Planning a trip is never an easy task. The first thing is the spark - I had that already. I was on the verge of a career shift, and I needed to utilize the little time I had to explore a few territories that I have been to in the past, but couldn't enjoy due to multiple reasons. Rameswaram was one such place. I had been there in 2012 (read here), but a nagging headache and the heat made me beat a hasty retreat. Ten years (almost) later, I was on the drawing board planning yet another journey to Rameswaram. Things have changed post covid. A lot of trains are now missing. The planning this time wasn't wasy. I also wanted to try out a DEMU (Diesel Electric Multiple Unit) - with fast paced electrification, DEMUs might be removed from duties sooner than expected.
With this added need, the planning process appeared complicated. I spent a lot of time researching connections on the National Train Enquiry System - at times even making notes on paper! I realised I could cover all my needs by planning a circular journey. The first leg of this circular journey would be to get to Virudhunagar. More details on the circle in later posts (those following my YouTube channel already know it all). I had a couple of options to reach Virudhunagar - none of them were "direct" options though. I finally decided to take the Punalur Madurai Express from Kollam to Virudhunagar - since this option met all my requirements (in terms of timings) and also had ticket availability.
The next challenge was to get to Kollam in time for the Madurai Express. The options were Parasuram, Sabari and Netravati Express - I chose Netravati express since it was faster, had sleeper class and also went via Alappuzha (its been quite some time since I traveled that way during the day). So the final plan was to take the Netravati Express from Ernakulam to Kollam, followed by the Punalur-Madurai Express from Kollam to Virudhunagar.
January 07, 2022:
I had taken an off from work. I left home by around 0830hrs - a little earlier than my usual work day schedule. Took a bus from my residence to the nearby town of Kodungallur, and then a bus from there to Ernakulam. I took a city bus for the final lap to Ernakulam Junction railway station. I was there very well ahead of schedule - I was at the station by around 1100hrs, while my train was to depart only at 1245hrs. My plan was to have an early lunch at the station itself. Ernakulam Junction was deserted at the time - there were no departures around this time, except for a train to Alappuzha.
The departures board at the station didn't have any information about my train (the 16345 Lokmanya Tilak Terminus - Trivandrum Central Netravati Express) yet - except that it would arrive on Platform 1. Coach position was updated sometime closer to 1200hrs. I was tracking the train continuously and it seemed to be fairly on time. I headed to the food court for lunch by around 1200hrs - the multicuisine restaurant there, "The Curry Diner", had great ambience, and the food seemed priced appropriately (considering the rate in restaurants around the area). It was a semi-self service model. The bill is to be paid upfront - they give out a token from there, which will be used by waiters to serve food.
I picked up a Vegetable Biryani from there - the biryani was layered and the masalas were quite appropriate - not very heavy nor too light. The Biryani was accompanied by a mixed vegetable raita, pickle and papad. I finished it off quickly and returned to the platform. The platform was a getting a little busy as the station prepared for a slew of departures. There were two trains to the north and my train to the south - all departing in a span of about an hour. The railways announced a delay for my train - the declared delay was around 15 minutes or so. The north-bound departure series began soon later - led by the Kochuveli - Yog Nagari Rishikesh Express, followed by the Ernakulam-Hazrat Nizamuddin Mangala Lakshadweep Express.
My train, the 16345 Lokmanya Tilak Terminus - Trivandrum Central Netravati express rolled in at 1320hrs (about 30 minutes behind schedule) with WAP7 #37288 of Ajni loco shed. The front EOG car (End-on-Generator) was running - probably the loco had a non-functional HOG unit, or they couldn't connect the HOG unit (there was a parcel van between the loco and the generator car). A fairly good crowd got off the train, and most coaches now had about 50% occupancy. My coach was S5, a 2020, ICF Chennai built LSCN (non-AC 3-tier sleeper) coach with unit number 202037. This was perhaps the newest LHB Sleeper coach I've travelled in (Not that I've had many experiences before - this was actually my second time in an LHB sleeper coach!).
|WAP7 #37288 of Ajni arriving at Ernakulam with the Netravati Express
This coach had the newer sliding type windows. I was quite excited about that, and went about hunting for an empty window side seat (my original berth was an upper berth) - I got one in the middle of the coach. The initial excitement died down soon after settling down. The window opening is actually too small - it gets very stuffy as the heat increases. The design of the rail ensures that one cannot look out properly. The window frame is quite thick and eats into precious shoulder space, as well.
