Christmas day, 2021: I was sitting bored to the core having nothing to do. I badly wanted to travel somewhere, away from the madness that I was mired in. I had a few trips in the planning, and was thinking of doing one of them over this weekend. I was to move jobs sometime early in 2022, and I wanted to finish some trips that I had been planning since a long time. One such trip was a visit to the Sengottai-Punalur railway line.
I had travelled to this place while it was still in Meter gauge, back in 2010 - that was one ride I had enjoyed, despite many challenges I had faced back then. (Read my writing on that here). Years went by. The line had closed for gauge conversion soon after my journey - the gauge conversion dragged on for years due to geotechnical issues. The railways initially proposed abandoning the alignment and going for a new alignment altogether - which I think was the right way to go. There was heavy pressure from the locals to retain the alignment - the railways finally succumbed to the pressure and went about converting the line along the same alignment. However, the original alignment was made for meter gauge - narrower dimensions and shorter coaches. Broad guage coaches are wider, taller and heavier! More on this, perhaps, in another writeup to come very soon.
I had been planning to revisit the Sengottai (Shencottah) - Punalur section since long. The railways reinvigorated electrification project has been threatening to bring every bit of railway line under the wires - while it sounds like a very positive plan to save on fuel and bring in a green change to the environment, I've always felt electrification of every line was uncalled for, and will only bring in higher expenses on upkeep. Its a policy decision - and will keep going on! As a railfan who was attracted to the railways by the macho diesel locomotives, electrification is always a sad moment. I wanted to cover as many unelectrified lines as possible, and I had to hurry up with my plans!
It was a quick, split second, plan to travel to Tirunelveli that night! The plan was to take the Palaruvi Express to Tirunelveli, and then retrace my route back on the Tirunelveli-Sengottai passenger, and then the Sengottai-Kollam passenger. I first searched for trains for traveling back from Kollam to my hometown, since I had to report to work the following day. I found that Palaruvi Express was waitlisted - there were plenty of confirmed seats available in Tatkal quota though. I didn't want to risk the trip getting cancelled due to lack of tickets, and decided to book a ticket under the Tatkal quota.
December 25, 2021:
It was a minor riot of sorts as I disclosed my travel plan at home - it took a while to convince. I did all this at the very last moment, and I hurriedly packed my bags. I had to leave home around 1500hrs. The plan was to drive down to Irinjalakuda, leave my car there and take the MEMU special to Thrissur. I had to board the Palaruvi Express from Thrissur - this train doesn't stop at Irinjalakuda, although the train runs more like a passenger train between Ernakulam and Kollam. Traveling to Thrissur is kind of a duplication of journey - but I had no better choice.
I managed to leave home around my planned travel time - I was in a little bit of hurry since I wanted to get to Irinjalakuda in time to meet the Intercity express coming in from Bengaluru. I reached just in time as the Venad Express to Trivandrum was pulling in. The intercity express followed. This was to be my first unreserved journey ever since the pandemic struck in 2020! The MEMU was, then, one of the very few unreserved trains operating in Kerala. Although MEMUs (Mainline Electrical Multiple Units) are technically for operating shuttle trains (Passenger trains in Indian Railway parlance), the pandemic has caused the railways to adopt a backdoor method of hiking fares, by operating these trains as "expresses". The MEMU stops everywhere, but levies express fares. Not that express fares are unaffordable or too high - my ride cost me Rs. 30, for about 24 kilometres.
|The 3-Phase MEMU
|My ticket to travel from Irinjalakuda to Thrissur
The MEMU ride was uneventful - but was exciting. It was my first ever MEMU ride in Kerala, and also the first one on a 3-Phase MEMU. The interiors were really improved and were much more comfortable over the MEMUs earlier. The trainset had phenomenal pick-up, and the ride was real quick. We ended up ahead of schedule at almost every place. The short ride to Thrissur ended at 1638hrs. I headed straight to Platform 1 to check the coach position on Palaruvi Express, and also to pick up some water and snacks. Since I had hurried through the packing, I hadn't taken water from home. The most-modern greenboard used to display coach positions at Thrissur mentioned that my coach would be the 7th from the locomotive.
