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...)