A Day trip to Nilambur - by Train, of course! Part-1

Nilambur is a small town nestled along the foothills of the Western Ghats, in Malappuram district of Kerala. Nilambur is connected by railway to Shoranur, and then to other parts of Kerala by means of a 66 kilometre long railway line. The railway station for Nilambur is located a little away from the town, and hence is called Nilambur Road. This is a branch line that was originally built in 1927 by the British to carry timber from teak plantations in Nilambur. The British had established teak plantations in Nilambur to supply quality timber to the rest of the British empire. Nilambur is still famous across the globe for its teak wood! The railway line was closed in 1941 during the World War, since all the resources were diverted elsewhere to assist the British military in war. The railway line was reopened in 1953-4 by Southern Railway due to persistent demands from residents in the area. The railway line is visually pleasing, and passes through teak plantations, rivulets and plenty of short hillocks. 

The railway line is also a favorite among movie makers - the line has plenty of visual treats, and has very little traffic. My wish to travel through this railway line was fulfilled back in 2012 (read my report from then, here). The Nilambur Road was the most affected due to the pandemic - train services weren't fully restored even after the railways restored trains slowly across the country. Initially only the overnight express train to Trivandrum (Kochuveli) was restored. This situation persisted for a very long time. The railways restored the Kottayam-Nilambur Road Express, formerly a passenger train, in October 2021. The Kottayam Nilambur Road passenger was originally a train between Shoranur and Nilambur Road. It was then extended to Ernakulam as the Ernakulam-Nilambur Road Passenger. It was later extended to Kottayam as a passenger train. During the pandemic, the railways went through a process called Zero Base Timetabling, whereby they culled non-remunerative trains, and set a norm that no train should be operated as a passenger train for distances over 200kms. This resulted in this passenger, among many others, being converted into an express train. Although the train gets the "express" tag, there is no substantial change in the running time or timetable - except that the fare goes up. (The fare, despite being increased, is not exorbitant or expensive by ANY stretch of imagination).

Ah! Why did I say all this? 

I badly wanted to travel by this train ever since it was restarted. The train is perfectly timed for a weekend journey - I could just go in the morning and be back home at evening. I had been planning for a journey since then. Meanwhile, I had my trip to Shirdi (reports on this blog) and then joined a new place for work. I was in a completely new job role, and every day was a new experience. Days went by and I was in no position to travel due to commitments at work. Meanwhile, a journey to Bengaluru was planned, and ticketed. That was to be the first long journey for my kid. One fine day, while at work, some photos that I saw on social media rekindled my dream of traveling to Nilambur road again! I presented this idea to TW - she was a little iffy at the beginning. I worked out some options to spend time at Nilambur while we wait for the return train. After a few rounds of discussion, we finally decide to head to Nilambur road that weekend! 

I wanted to book this ticket through a regular PRS (Passenger Reservation System) counter. My hometown has a "non-rail head" reservation counter - it works inside the office of a credit society, and hence works only during banking hours. I headed to this counter, located very close to my workplace, the very next day, and got our tickets to go to Nilambur road. Being completely used to booking through the IRCTC website, it was a little confusing to purchase a ticket through a PRS counter. Although I filled the requisition form, the counter wanted separate forms for the outward and return journeys - in all the confusion, I missed asking for a window seat, and the lady at the counter didn't feed in the request either. I ended up with two non-window seats for the outbound - and, since I noticed this, I reminded the lady to check for window seats for the return journey at least. 

December 05, 2021:

It was very early start to the day. We were to board our train to Nilambur Road at Irinjalakuda station. I hadn't been to the station in almost a decade, and I had done a recce through Google maps the previous day to confirm that the station had sufficient parking for cars. We started off quite early from home, and reached Irinjalakuda by around 0730hrs - our train was to depart at 0751hrs. The car parking was, needless to say, huge. However, the catch is that the trees around the parking area were home to countless species of birds. All the cars parked below were coated in layers of bird shit! I had an inkling of this problem (from media reports that came in about a decade ago), however, did not imagine it to be a bummer. The parking attendant warned me as I was parking my car, and I moved it to a place where there were no trees.

The journey begins from here - Irinjalakuda station, in Thrissur district

Irinjalakuda is a sleepy little station that is located far away from the actual town. The station is located at a place called Kallettumkara, about 7 kilometres from the municipality town of Irinjalakuda. After the implementation of the much touted Zero Base Timetable, halts for a few trains were removed, and a handful of trains stop here these days. My train to Nilambur was one such train. Soon after we arrived at Irinjalakuda, the Chennai Central-Alappuzha express came in, followed by the late running Bengaluru-Kanniyakumari Island express. The station turns silent after the trains that stop here depart. We were traveling on a Sunday, and that might have contributed to the silence as well!