Meanwhile, the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus bound Netravati Express was allowed to come in - we lost more time waiting for our pairing train to come in. There is, however, no choice since the line between Ernakulam Junction and Ambalappuzha is a single line, and trains need to wait for crossings! We finally got moving from Ernakulam at 1342hrs - "just" 57 minutes behind schedule! The sun was on my side of the coach, and small window made matters a little uncomfortable. Thankfully, though, the seats next to me were all empty and I could stretch a bit.
|The Vegetable biriyani at Ernakulam Junction
The railway line via Alappuzha runs mostly along the coast, and cuts through farmlands, mostly. This railway line was perhaps the last addition to Kerala's railway network. The Ernakulam-Alappuzha-Kayamkulam railway line was proposed in the mid 1970s, and the first phase of it, between Ernakulam and Alappuzha, was commissioned in 1989. The second phase, between Alappuzha and Kayamkulam, was commissioned in 1992. The doubling of this railway line has been a topic of discussion for the past decade - the 1.8kilometre long bridge at Aroor could be an expensive part to complete. The railways and the state government have been dilly dallying doubling of this railway line on various grounds.
Meanwhile, my train was quickly progressing on its journey towards Alappuzha. There was an annoying flat wheel, that made a lot of noise. Flat Wheels - generally refers to the wheel of the train losing its perfect circular shape - a small flat area is sufficient to cause noise and uneven ride. Flat wheels could happen due to the wheels being dragged due to uneven brake application, or worse, due to chipping of the wheel. Replacement of such wheels is a time-taking job, and maintenance depots push such works to be taken up during major maintenance schedules.
The railway line to Cochin Harbour Terminus (presently used only for freight traffic to the nearby Cochin Port) runs parallel to the Alappuzha line for a while, before turning towards the west. The train cuts through a few backwaters, canals and rivers on the way - the most notable is the bridge at Aroor, which is about 1.8kilometres long, and is built across Lake Vembanad. Lake Vembanad, or Vembanad kayal as known locally, is also a part of National Waterway 3, that connects Kollam to Kottapuram (near my hometown). It was quite windy while on the bridge. The train crosses over to Alappuzha district as it exits the bridge. Alappuzha is largely a coastal district, and is rich in terms of waterbodies - rivers, canals, backwaters and freshwater lakes. The soil in the region is quite sandy, much like a beach.
We crossed the Kochuveli-Indore Express (the one via Konkan Railway) at Turavur. There are 2 trains between Kochuveli and Indore - one goes via Salem (Ahilyanagari Express operated by Southern Railway) and the other one via Konkan Railway (operated by Western Railway). We rolled in to our first stop after Ernakulam Junction, Cherthala, by 1415hrs - about 46 minutes behind schedule then. This was a very quick halt, and we were off by 1418hrs. The railway line gets a little more closer to the sea between Cherthala and Alappuzha - infact, the light house at Alappuzha is to the left of the track, and the sea to the right!
We rolled in to Alappuzha by 1438hrs (41 minutes behind schedule). Alappuzha station was busy - all the roads were occupied. We entered on to Platform 1, while Platform 2 was occupied by Alappuzha-Kannur Express, 3 by Alappuzha-Chennai Express. The rake of the Alappuzha-Ernakulam passenger, which is actually the lie-over rake of the Karaikal-Ernakulam Express, was parked in one of the loop lines. The halt at Alappuzha was also brief. A few more passengers joined my bay by now - the coach was getting a little crowded slowly. We left Alappuzha at 1440hrs - 40 minutes behind schedule now. The coaching depot at Alappuzha seemed to be in disuse now - only the secondary maintenance of Dhanbad Express happens there. This depot used to handle almost all the passenger trains in the region, through very complex rake links. Most passenger trains are non-operational, and whatever little are, are being handled with dedicated rakes off late.
The flat-wheel in my coach was adding a very mundane noise to the journey. The poor window design also made matters boring - it was getting a little too hot as well. I ended up having to sit with the shutters closed for most part due to the direct sunlight. We had two quick stops on the way - at Ambalappuzha (1455hrs) and Haripad (1516hrs). Double line section begins from Ambalappuzha towards Kayamkulam. There were no other trains on the route, and it was a solo run for this part of the ride. I was hoping to cross some train at Kayamkulam and headed to the door as we approached Kayamkulam. We didn't cross any train, but were overtaken by the Korba-Kochuveli Express, instead!
We got to Kayamkulam at 1538hrs. While waiting there, the Korba Kochuveli Express arrived on a nearby platform - just stopped and went ahead. It was a WAP4 leading the train, I couldn't notice its details though. Since we had a train running ahead, we had to wait for a while for it to clear the block section. We started off from Kayamkulam only at 1549hrs - 49 minutes behind schedule. The Kochuveli express doesn't have any stops till it gets to Kollam, while we would stop at Karunagappally. So it made sense to send that train ahead of us.
