Friday, September 17, 2010

Exploring the controversial freight ghat! (Part-1)

Since my relocation to Kerala in June 2009, my railfanning outings have been on an all time low. The number of dedicated trips too has hit the rock. The only recent one has been to the Punalur Metre Gauge line (read it here). After long 4-and-a-half months of hibernation (as in not railfanning), I was heading out for another one. This one was a long pending dream - a strenuous ghat section, where trains proceed up and down with utmost caution, and a line that was in at the eye of a controversy.

Some of you would have guessed it right. For the uninitiated, the talk is about the controversial ghat section between Sakleshpur and Subrahmanya Road. This ghats lie on the Hassan-Mangalore Railway Line. The ghat is being referred to as "controversial" since this ghat section has been cleared for operations with a lot of conditions - including a moratorium on operation of Freight trains when a passenger carrying train is operation along the ghat. The railways earn their bread from these Freight trains, and suspension of their operations mean huge losses for the railways. This cause a lot of resistance from the zonal authorities to start of train services along this route.

The line from Hassan to Mangalore was originally built as a Metre Gauge line - and was opened in bits and pieces between 1976 and 1977. The line was closed for Gauge Conversion on September 20, 1996. The ghat section between Sakleshpur and Subrahmanya was, and is, considered a challenging section. The gauge conversion of this section has handed over to a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) formed for the purpose - the Hassan Mangalore Rail Development Company Limited (HMRDC). The company has the Government of Karnataka and the Railway Ministry as majority stake holders, while Mangalore Port trust and a couple of other bodies too as minority stake holders.

The Gauge conversion took a very long time, and is marked in red-letters in the Indian Railway's history. Although the first bit after conversion was opened in January 1998, the rest of the works took forever to complete. The first section to be opened was Hassan-Sakleshpur, a distance of about 42kms, in a 1 in 100 terrain. The next "bit" to be opened was between Mangalore and Kabakaputtur, a distance of about 44 kms, another 1 in 100 terrain. The section was opened in December 2003. Another bit of line from Kabakaputtur to Subrahmanya Road, 42 kms in distance, 1 in 100 terrain, was opened in July 2005. The big fish took long to come - the Sakleshpur-Subrahmanya section. This section, 55 kms in length, is a ghat section with 1 in 55 grades all along. This section was opened in May 2006 for freight services, and December 2007 for passenger operations.

Controversies aside, this section is a must ride for any railfan. With 57 tunnels dotting the 55 kms section, the section was twists, turns, tall viaducts and eerie gorges every where. Not just for the railfan, the section would enchant any travel freak. This is one section that was long on my list of must-dos. (The list is long, but would not like to divulge it for now). Enough with the introductory dialogues, lets now get into business.

Getting the mandatory approvals from my parents for the trip wasn't easy - it came around slowly. Once the starter turned green, I was on the job of booking tickets. The trip was designed overnight and bookings were made quickly. I was joined by, rather I was joining, Jayasankar (from Chennai), Vibin, Bharat Narayan and Sanket (all from Bangalore). I planned the trip in such a way that I join them directly at Sakleshpur, while they came in on the 6517 Yeshwantpur-Kannur express. I took the Ernakulam-Kannur Intercity from Thrissur to Kannur, and then the 6518 Yeshwantpur Express from Kannur to Sakleshpur.

My journey early in the morning - around 0620. I had a brisk walk to the nearest bus stop, and got into a KSRTC bus to head to Thrissur. Did some bus fanning at the KSRTC bus station, and then headed off to the railway station. Had my breakfast from the Food Plaza at the railway station, picked up the days' newspaper and then headed off to the Platform where my train would arrive. My train came in around 0815 (or so), behind twin WDM2s. The leading loco was WDM2 #17620 of Golden Rock. I did not notice the number of the trailing loco - but that was dead for sure. My coach was 2007-built, wrapped in advertisement of LuLu Gold. Although my ticket said I had a window seat, it turned out to be a Middle seat instead! I slept almost through the entire distance, and did not notice anything special on the journey. I hadn't slept the previous night, and utilised the 4 hours of run to catch up a few winks. I reached Kannur right on time, and then headed off to hospital to meet a relative of mine. I returned to the station post lunch, just with some time to spare for my next train.