A little before our train came in, the Guruvayur-Ernakulam "Express Special" came in. This was also formerly a passenger train - it still is, but masquerades as an Express train. Meanwhile, my train to Nilambur - the 16326 Kottayam-Nilambur Road "Express" slowly crawled in to the station. I was excited to see a WAP1 doing the honours (WAP1s are slowly getting extinct - very few of them remain, from what I know). In charge on that day was WAP1 #22016 from Erode Diesel Loco Shed (EDDS). The "Diesel Loco shed" part is being retained to differentiate the facility from the Electric Loco shed that existed since long. We started from Irinjalakuda at 0808hrs - about 17 minutes behind schedule. Although we had plenty of stops ahead, we had to fly ahead to keep the section clear for two expresses behind us. 

Although an "express" by fare structure and categorisation, it still a "passenger" it terms of halts. The train stops at every station on the route (except for halt stations). We had our next halt at Pudukkad (0823hrs). This was also only a minute long - however, since the platform is located on a loop line, it takes a while for the train to crawl in, stop, start and crawl out. It was a quick dash after Pudukkad, to Thrissur. I was quite hungry by now, and my kid began digging into the packet of biscuit that we were carrying. The coach, D1 (GS 126530 based at Nagercoil), was quite crowded. I didn't imagine this train to be so crowded on a Sunday - and this was shock! We had non-window seats, and my kid (hereinafter referred to as TD, aka "The Daughter") was quite disappointed. Nevertheless, she is always excited to travel. 

We rolled in to Thrissur by 0837hrs (about 9 minutes behind schedule) - I picked up our breakfast from here. Interestingly, as soon as the train stopped, people mobbed the train mistaking this train to be a train to  the north/east (the Tatanagar Express and Dhanbad express were behind us) - but the alighted soon after realising their folly. We started off at 0840hrs (10 minutes behind schedule now). Soon after departing from Thrissur, we gobbled the hot Idly-Vada that I had purchased from the station. Thrissur's base kitchen serves really amazing food - my experience everytime with them has been good. Meanwhile, the train had scheduled stops at Punkunnam and Mulagunnathukavu - we also crossed a couple of trains. 

At Wadakkanchery!

I headed to the door as we rolled in to Wadakkanchery (0902hrs - 11 minutes behind schedule). We crossed the Kochuveli bound Raptisagar Express here - this train is the only train to Kerala running with an AC 3-Tier economy coach. We had one more stop after Wadakkanchery - at Vallathol Nagar. Vallathol Nagar is the railhead to the renowned Kerala Kalamandalam (deemed to be a university in Arts & Culture) - this station has a track level platform, and only "passenger" trains (all of them now masquerade as expresses) stop here. We started from Vallathol Nagar at 0917hrs - 7 minutes behind schedule. We crossed over to Palakkad division, and the bridge across the Bharathapuzha river. Bharathapuzha is the favorite location of movie directors, and has been the location for many a romantic sequences in Malayalam movies. We rolled in to Shoranur junction (Platform 3, if I recall correctly) at 0927hrs - early by 43 minutes!!

The WAP1 all set to go away after bringing us to Shoranur!

I rushed to see the locomotive change - the Shoranur-Nilambur Road section isn't electrified (as on date of this post, as well) and requires Diesel locomotives. Southern Railway is quite a stickler for using electric locomotives as far as possible, and hence this train requires a loco change at Shoranur. The WAP1 gave way to a WDM3A here - Ernakulam Loco Shed's WDM3A #14076 took over from here. This was a "double" excitement for me - the WDM3A was one, that from Ernakulam, was the second! After the loco attachment, I headed towards the refreshment room to pick up some snacks and tea. Tea was being prepared "live" - and not the usual tea-bag "dip". The snacks were hot as well. By now, the crowd inside the coach had lightened a bit.

WAP1 #22016 of Erode Diesel Loco Shed after being disconnected

The long wait at Shoranur..

While we were waiting for departure at Shoranur, the Mangalore bound Ernad Express, the Trivandrum bound Netravati Express and the Sabari Express (also to Trivandrum) came in. The Coimbatore-Mangalore Express (former Fast Passenger) also came in as we were about to depart. We started off exactly at 1020hrs - perfectly on time. The line to Nilambur Road branches out from the station itself, and the train doesn't have to cross the main line all over again (unless it departs from Platform 5-7). The Ernakulam deemer was a nice smoker and made amazing chugging sounds. I was traveling behind an Alco over the day after a very long time, and this was an exciting experience. 

