Virudhunagar to Manamadurai | DEMU Express train

DEMU, aka Diesel Electric Multiple Units, have been something that I've never ever traveled in. Diesel Electric Multiple Units were introduced in the country in 1994. Indian trains have traditionally been a set of coaches (referred to as a "Rake") hauled by a locomotive. Multiple units on the other hand have a smaller locomotive engine (a motor car) for a set of 2 or 3 coaches (trailer cars). Some of these have a seperate "driving car" with controls for the operator (often referred to as a "motorman" or more commonly as a "loco pilot), while most such units in India have both the "engine" and the controls in the same coach, thus called a "Driving Motor Car". 

Generally, there would be one Driving Motor Car (DMC) for three trailer cars (TC). So one "unit" is made up of 4 coaches or cars. A normal DEMU in India has two such units (thus the name "multiple unit"). Both the units are connected to each other electrically, and the "motors" in all the motor cars can be controlled from a single driving car through transmission of controls. These trains are called "Diesel Electric" because they generate electricity using diesel generators, and this electricity is fed to traction motors to run the train. This is the technology used in all diesel locomotives in the country.

As mentioned earlier, DEMUs were first introduced in the country in 1994, as an easy option for operating slow passenger trains in branch lines. DEMUs wouldn't require reversal of locomotives on reaching its destination, and also requires only 1 motorman, as opposed to a loco pilot and an assistant for normal trains. DEMUs also have better braking capabilities and faster acceleration, which would be of help in trains that need to stop frequently. The older DEMUs were underpowered and led to problems during operations. Newer "High Horsepower" DEMUs (referred to as HHP-DEMU) have better output - 1400hp in the newer ones compared to 700hp for the older DEMUs. 

Although the entire concept is promising and interesting, DEMUs didn't take off as expected in the country. There are very few operational DEMUs in the country, and they are often concentrated in a small area around the place where the carshed is located. For example, all of Southern Railway's DEMUs are based at Trichy, and hence all the DEMUs operate in an around Trichy. More interestingly, DEMUs are operated only 6 days in a week, with the seventh day kept aside for maintenance. 

While planning my trip to Rameswaram, DEMUs were never a part of my journey. It went so until I saw a DEMU popping up while searching for trains in the Manamadurai region. I suddenly remembered spotting a DEMU parked at Manamadurai station during my last trip to Rameswaram. I went around researching about DEMU operations in the region, and found one interesting service that connected Virudhunagar to Manamadurai (the service continues further to Karaikudi). These trainsets were being operated for only one, or at the most, two, services in a day. Most of them were operating during early hours of the day as well. I did a little more research into these services, and found that I could use a DEMU service with a little bit of planning. 

January 08, 2022:

It was just past 0245hrs in the morning - it was a little cold, and I was standing next to a wash basin on the platform at Virudhunagar. The Punalur-Madurai Express had dropped me quite early at Virudhunagar - in fact, the train had already rolled in to the platform as I headed to the door to freshen up before alighting. Virudhunagar is a small town located about 50 kilometres south of Madurai, in Tamilnadu. Virudhunagar railway station is a junction station with lines coming in from Madurai, Thenkasi, Manamadurai and Tirunelveli sides. 

The station was very basic, with 4 platforms each with short shelters. I remained on the platform, where the train had dropped me, for a while more after my train left. I headed to the main station building in the hope of finding a retiring room or atleast a waiting room - but couldn't find one. I decided to wait on a platform bench itself - but couldn't hold on for long due to a persistant attack my mosquitoes. I went around searching for a better option to rest, and found a few empty chairs near the ticketing office. The refreshment room at the station was open, and I managed to get some tea to start off my day. A little later, I found a clean restroom as well so that I could get fresh for the long day ahead. 

Although the ticketing counter was open, the lady at the counter mentioned they would issue tickets only an hour before departure of the train - since the train I had targeted was the sole train on the route, they had to ensure it was running before issuing tickets. The ticketing office was located in the ground floor of the main station building. There was a fairly big circulating around the ticket counters, and except for some space, just enough to form a queue, people had occupied every inch of space to sleep! It looked like people arriving there at odd hours preferred sleeping at the station itself than heading to their destinations. High time the railways offered decent dormitory accommodation - that could help atleast a part of such passengers. 

