Sunday, May 08, 2011

A Train-o-logue after long...

Since over a year, buses have been my preferred choice for travel. Trains never came on my list, at any point of time. Since shifting to Kerala in 2009, the number of travels by train can be counted on fingers! I did make a few train rides with college mates to attend various seminars, but the travels would be more of a fun trip, and very rarely did I railfan during those trips. A couple of weeks back, a friends get-together was planned at Paravur (near Kollam). I quickly zeroed in on a train journey, and booked tickets in CC of the Guruvayur-Trivandrum Intercity express.

The journey was on May 01, 2011. My initial plan was to start from home at 4.30am, and reach the station by 5.15am, for the train departing at 5.50am. However, things did not work according to my plan, and I could start from home only around 4.50am. It was mad rush afterwards, and finally ended up with a closed level cross at Edappally, trailing a slow moving truck for quite some distance in the city - at the end of all confusion, I reached Ernakulam station only at 5.30. Parking my car took more time, and it was 5.40 when I entered the platform. On entering the station, I found that my train would come on Platform 4. The PA system blurted out that the train would depart at 5.50, just as I entered Platform 1. It was a mad dash over the Foot-over-bridge to reach the train on time. Just as I reached Platform 4, WAP4 #22548 (of Royapuram?) pulled in with my train.

The crowd on the platform was very high, and the unreserved coaches were already spilling out. There was no indication of where my coach would be, and I had to run to find out my coach before the train left. I reached my coach just about in time - my seat was #61 in C1. It was, thankfully, an aisle seat. The entire coach was booked out, and a lot of "wannabes" were standing around the entry to get a seat. The TTE checked all passengers even before the train started off. We started off exactly at 5.50am. The TTE finished checking all passengers and turned down the "wannabes". My neighbour was a lady in her 50s. I switched on my iPod, and remained tuned to music for a good part of the journey.

Thuravur was our first halt. We kept very good pace for most of our journey. My train crossed other trains at very frequent intervals - we were never made to stop for any train, till we reached Cheppad. This was out first halt for a crossing, and turned out to be a long one too. The opposite train was the Kozhikode bound Jan Shatabdi - which came in with WDM2 #18698 of Erode. The train had a medley of coaches - some wrapped in Joy Alukkas advertisement, while some appeared freshly repainted. I noticed that there was another train at the station - which had an NE rake (the Raptisagar express?). Our next scheduled halt was Kayankulam - which turned out too long. We were overtaken by the Vanchinad express here (Could not notice the loco, since the rake of the Kayankulam-Ernakulam passenger blocked my view). I did not notice the time when we crossed each station - I was not in railfanning mood anytime during the journey.

I was in a semi-awake state through the journey - and hardly noticed details of the run. The catering in the train was handled by one "Joy", and the items they sold were all good. I had breakfast from the train (Idli-Vada) - the food served was decent. The vendors were mostly from TN, with a few north indians completing the "gang". I was to get off at Paravur. I was in constant touch with a "new born" railfan, Sankar, throughout the journey. Sankar was reaching Paravur from Trivandrum by the 16382 CAPE-CSTM Express, while I was reaching there by the 16341 GUV-TVC Intercity express - both trains are scheduled to reach PVU around the same time. I finally got off at PVU around 9:30, delayed by about 35 minutes (thanks to the long waiting for the JS to cross, and the stupid decision to let the Vanchinad ahead). The Vanchinad express was running a good 50 minutes late that day, and we had to wait a good 15 minutes for it arrive at Kayankulam, and another 10 minutes for it to clear the block ahead!

Paravur was hot and humid.. what ensued was some train spotting, and finally a lively journey back home by BUS!!! I know I did very little justice to this journey as a railfan.. did not even notice the number of my coach (I vaguely remember, it was a 98 built coach). Hardly noticed the details of the journey.. hope to get into some railfanning this year!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Garuda, still flying?

That was my first question when I walked into a horribly crowded Thampanoor Central Bus Station (CBS) in Thiruvananthapuram. I walked straight to the enquiry counter and asked if the Volvo service to Ernakulam was running on that day - the guy at the counter turned back, and asked another officer: "Innu Volvo vanno?" (Did the Volvo come today?). The other guy replied affirmative. The guy at the counter turned to me and confirmed the bus was indeed running today - departing at 16.40hrs. The time was then just past 14.30hrs. I had two full hours to kill - a blessing for the bus fan in me.

It was tiring day - that started off at 4 in the morning. I was sweating so badly that my dress was wet by now - i could feel sweat dripping off my face. I decided to rest for a while, and remained seated on one of the many vacant seats. A while after, the Volvo to Bangalore turned up - RA101 was working the trip today. I tried my luck to see if tickets were available in this bus to Ernakulam (Vyttila) - but sadly, the trip was fully sold off. They were preferring only passengers to Thrissur or beyond. The bus to Ernakulam does not offer reservations, and hence one needs to be real quick to get a seat.

The bus station was getting crowded by the hour - it was a Sunday, and the population in Trivandrum prefers having a picnic over the weekend, and the number of people on the roads was just humungous. Kochi sleeps over a Sunday, while Trivandrum was active - was more active than on a working day! The bus station was crowded - crowded like a market! There were people everywhere. To add to my woes, it was overcast, and humidity went over limits. I decided to roam outside the bus station. Headed out to see a lot of buses never seen earlier - and walked around capturing buses.