The ad-wrapped coach of ERS-CAN Intercity

My next train, 6518 Kannur-Yeshwantpur Express, was already on the platform ready to head out. This train shares its rakes with another Bangalore bound train, which departs an hour later from Kannur and reaches about an hour earlier at Bangalore (6528 Kannur-Yeshwantpur Express, via Shornur-Salem-Hosur). I was in S3, and had a Side-lower berth (#71). The loco in charge of my train was WDM3A #18704 from Krishnarajapuram. The Loco crew were busy checking the loco. The starter turn amber dot on time - and we left at 1640 from Kannur. The TTE came around soon after we started off - and soon after the ticket was checked, I hit the bed (er! Berth). I slept almost through till Kasaragod. I resumed sleep after Kasaragod, and woke up just a while before Nethravathy bridge.

I was eager to know how far the work on the bridge was complete - was happy to see that almost 50% works were complete. We crossed Nethravathi "B" cabin and were soon approaching the point where the line from Kankanadi merges with the line to Mangalore Central station. I could see a train running on that line - and had adrenaline rushing up... That was the day express from Bangalore. We ran parallel for about 5 minutes, and finally stopped together at Mangalore Central Station. My train was a whole 30 minutes early, and we had a scheduled halt of 30 minutes at the station - adding up both, we were to remain at the station for an hour. I headed straight to the food plaza at the station for a sumptuous dinner - the food was delicious and was unusually better compared to what we get at normal railway stations.

After dinner, had a long walk to the loco to see the proceedings there. The loco had reversed by now, and the new LPs were checking the loco left, right and centre. One of the LPs was a young chap, while the other guy looked mid-aged. Both were LPs (being a ghat section, its a norm to have two LPs manning the loco) and were based at Mysore. They work all the way from Mangalore to Mysore - a distance of 309 kilometres, covered over 8 hours and 30 minutes. We started off dot at 1945 - my coach was now a beehive of activity, with passengers jostling for space every where. This train is very popular among passengers, and runs into waiting list every single day. Passengers instead take a general ticket and get into the train to capitalise on vacant berths under road-side quotas.

I was joined by two off-duty guards and one Station Manager who was heading to his posting place. I had a long chat. We crossed the Mangalore passenger at Bantwal, a twin WDG4 hauled freight at Puttur and another freighter at an unknown station. I slept soon after we left Subrahmanya Road station..... (To be continued...)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Kerala's Road Habits: An Analysis (Part-1)

I have been driving since August 2004 - I am one who learned driving exactly after I turned 18, and took a licence 40 days after my birthday. Its been 6 years of driving now, and during this period I have driven in Maharashtra, a brief stretch in Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

I have been driving daily through a typical Kerala-style highway since January this year - a distance of about 66 kms daily. I believe these 8 months were enough for me to make a conclusion on driving habits. Keralites are among the most educated lot, and people here (am too a keralite) have a special sense of driving. Here are some brief notes on the most common habits I've noticed over the past few months of driving here: (The post does not intent to harm anyone. BUT, it certainly is intended to tease your wrongdoings.)

Habit #1: Dog in the Manger:
Most of us would be familiar with the dog and the cow story. There is one habit commonly seen among drivers in Kerala, which is awfully similar to the dog in the manger. Many drivers in Kerala believe its extraordinarily safe to drive at 30-40kmph in the middle of the road, and not giving way to faster vehicles. This is one very common scene these days on the few four-laned roads in Kerala. The trick here is, the thumb rule in Kerala is (of course, this rule is valid across India) not to overtake through the left. AND, drivers in Kerala meticulously follow this rule. Most, so-called, safe drivers do not give way despite repeated honking on the highways - the typical 'do not eat; also not let others eat' attitude of the dog.

Habit #2: Start early, drive slowly:
You should be wondering whats wrong with this! But, the catch is here. Many drivers in Kerala follow this habit while overtaking. The commonest style of overtaking in Kerala is: Honk when there is no space to overtake. When there is no vehicle in the opposite side, pull immediately to the overtaking lane a.k.a. right lane. Keep driving at the same pace, which is essentially the same as the vehicle you are trying to overtake. Do not downshift, do not accelerate more. You keep going at the same pace, and the vehicle out of its own scare would pick up a km/h or more extra speed. After running parallel for about 2-3 minutes, you finally go ahead of the other vehicle. AND, by this time, there would be vehicle on the opposite side. So the vehicle following you would be one vehicle behind - this habit overlaps with Habit #1.

Habit #3: Left or Right, Centre is the best!
This is not exactly a Keralite habit, but is seen among most drivers in India - especially bikers and auto drivers. The habit is to drive in the middle of the road. In any traffic block, especially on two lane roads, the middle lane (Err! the middle portion of the road) is certainly occupied by bikes and autorickshaws. Notice the image below.