I approached the ticket counter a little past 0530hrs to check if they would issue me a ticket. The lady at the counter was quite intrigued to see someone asking for a ticket to Manamadurai - not sure if its because the train isn't very popular (the train was actually quite empty). I was also pronouncing the name the wrong way - she told me the correct pronounciation as she issued the ticket. The 64 kilometre ride to Manamadurai would cost me Rs. 40! Indian Railways is really cheap!

Thats my ticket, inside the DEMU

My initial plan was to head to the platform, where the DEMU was parked, as the day breaks. Since we were still in the first week of January, I was sure it would be quite late for day break, and perhaps, I must head to the platform earlier. While waiting on Platform 1, still confused if I must head to Platform 4 (where the DEMU was parked) rightway, I noticed the rear diesel generator in the DEMU being turned on. I wanted to witness the train being turned on, and didn't want to miss them doing that at the front end - headed off to Platform 4 immediately. 

The DEMU had 8 cars including the driving motor cars at either ends. The platform was not well lit - just a few lights here and there. I headed straight to the leading driving car - it wasn't turned on yet, and I could see the crew slowly coming in. It was an older DEMU (an HHP DEMU indeed, but an older variant of that). Coaches in the DEMU had manufacturer's plate reading 2012 - a 10 year old rake! Soon, the Loco pilots came in, and both of them went into the engine room straightaway to turn on the diesel generator, that would power the train. The engine sputtered to life leaving out some smoke and hitting an idle note very soon. 

I wanted to travel in the driving car coach, but was a little wary if that could be reserved for women. There were no boards though. Not wanting to take a risk, I moved to the second coach instead. The vestibule between the first and second coach was closed, while the other coaches were accessible through vestibule. This deepened my thought if the first coach could indeed be reserved for women. The coach showed its age - seats appeared quite worn. The seats weren't very comfortable - the backrest was small and placed at an absurd place. There were no mobile charging points - a major missing at this time! The train was more-or-less empty - I was the sole passenger in that coach. Numbers were similar in most coaches! 

Interiors of the DEMU coach

I was expecting the train to be delayed, since we had to cross the Chennai-Sengottai Triweekly Silambu Express. This train seemed to be delayed - almost 2 hours behind schedule then! I was quite shocked when my train began moving at its scheduled departure time - 0620hrs! The railway line to Manamadurai via Aruppukottai is a single line section. Data on the National Train Enquiry System suggested that the Silambu Express was already on its way towards Virudhunagar. I was quite flummoxed. 

Sun rise somewhere on the route

The destination board!

I decided to focus on the journey instead of worrying about Silambu - afterall, this was my first ever DEMU ride. The train wasn't noisy - the engine produced much lesser sounds than a diesel locomotive. The train was picking speed quite quickly. For some reason, these multiple units (be it diesel or electric) fail to evoke an emotion than a normal locomotive hauled train produces. May be due to the seating layout, or could be due to the fact these units pick pace, and stop very quickly. 

My DEMU quickly entered on to the line towards Manamadurai. The Manamadurai-Virudhunagar railway line was one of the few lines built on Meter Gauge post independence - this line was built in 1964 with the intention of reducing traffic on the Manamadurai-Madurai-Virudhunagar stretch. With project unigauge picking pace, this line was shut in 2008, and reopened in 2013 in Broad Gauge. This line is a bypass for trains from the south, to avoid the saturated Madurai route. However, the line has no daily trains! 

We maintained fairly good pace (I think in the range of 70kmph) until we got to Aruppukottai. The sun had risen in the meanwhile. The train came to a complete standstill as we passed the home signal and reached the points - it seems the train is usually always received on the loop line, but on that day, the points were set for the mainline. The train stopped for a while, and then slowly crawled in to the mainline platform. Passengers were left wondering which train this was - a few of them read out the board and understood this was indeed the train they were waiting for. It was a mad scramble with people jumping on to the tracks and rushing to this train. The time was 0649hrs - about 5 minutes behind schedule. 

Thats our DEMU!

There was no sign of the train moving, even as the clock went past 0710hrs. I had understood from the NTES Application that we would have a crossing here - the Silambu express had left the previous station about 2 hours ago! I was wondering if the Silambu had a loco failure and was waiting for a rescue locomotive. I went up to the motor coach, and spoke to the assistant loco pilot (the loco pilot was sitting nearby) about the delay - he told that wiring works for railway electrification was in progress, and they had taken a line block for that. The block was just cleared, and they were now waiting for the Silambu Express to come in! 