I suffered a horrible muscle cramp when I tried getting on to a footpath... Ouch! It was paining badly. I struggled to get moving from there.. and somehow managed getting back to the main platform of the bus station. Thankfully, a seat was empty, and somehow managed to get on. But the cramp was so bad, that I couldn't sit at all - it was paining very bad. There was no way that I could sit.. walking was giving a bit of relief, and I kept walking. Around 16.15 hrs, I asked a security guy when the Volvo would be brought in - he was unsure. I remained around the platform where my bus would arrive.

Around 16.20hrs, I saw the Volvo (RA102) being pulled out of the garage - I got set to prance the moment the bus stops and the door is opened. I was the second passenger to get in - I got in just as the driver prepared to reverse the bus into the platform. The door was closed just after I got into the bus. I just managed to get into my favorite seat, when - ouch! The other leg also cramped! A lot of massages later, I managed to sit! My leg was still paining badly. The bus filled up in a matter of a few moments - but most passengers were to Kollam and Kayamkulam! I was seriously disappointed by the way they were filling up with local passengers.

By 16.35 hrs, all seats were sold. The Conductor went to get the waybill signed, and we were good to go. The bus pulled out sharp at 16.40hrs. Since all seats were sold, we had the liberty of directly cutting through to the bypass, instead of roaming around in the city. But the driver still decided to take the normal course - a decision which he regretted later on. We started off from the bus station, only to get stuck at a traffic snarl, just 500 metres from the bus station. We managed to get through the snarl, only to end up in diversions. We finally reached the General Hospital junction - by now, the driver started asking for directions to hit the bypass - a good Samaritan (a passenger seated right behind the driver) decided to help the driver - he gave directions at each point. We hit the bypass very soon.

Once on the bypass, our driver (a cool guy in his late 20s or early 30s) meant business - we were quickly cruising at 80kmph. He never exceeded 90kmph, even when the roads were empty. I was seriously amazed with his lane discipline, and awareness of road etiquette - a very rare sight in Kerala. He signaled before changing lanes any time, honked before overtaking and used the indicators while returning to his lane. He used the headlamps judiciously, and used the low beam whenever there was a vehicle in the opposite direction! He used only the dippers at night - oh boy! He was one excellent driver.

We rushed non stop from Kazhakoottam to Attingal. We stopped outside the bus station at Attingal - a few guys got off, and an equal number got in from here. The conductor was calling up the next bus station every time, and intimated the station officer of the exact number of seats available, so that announcements could be made for passenger waiting at the bus station. The crew were really interested in filling up the bus - both were youngsters, around the same age group. They were really motivated, and such crew will help KSRTC fill up their buses.

From their conversations, I found that the conductor was a regular on the Ernakulam-Trivandrum route these days, while the driver is a regular on the Ernakulam-Moovattupuzha Volvo service. The driver was well-versed with the features of the bus - he used the retarders, the suspension adjustments, and almost all the facilities provided to drivers! I was seriously impressed with the crew. But the bus was disappointing - the gears weren't engaging properly, there was no entertainment system (a TV did exist, but there was no player!). The ride was good, and rattles were minimum. The driver door did not seem to shut properly - there was a lot of wind noise whenever the bus went about 80kmph.

We reached Kollam at 1820 - about 8 passengers got off here - and the same number got in. A couple of guys wanting to go to Kozhikode got in, but there was only one vacant seat. The conductor made it clear that they are not allowed to take in standing passengers, and that they had to disembark. Or one could continue his journey, while the other waited for the next bus. Both the guys were heavily drunk, and the security guys have to use a bit of force to vacate them. While they got off, a single passenger got in, and he took a ticket to Ernakulam. We left Kollam at 1824. The run got a bit slow after here - the traffic was heavy, and it got dark. We dropped a good number of passengers at Karunagappally (they all had to pay fares upto Kayamkulam) - some 17 passengers got off here! None got in. We stopped at Kayamkulam (at 1920) for a tea break. More passengers got off, but around 10~15 passengers got in. An announcement was made at the bus station to attract more passengers as well.
We left Kayamkulam at 1930. Dropped a couple more passengers at Haripad (but some 5 passengers got in here). We dropped more passengers at Alappuzha - the bus does not go to the bus station, and drops off passengers at Medical College Junction itself. We crossed Alappuzha at 2020 hrs - thats about 150-odd kms in about 3 hours and 40 minutes, not bad I'd say. It was an excellent ride after Alappuzha. The conductor was well-versed with the route - it turned out that he did his graduation from a College near Cherthala, and he knew the roads around here! The driver too was well versed with the route - he seemed to be a regular guy in this section before getting promoted to Volvos!

We kept very good pace on the road - almost all overtakes were long ones - I mean we overtook 3-4 cars at one go. Once past Cherthala, our driver let the beast rip. The beast took out all its might, but we kept our speed restricted to 90kmph. The bus was taking rough patches very well - the bus is a good 2 years and 5 months old, and has clocked well over 5 lakhs kilometres. But the engine still seemed young, and was kicking! By 2100, we were past Aroor. We reached Vyttila around 2115 - a few guys got off. We stopped at Kadavanthra as well as Pallimukku to drop passengers. We finally pulled into Ernakulam Bus Station, sharp at 2130 hrs! Now, our driver was confused as to which side was the fuel tank - I was quick to say, "both sides". He did not believe, but he got off the bus with me to confirm!

This was my fastest run from Trivandrum to Ernakulam - the last time the Volvo took a good 5:30 hours. This time we took only 4:50 hrs. For Rs. 251, the Volvo service is too good. The only disadvantage is that these buses do not have reservations, and is not very reliable. Very often, the service is cancelled, and replaced with Deluxe buses. I was perhaps lucky this time, to have the Garuda flying on the day. I hope KSRTC gets more such buses, and ensures punctual running of such money spinning routes.