|At the 7th coach position @ Thrissur
The Palaruvi Express is a short rake - all of 14 coaches long, with 4 sleeper class coaches and the remaining General Sitting coaches. The train used to be fully unreserved in the past - before it got the sleeper coaches. Later, reservation was available only in the Sleeper coaches. Post pandemic, reservation is available in Sleeper as well as a couple of sitting coaches. The Palaruvi is an extremely popular train as well - It is a connection for people returning from work in different offices around Thrissur, and also the only connection to Punalur and surrounding areas during evening hours. The train is also a "faster" connection for people traveling to Tirunelveli side. The crowd on the platform was testimony to its popularity. The station was not very active, except for the crowd on Platform 1 waiting for the Palaruvi express.
The Palaruvi express was initially started as a passenger train between Punalur and Palakkad - named after a waterfalls by the same name, located near Punalur. The train was later upgraded to an express train, and then extended to Sengottai. It was further extended, presumably for operational reasons, to Tirunelveli. Although the train carries the tag of an express train, it has stellar performance only between Palakkad and Ernakulam Town. Its more of a passenger train after Ernakulam Town. The train reverses direction at Kollam - also gets a new locomotive after reversal.
The train came in at 1720hrs - about 3 minutes behind schedule, with Arakkonam's WAP4 #22726, in the old Shatabdi Express livery, in charge. It was a short rake (just 14 coaches), and the loco seemed to have stopped earlier. All the reserved coaches came a little away from where they were supposed to be - needless to say, this caused some confusion, and people ran across to get into their coaches. Most of the crowd were for the sitting coaches though - I spotted very few people boarding sleeper coaches. The train started off at 1723hrs - continuing its 3 minute delay.
|Somewhere during the journey...
|WAP4 #22726 of Arakkonam arriving at Thrissur with the Palaruvi Express
The run out of Thrissur was eventless. The setting sun, and the vast paddy fields along is always an enchanting visual. There were plenty of people enjoying their weekends along the railway tracks as well - people were angling sitting on railway bridges across small streams and canals. We crossed the Alappuzha-Kannur Intercity express at Pudukkad, and the Trivandrum-New Delhi Kerala Express at Irinjalakuda. This train has a non-stop run from Thrissur to Aluva - the coach wasn't much crowded at this point of time. We got to Aluva by 1812 and departed by 1815hrs. We crossed the Ernakulam-Shoranur MEMU right outside Aluva. It got darker as we neared Ernakulam.
The train pulled in to Ernakulam Town railway station by 1837hrs - about 8 minutes ahead of schedule. The reserved coaches filled up here. The Chennai bound Mail from Trivandrum was to arrive immediately after we depart - the other platform had passengers for the Mail. I picked up some snacks from here - and decided to pick-up dinner from Kottayam. The train started off from Ernakulam Town at 1850hrs - perfectly on schedule. We crossed the Chennai Mail near Ernakulam coaching depot. The run after Ernakulam was very eventless - it was dark outside, and I had to tune in to a movie on my phone to remain entertained. The train had stops at almost every station on the way. I remained glued to my phone for the rest of the ride.
We crossed the Kochuveli-Sriganganagar Express at Piravom Road station - the new coaches for Mangala Express was parked on the loop line at Piravom. We had stop after stop - very little people alighted or joined my coach though. We pulled in to Kottayam at 2019hrs - very unusually, the train was received on Platform 2, instead of 1. I thought this could be to facilitate a crossing - but that wasn't the case. I picked up my dinner, of Chapati and Veg Curry (Black chickpea in a coconut based gravy), from a vendor. In fact, the starter was taken off as I was paying for the food. I managed to get into the train before the loco gave out the predeparture horn. We departed from Kottayam at 2021hrs - a minute behind schedule.
Track doubling works between Ettumanoor and Chingavanam is in progress, and the area around Kottayam is under speed restriction due to the ongoing work. The tunnel right outside Kottayam station (there are two tunnels one after the other, right outside Kottayam) is being cut to make way for the second line - and this results in trains having to crawl through the region. We picked up pace after entering double line territory, at Chingavanam. Our next halt was at Changanassery (2044hrs), where were crossed the Kochuveli-Banaswadi Humsafar Express. Changanassery is the first of the "big-3", a series of three stations where almost every train stops. Interestingly, each of these 3 stations are located only 10 kilometres apart, but fall in 3 different districts! All the stops are only a minute or two long, and the platforms are located on the main line as well, thereby reducing the time spent at each place.