We crossed the Kannur bound Jan Shatabdi Express a little out of Kayamkulam station. We got to Karunagappalli by 1600hrs, and left by 1601hrs (36 minutes behind schedule). Although the train had a pantry car, no food products were being sold during evening hours - I was hoping to pick-up some snack and a tea before getting to Kollam. Interestingly, nothing came in. I love the section between Karunagappally and Kollam - the train runs at two levels, and runs along watering bodies for quite a while. We crossed the Chennai mail a little before Kollam, and we rolled in to Kollam junction by 1630hrs - 28 minutes behind schedule now.
I was quite hungry and badly wanted something to eat. I headed straight to the refreshment room at Kollam to have something - hot bhajjis along with tea was my pick. The Netravati Express continued her last lap to Trivandrum soon later. I was at Kollam during its peak time - there were multiple departures in either directions lined up over the next 2 hours or so, that I would be spending there. My next train, the Punalur-Madurai Express would depart a little past 1820hrs. My plan was to purchase my dinner from Kollam station itself - have it soon after the train leaves Kollam, and sleep early. I knew the next day would be long, and tiring - and I had to sleep as much as possible so that I don't end up with a pesky headache the next day.
I spent the next two hours watching trains come and go. Some of the trains I spotted while being there were - the Kottayam bound Express, Trivandrum bound Sabari Express, Shri Mata Vaishnodevi Katra bound Himsagar Express, Trivandrum bound Parasuram Express, Yeshwantpur bound Garib Rath Express, Chennai bound Super Fast to name a few. As the departure time of my train came closer, I headed to the base kitchen to get my dinner. I wanted to have a vegetable biriyani - but had to settle for an Egg Biriyani instead. I quickly checked with the enquiry counter to find the coach position for my train - the lady there just responded that it would be at the "front". On asking which platform, she just said it could be Platform 1 or 3.
In the meantime, the Trivandrum-Punalur Express rolled in to Platform 3. This confirmed that my train would be coming on Platform 1 itself. This is because the Punalur Express would depart only after my train, the 16730 Punalur Madurai Express, departs. My train came in at 1836hrs - about 16 minutes behind schedule. Interestingly, the train was hauled by twin ALCos (ALCO is a term very commonly used, in India, to refer to locomotives originally designed by American Locomotive Company) from Ernakulam Diesel Loco Shed - WDM3A #14046 coupled to shedmate #16881 were the powers for the evening. My coach was the fourth from the locomotive.
My coach, B1, was a 2015, Integral Coach Factory, Chennai, made Airconditioned 3-Tier sleeper coach (WGACCN 15116, manufactured in July 2015). The coach was mostly empty as I boarded. I had an upper berth - I was quite excited about it, since I just wanted to sleep. We started off from Kollam Junction at 1844hrs (19 minutes behind schedule). This train used to be a passenger (Commuter shuttle) train in the past, and hence stopped at almost every stop on the way. Although the train has been upgraded to an express now, it still retains all its old halts.
I dug into my dinner soon after the train left Kollam. The biriyani was quite delicious - I have quite good opinion about the base kitchen at Kollam. Its operated by Hi-Ness Catering. The food was quite filling as well. The train had rolled in to Varkala by the time I was done with my food. We left Varkala at 1916hrs. I headed to my berth soon after we left Varkala. The AC was set at perfect temperature - the stage was set for a nice long sleep! All I remember was hitting the berth. I slept quite well till we got to Trivandrum - almost all the crowd in the coach boarded here, and the commotion woke me up. I slept soon later, though.
I had left an alarm for 0230hrs - my train was to reach my destination around 0258hrs. The previous tracking history showed the train was delayed on most days. I was jolted out of my deep sleep by the alarm - the post-sleep confusion left me on the berth for a while more. I checked my phone to see where my train was - Google informed me that the train was already in Virudhunagar town. I literally jumped out of the berth to rush to the restroom and freshen up before alighting. However, the train was already entering the platform as I reached the restroom. We were at Virudhunagar by 0242hrs - 16 minutes ahead of schedule.
|WAP4 #22270 of Erode with the Madurai Express
I rushed back to my berth to pack up my belongings and rush out of the coach. Although the train wouldn't depart before its scheduled departure time, I didn't want to risk remaining inside the coach any further. I was a little confused and groggy as I walked out of the train. My first stop was a wash counter to wash my face to get a little fresh. I walked all the way to the locomotive - the train had reversed at Nagercoil Junction, and my coach was at the rear end of the rake now. In charge of the train, now, was WAP4 #22270 of Erode Electric Loco Shed. The train departed exactly at its scheduled time - leaving me there to wonder what should I do next!
Sorry for too little images, but I can make it up with this video!
This was a great journey! Although Netravati Express was late, which was much to my happiness (lesser waiting time at Kollam), the overall journey ended up earlier than expected. The food throughout the journey was good, so were the coaches. The LHB Sleeper window design, however, is a bummer. It could get really hot inside these coaches due to the narrow window openings!