As you can see, the road is a narrow two-laned road. (Did I mention this: This is the starting portion of NH17!) All 'respectable' vehicles are lined up on the left side, and moving forward in an orderly queue. See where the bikers are. If you notice the image properly, vehicles coming the opposite direction can be seen. What benefit do bikers obtain by this? (Other than delay others). Bikers should be charged heavily for such dangerous driving habits - you are only forcing other to drive even badly after the jam.

Habit #4: Save Energy!
You would be wondering what is this all about! Did you know that Indicators consume energy. (Honestly, I never knew this!). People in Kerala prefer switching on their turn indicators well after they actually start turning! Isn't the Indicator actually indicated to warn the person behind that you would be turning? Whats the use if you switch it on after you actually start turning?

Habit #5: Safe Approach!
This is the most peculiar habit I have seen in Kerala. I might be wrong to squarely blame Keralites alone on this, and this might be existing elsewhere as well. "Safe Approach" is a tactic used by people who are about to enter the main road from a by-lane, especially when the road approaches at a 90-deg angle. Say, the person driving down the bylane needs to enter the main road and travel to the right i.e., he need to cross a lane to get on to the correct lane. In normal practice, the driver would continue perpendicular to the main road, stop at the intersection. Look on both sides, and once the road is clear or has adequate space, enters the main road at a 90-deg angle and bears a sharp right to enter the road (as shown to left in the image below).

But, most drivers (especially bikers, and people who have just upgraded to a car from a bike) in Kerala have a different practice. They stick to the right of the road they are driving on. Then enter the wrong lane on the main road irrespective of traffic, and then suddenly change over to the correct lane, irrespective of whether the lane is empty or not. The image above would give an idea of how this "safe approach" works. There has been situations where I've just let off my car and let what ever happens! You might be driving at a decent pace (read, above 60kmph), when a reckless vehicle (read, private bus) comes on the opposite side. You suddenly see a vehicle running coming in the opposite direction on the left side of the road - literally sandwiched between the devil (private bus) and the deep blue sea!

India's most literate state needs to go a long way in improving road etiquettes. While I still have more points to cry on, I reserve them for future posts - afterall, I need to keep this blog busy. Don't I?

So wait for the next part of ramblings about Kerala's driving habits. I am sorry to have generalise my observations pertaining to certain sadistic individuals - but a good share of the blame has to be on driving schools in the state - had they been training proper etiquette, the scene would have been far different. From what I understand, most accidents in the state happen when drivers get fed up of the habits mentioned above, especially Habits #1 & #2. If you are in no hurry, that doesn't mean the guy behind you too isn't - give way.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Do we really need Hartals?

Do we really need to "celebrate" hartals every now and then? It would be ideal to say Kerala celebrates four 'major' festivals each year: Vishu, Onam, Christmas and Hartal. The 'hartal' festival recurs more than once each year, and happens at short notice. I lost count of how many times has a Hartal occured in 2010 alone. In addition to the state wide hartals, we also have local hartals - district wise, taluk wise, village wise, etc.

Desolate streets on a Hartal day...
Why did we celebrate a Hartal today? It was announced that it would be an All India Strike to protest some "policies" of the Central Government, and was spearheaded by a trade union supported by the central government - Why should the government protest against itself? The strike was supported by trade unions irrespective of their political affiliations, from left to centre to right, red to orange to green.

Like very 'All India' strike, Kerala celebrated this one too as a dawn-to-dusk hartal. The All India strike rarely affects any part of the country, other than party workers taking out rallies. But Kerala (and its communist cousin, West Bengal) celebrates such strikes with great vigour. Kerala came to a literal standstill today, except two districts (Malappuram and Kottayam) - buses (both government and private) kept off the road, so did taxis and autos. Most televisions carried videos of tourists being stranded at places for want of transportation.

Kerala is trying its level best to promote itself as a tourist destination - it certainly is. However, the government directly supporting such anti-people protests is certainly not sending out a positive message to wannabe tourists. Hartals usually end up forcing people to spend the entire day at the bus station, railway station or the airport or walk their way to their destination. Kerala Police, as always, did their part to transport passengers to important places from the railway station. Their efforts need a praise.

Oh! But why were two districts exempted? Malappuram was exempted because the district is still trying to recover from the Hooch tragedy yesterday, while Kottayam was exempted due to a Church festival. So, don't the people in those districts deserve to protest, or is it that the issue is not valid there? Why is it that only Kerala needs to protest every time? When do we have an end to this political game, called Hartal?

Luckily for political parties, Elections happen very often, and Hartals are a very effective means to attract voters' attention. No wonder we get to celebrate Hartals often. Like the forward messages every Malayalee receives before a hartal, "lets enjoy Hartal! Happy Hartal!".