told us about the whereabouts of the tunnels and the famous Aryankavu viaduct. Jayashankar was at the door for the entire run, while I kept an eye through an emergency exit window. Jay signalled me that we were approaching the viaduct, giving me enough time to take positions at the emergency exit. We both were excited and we let our cameras capture the action for us... We stopped at Aryankavu station for the only crossing on this trip - with our pairing train. The train came about 5 minutes after we stopped - the loco in charge was YDM4 #6310. Both the train were given the starter together - but our LP decided to start off slowly.

The famed Aryankavu Viaduct - this was shot on our way back

The run beyond Aryankavu was incidentless. We made our last halt at Bhagavathipuram - this station is in Tamil Nadu. The border between Kerala and Tamilnadu is inside a tunnel between Aryankavu and Bhagavathipuram. Bhagavathipuram station also marks the end of the ghat section. The topography of the land changes markedly - forest kind of vegetation gives way to thorny bushes and farm lands. The temperature also turned hot, while the train picked more speed than usual. Bhagavathipuram station had a lot of old coaches - kept for, perhaps, scrapping or for refurbishment and export. The run was again eventless after this station. We slowed as we approached Sencottai. We reached Sencottai at 1048, instead of the scheduled arrival time of 1100. Despite the meagre mps and 7 stops, our train managed to cover the 49.38kms distance in just three minutes over two hours.

We had about an hour to explore the station, we headed out to see the shunting activities. The loco was decoupled by the time we reached there, and was stopped a few metres ahead of the rake. A strange looking loco on the BG side of the station fetched my attention - me and Jay headed off to check the loco. We walked to it thinking it was a WDM3D - but we had the shock (or surprise?) of our life - it was a WDP4!!! The loco was WDP4 #20057 of KJM, and was coupled to the head of Pothigai express (Chennai-Sengottai). After a few clicks, we headed to the ticket counter. I was expecting a long queue there, but was bowled over to see nobody there! A BG passenger had just arrived from Madurai, and a majority of them were connecting to Punalur on the MG train. Most of the passengers who arrived on the MG passenger had already taken their seats on the BG passenger to Madurai.

This is the charm of Metre Gauge! Scene from Bhagavathipuram

We got our return tickets and headed to the sole refreshment stall on the platform, to grab something cold to drink. The LP who had worked us to Sengottai was at the stall, and just enquired if we were heading back on the same train. Meanwhile, the shop keeper turned down our requests for something cold - there was no power since morning! We grabbed whatever was available there, and headed back to see the power for our return. The same loco was reversed and attached to the other end of the rake. We were now confused on which coach to take - to be at the front or at the rear? We chose the middle and stood there waiting for the train to move.

Our loco with big brother WDP4 #20057 at Sengottai

Meanwhile we saw another guy snapping the train at every possible angle - on enquiry we found that he was not an IRFCAn, but a local who was trying to document the train before it goes off into the oblivion. The signal - an MACL - turned amber sharp at 1145. However, we started off a couple of minutes late. There were two YDM4s inside the loco shed - #6291 and #6401. The return journey was eventless, and I slept most of the time through this journey - had slept very badly the previous night. I remained awake while we crossed the viaduct though. We made a long halt at Tenmala - letting passengers to get down and stretch themselves. A vendor came around selling some snacks and some cold drinks (small 200 ml packets of "rasna" and water.)

Token Exchange at Aryankavu

I slept soon after we left Tenmala. About an hour in the journey, I happened to overhear a conversation between two passengers - one was a trader traveling back from Madurai. Both were concerned about the train stopping service for conversion - and talked about their difficulties traveling by bus on the route - the road gets bad during the monsoon, and landslides cause closure as well. I fell asleep sometime later. I was back on my feet only as we were approaching Punalur. We crossed a train at Edamann (the very same train we crossed on our outbound journey). We finally reached Punalur at 1345 - about 15 minutes before time. We were received by Prof Venugopal of RailKerala, who had come down from his home town just for the 30 minute long get together - hats off to the old 'young' man!

We headed straight to a restaurant for lunch, and then to the bus station to get a bus on our way back. Jaysankar got into a Kollam bound bus, while I and Prof Venugopal took a Kayamkulam bound bus. My bus was RAM460 of Kayamkulam. Although I missed my favourite seat - the one near the driver, I managed to get one near the front exit. The bus got crowded before we left. The journey to Kayamkulam took 2 hours - via Pathanapuram, Adoor. My day took a twist after I reached Kayamkulam - I reached there around 1650. I was hoping to get into the late evening FP to Kodungallur - but the wait got endless. The bus did not turn up even at 1800, and the crowd in each bus was swelling by the minute. I finally decided to get into an Ernakulam bus at any cost - but the crowd kept pulling me off. I checked the time table and found that there was a Super Fast to Guruvayur via Kodungallur at 1830 - but there was no sign of the bus even at 1900. The bus - RRC160 of Trivandrum - finally came in at about 1915, and left well past 1930.

The bus was crowded to the core, and there was no chance of getting a seat. I chose to stand near the driver - which atleast let me breath some fresh air. The driver got on to his job once we were on the highway. He let the beast fly, and we were doing great speeds. I had to stand till Alappuzha - a distance of about 45 kms. I got a seat at Alappuzha by sheer luck - and as if it was icing on a cake, the seat was the one besides the driver. I slept soon after we crossed Cherthala, and woke up only when we were at Thoppumpady. Slept again, and woke up at Ernakulam. By now, my throat was parched - like a desert - and literally jumped out of the bus to get a bottle of cold water. The rest of the journey was eventless - the bus dropped me at Kodungallur around 2330. I took an auto and reached home around 2345.

Metre Gauge journeys always hold a soft spot in every railfan's heart. The charm of those puny coaches swaying with increasing speed (Rocking would be the right word here...), and the sweet "Phurr!! Phurr!!" sound of the loco are something, that nothing in this modern world can match. Like an oasis in the desert, the sound of the YDM4s are reproduced by WDS6 locos, but the sharp curves and the theme park styled rocking are something no other train can match. Metre Gauge is on the verge of extinction in India - I am sure, we would have none of them in the next ten years (except the Nilgiri Mountain Railway). So, make sure you travel on one before they go into oblivion.


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