We got to the next halt, at Thiruvalla by 2054hrs - we crossed the Ernakulam bound Vanchinad Express here. We crossed the Punalur-Guruvayur Express right outside Chengannur, as well. This train things a little forward, and stops at Cheriyanad as well - I think this is the only express train to stop there (may be Venad does, as well)! The stop after Cheriyanad was Mavelikara (2120hrs). We got to Kayamkulam at 2132hrs - about 6 minutes ahead of schedule. I wanted to buy a bottle of water - but the stall on the platform, closest to my coach, appeared closed, and I didn't want to wander far for a bottle of water (I had some more left in the bottle I was carrying). We started off from Kayamkulam at 2140hrs - perfectly on time, now. We crossed the Mangalore bound Maveli Express as we were pulling out from Kayamkulam.
The train had another string of stops now - Oachira, Karunagappalli, Sasthamkotta, Munroethuruthu, Perinad, before reaching Kollam. I was engrossed in the movie I was watching that I didn't notice the timings at these places. My co-passengers had pulled out the berths by now, and I was forced to lay down as well - except the fact that I noticed the train stopping at all these places, I couldn't really check where exactly the train was stopping. We rolled in to Kollam by 2242hrs - about 43 minutes ahead of schedule now. I was expecting the train to be received on Platform 1A - but we were taken on Platform 1 instead.
|The absolutely deserted Kollam station
Kollam Junction was deserted at this point of time - I couldn't find anybody around except people who alighted from this train. There were no other trains scheduled at this time as well. Houekeeping staff were busy cleaning the platform at this time. A few food stalls were open - and I managed to pick up a coffee and a bottle of water from here. I headed to the tail end to check the new locomotive. No diesel locos were seen anywhere around, and I was wondering where would a loco come in from. At this point, I spotted a diesel loco parked far away in the yard, and the I could see some staff doing some checks on the loco - presumably the loco pilots were performing the pre-trip inspection at that time. The loco was turned on, and it took about 10 minutes from then for the loco to reach our platform. Pointsmen were already on the platform waiting for the loco to come in.
It was quite cold outside. I casually checked the temperature prediction for the region we were about to travel through - I was quite shocked to see that Punalur was predicted to go down to about 16 deg celsius! I wasn't really prepared to that kind of weather! I did carry a shawl along - but that would surely be insufficient!
|WDG3A #13283 of Kollam after taking charge of Palaruvi Express
The new loco for our train was WDG3A #13283 of Golden Rock Diesel loco shed. It took quite some time for the loco coupling to complete - the staff took their own sweet time, more-so perhaps since the train was too early! I returned to the coach as the coupling was completed - picking up another coffee on the way. The train started off from Kollam at 2330hrs - at its scheduled departure time.
I was hoping to sleep for a while - but things didn't really go the way I'd wanted. My co-passengers were alighting at the next station - so they were in a state of preparedness to alight and the commotion associated with their deboarding made me a little alert. I dozed off soon after they left - a short nap would be the right word to use. I work up just at the train was pulling in to Punalur station. Although I would have loved to go watch the banker attachment, I was sleepy and didn't want to risk doing that the middle of nowhere, especially at wee hours!
For the uninitiated, the Punalur-Sengottai section is officially a ghat section according to Indian Railways Standards. This stretch requires all passengers trains to be assisted by a Banker locomotive (A Pusher, in American parlance). The train ascends a fairly steep ghat section, and reaches the summit a little past Aryankavu station - the train descends down to Sengottai from there. In the meter gauge days, a Banker wasn't required - the grade wasn't a challenge for the puny meter gauge trains, and the YDM4s merrily went up the ghats! Broad Gauge is heavier and also comes with its own challenges. The Meter gauge track was laid keeping in mind the narrower width (1m width between rails) for the permanent way. Meter gauge coaches were shorter (in height and length) and hence could go through sharp curves. Broad gauge is almost twice the width of meter gauge (1.67m compared to only 1m) - hence the trains cannot take sharper curves.