During the wait at Aruppukkottai

We surely had some more time to spend there - I had a connection from Manamadurai at 0950hrs - quick calculation showed I wouldn't miss the connection if we managed to leave before 0830~0845hrs. I had no clue if I had an alternative to reach Manamadurai from Aruppukottai - but I surely knew I could get a bus to Rameswaram from Manamadurai. The wait for Silambu was quite long. The train came in some time around 0730hrs with a Golden Rock WDG3A doing the honours. Passengers in the train appeared quite tired and irritated by the delay - the train was about 3 hours behind schedule by then!

The train left in about 10 minutes, while we continued waiting for unknown reasons. I was getting a little hungry as well - ended up digging into the backup stock that I carry along. I always make it a point to carry some biscuits and water during every journey - they come handy at occasions like this! We finally departed from Aruppukottai at 0810hrs - about an hour and 25 minutes behind schedule. We had spent an hour and 21 minutes at the station! 

Quite a lot of passengers alighted at Aruppukottai due to the delay. My coach was absolutely empty now. The route passes through some farm lands, but mostly marshy land. We got to the next station, Tiruchuchuli, by 0821hrs. The wiring train was parked on the main line here - a Golden Rock loco was in charge of the wiring train that had a coach with a flat deck on top, a flat wagon with the wires and a camping car. It was a really short halt, and we were off in a minute. Interestingly, almost all the stations were empty - nobody to board or alight - the train just makes the customary halt, and moves on. 

The next halt was at Narikkudi - I moved to the driving motor coach at this station. This coach was empty - absolutely empty. I was in the coach only to listen to engine sounds and record a video from there. We left from Narikkudi at 0839hrs - about an hour and 29 minutes behind schedule. The traction motors were quite noisy - there was constant high-frequency humming sound throughout the journey. The air compressors also added to the noise in the coach - the motor car surely isn't a very comfortable place to be in! 

The landscape changed as we got closer to Manamadurai. Farmlands were gone, and it was mostly marshes around. The train ambled through the single line section all alone - and this is the only train during the morning hours. The only other train, would be the same passenger special returning in the evening (or the triweekly Silambu Express!). The railway line from Rameswaram got visible as we neared Manamadurai. Manamadurai station has a lot of real estate - I could spot no less than 6 platforms or so - but I am not sure if atleast 6 pairs of trains stop there in a day! The train finally rolled in to Manamadurai at 0901hrs - about 56 minutes behind schedule. 

Manamadurai Junction!

Do watch my video from this journey as well!

Journey in a Nutshell:
Train Number: 06886 Virudhunagar - Karaikudi DEMU Express Special
Loco link: DEMU 14015
Coach: TC 14426 based at Trichy DEMU Car Shed

Punctuality: 7/10 (Delays due to line block)
Cleanliness: 10/10
Coach Maintenance: 10/10
Bedroll: Not Applicable
Catering: Not Applicable

Overall: 9/10 (I'm a little generous on that - very excited being my first DEMU journey)

This was my first journey in a DEMU - it surely was very exciting as well! The DEMUs were great machines for operating on branch lines - really wonder why the railways never took the effort to make them popular. They might have done wonders on many routes in South India - including many lines in Kerala! The Shoranur-Nilambur, Guruvayur-Thrissur, Kollam-Punalur branches might have benefited from frequent DEMU services (now with MEMUs). That said, the railways are on a mad electrification spree now, and DEMUs would be sent to the pages of history in a very short span. I'm lucky to have discovered this opportunity, and grabbing it before it was gone!


Sunup said…
Surprised to know that the route is under-patronized. Railways have all the money to GC these no-mans land routes, but always short when it comes to doubling heavy utilized routes in Kerala, and also for enhancing terminal facilities like at Ponnurunni, Kochuveli, Nemom.
Binai K Sankar said…
These "no-mans" land routes have fairly good amount of freight movement - and hence the GCs can be used to decongest their main lines and send freights through these branch lines. Kerala has negligible to nil freight potential, and passenger carriage doesn't generate enough money for the railways. They'd sure put their money where they can generate some revenue.