WDM3A #14076 of Ernakulam - shot after we reached Nilambur Road

We crossed the Kannur-Coimbatore Express (former passenger) at Shoranur Home signal - I guess this train was waiting for us to vacate the platform. The topography changes once the train enters the line to Nilambur road. The track is lined by teak trees on either sides, and the overall layout retains the old world charm. This train makes only 2 stops before it terminates at Nilambur Road - skipping all the smaller "halt" stations on the way. The train tranverses through thick teak plantations, interspersed with rivers and rock cuttings all along. We rolled in to our first halt - Angadippuram by 1050hrs - early by 4 minutes. Most passengers alighted here, and the coach more-or-less emptied by now. Angadippuram is the railhead for the town of Perinthalmanna (the second biggest town in Malappuram district) and also to a famous temple nearby. Angadippuram also has a siding dedicated to the Food Corporation of India (FCI). Angadippuram was the terminus of this line in its initial days, and was the only station with crossing facility for a very long time. The Shoranur-Nilambur railway line is a case study of how the railways could neglect a branch line, and not work on proposals to extend it to make the service more meaningful. 

Waiting for the starter at Angadipuram..

We started from Angadippuram at 1055hrs - the scheduled departure time. Since this is the sole train in the entire section, the trains do wait for passengers (if the crew see people approaching) and do not hurry around. We get closer to the western ghats as the train approaches Nilambur, and the surroundings become a little more rocky. The train ambles along at speeds not over 75kmph (the maximum permissible speed for this line). There were a few historic bridges on the way as well. By now, we had changed seats, and TD was enjoying the ride sitting at a window seat. We got to Vaniyambalam by 1119hrs - we were now left with very few passengers on board. We started from Valiyambalam at 1121hrs - for the last 10 kilometre ride to Nilambur.

The visuals got a little monotonous with the same teak trees lined up on either side. I've been wanting to go to this place during the monsoon - I think that wait would get longer! The last 10 kilometres were covered in 15 minutes and we rolled in to Nilambur Road station by 1135hrs - about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Nilambur Road station had changed a lot from my last visit - a new entrance has been commissioned along with high level platforms. During my last visit, the station had a ground level platform. There used to be a beautiful signal hut - which seems to have disappeared now. Unfortunately, the Indian Railways believes in tearing down heritage during the process of modernization. They could've preserved some of the older relics - and that would've made for a nice picnic spot for people who arrive early at the station. 

We had nothing to do at Nilambur until the departure of our return train - hence, decided to head out to the Teak Museum, located a few kilometres away from the station. The Teak museum is a great place to spend some time, if you are around Nilambur. It has a series of well kept displays that educate the visitors about Teak, and also a nice park to spend some time. We returned to the station well before the departure of our return train - I think I'd rather post the return journey as a seperate part - this one is a little too long already!!

Journey in a Nutshell:
Train Number: 16326 Kottayam - Nilambur Road Express
Loco link: WAP1 #22016 of Erode until Shoranur, and then WDM3A #14076 of Ernakulam
Coach: D1, GS #126530 based at Nagercoil

Ratings:
Punctuality: 10/10
Cleanliness: 10/10
Coach Maintenance: 10/10
Bedroll: Not Applicable
Catering: Not Applicable

Overall: 10/10

This was a dream come true journey! The journey itself was the purpose of this journey! The excitement my daughter had was priceless, and made up for any discomfort in the course of the journey. The fact that I could enjoy chugging from an ALCo was a priceless experience! A summary of this travel can only be complete after the second part as well!

Do visit my video report of this journey on YouTube!

Comments

rahulvijayev said…
Beautiful report (as usual)!!
Couple of queries:
1. " The "Diesel Loco shed" part is being retained to differentiate the facility from the Electric Loco shed that existed since long" - I couldnt understand this completely. Can you please explain more on this? Why dont they write Electric Loco Shed?
2. Since you mentioned about maximum usage of e-locos by SR, just wanted to check why does Rajdhani and few trains run on d-loco from MAJN-ERS/TVC-MAJN?
Binai K Sankar said…
1. Erode already has an "Electric Loco Shed". This facility was earlier the Diesel Loco Shed. Hence, the name Diesel Loco Shed continues to be used. They cannot have 2 sheds with the same name - and both the shed have independent administrative structure as well.
2. "Why" is a question that I cannot answer - I am not a railway employee, and in no way connected to the operations team of the railways. I can only guess - probably to save time - a loco change consumes a lot of time, and trains like Rajdhani run to very tight schedules.
Unknown said…
I want to travel by this train to wadakkanncherry from tripunithura on 4th May.Can I do advance booking in this train?Will it be crowded to get in from tripunithura?
Binai K Sankar said…
Unfortunately, this train doesn't have advance reservation anymore. The train would be crowded till Thrissur, will free up after that.