Gauge conversion of this line met too many challenges - the tunnels were too narrow, the curves were very sharp and the ghat was a little challenging for the heavier coaches. I am not sure if this section is yet approved for high-horsepower (HHP) locomotives like the WDP4s, or if the longer LHB coaches could transverse this section. The new, wider permanent way also had its own challenges - the old line was built hugging around the slopes. Fresh rock had to be cut to gain additional space to lay wider tracks - this made the already fragile western ghat further unstable. Soil erosion and land slides have been a regular incident since!
Meanwhile, the work on attaching the banker was completed, and my train crawled out of Punalur at 0035hrs (5 minutes behind schedule). The rake of the Trivandrum-Punalur passenger, along with a lone WDG3A from Golden Rock was the only presence at the station while we left. The train slowly ascended the ghat cutting through the darkness and the biting cold wind! It was getting really cold as the train ascended the ghat - I was struggling with the small shawl that I was carrying. I tried hard to sleep - but I couldn't! Mobile network vanished as we went deeper in to the ghat. We pulled in to the loop line at New Aryankavu station - I was a little confused if this was for detachment of the banker loco.
A little later, I spotted a pointsman crossing the track with a green flasher - this indicated that we were waiting for a crossing. The only other train in the section at night is our pairing train - the Tirunelveli-Palakkad Palaruvi Express. The ALCo could be heard long before the train actually became visible - the train was hauled by a WDG3A from Golden Rock. Interestingly, this train also had a banker - it is unusual to see downhill trains having a banker (they usually get brakers - such loco are attached at the head of the rake, ahead of the main locomotive). I got the answer to why trains from Sengottai to Punalur also needed a banker during my return journey! (Do wait for that - will come up very soon).
We started off from New Aryankavu station 0159hrs after the crossing. The actual Aryankavu station is located a little away from "New Aryankavu". The old Aryankavu station is located on a curve and along a rock cutting. The available land was too narrow to fit two broad gauge tracks, and the railways had to choose alternative land to shift the station. However, public protested, and the railways ended up having two stations at Aryankavu - the older station is now called "Aryankavu Halt", and the newer one with the crossing facility is called "New Aryankavu Block". The old Aryankavu station was very beautiful - the newer one doesn't have the same charm!
I returned to my berth with the hope of being able to sleep. I think I managed to sleep a little. I do not recollect the train stopping anywhere on the way - I am not sure if they had stopped at Sengottai to detach the banker loco. The train did not have a scheduled stop at Sengottai though. I woke up as the train stopped at Tenkasi for a scheduled halt - at 0308hrs (5 minutes ahead of schedule). Quite a lot of people alighted here. We started off at 0315hrs - at our scheduled departure time. The train stops at most crossing stations between Tenkasi and Tirunelveli. I tried sleeping - but all in vain.
People turned on all the lights and it was a commotion inside the train as we neared Tirunelveli. I could understand that this train was a favorite among traders who traveled frequently between Kerala and southern parts of Tamilnadu. We, finally, pulled in to Tirunelveli station at 0442hrs - ahead of schedule by 8 minutes! I walked out the coach completely groggy and a little confused. I badly needed a cup of coffee to regain some senses - and I got a hot, perfectly brewed, filter coffee from the stall on Platform 1 - to start, what would be, a very long and busy day!
Hey! Do watch my video from this journey on YouTube!
Journey in a Nutshell:
Train Number: 16792 Palakkad Jn - Tirunelveli Jn Palaruvi Express
Loco link: WAP4 #22726 of Arakkonam until Kollam, WDG3A #13283 of Golden Rock till Tirunelveli
Coach: S2, WGSCN #13233 based at Tirunelveli
Coach Maintenance: 9/10
Bedroll: Not Applicable
Catering: Not Applicable
The Palaruvi "express" is the only option from parts of central Kerala to travel towards Tenkasi side. Although a slow train, it is very popular option. Tickets are usually difficult to come by. I feel this train would do great with an AC coach being added to the consist - the Sleeper coaches get fairly good patronage as well. It was a good journey - although I did not sleep that next, the next day was happening, and a day that I thoroughly enjoyed!