Trip Report: Southern Odyssey

by Ajai Banerji


It was actually intended to be a trip to the East. However the company providing the free air tickets through Citibank's offer ended up providing tickets from Delhi to Bangalore and back.

17th April: Left Jaipur in the evening by the Ajmer-NDLS Shatabdi. The only point of interest was that it left Jaipur on time, and promptly stopped on the centre loop at the very next station Gandhinagar to let an unimportant train pass. (So what? In the Laksar- Dehradun section it is normal for the Shatabdi to be halted for crossings with the Saharanpur passenger). Nothing else of importance.

18th April: I was staying at a friend's place at Lajpat Nagar. I was to meet someone in the Connaught Place area and collect something in the evening. This meant a lot of time-passing to be done. As any other rail fan would do in a similar situation, I boarded the Metro at Rajiv Chowk to check out the recent extension to Dwarka Sector 10. Things looked a little more settled along the line compared to what I had seen in January. As there was still some time to kill I went on to Chandni Chowk (formerly called Delhi Main). Nice food court; NDLS still has some catching up to do.

At around 1700 there are a lot of local trains leaving DLI. There was the Jind Passenger with a totally useless board which read something like


(This may not be exactly correct, but you get the idea.) Why is it not possible to have simple unambigious boards on even the prestigious trains like the Shatabdis? Try rushing to catch one of the Shatabdis at 6 in the morning from NDLS and you are quite likely to get into the wrong one. You might see 6 boards on a rake just saying Shatabdi Express and then one rather shamefacedly identifying itself as the Dehradun Shatabdi.

It was interesting to see that even the downmarket Saharanpur Express (via Shamli) had a pictorial board on the brake van.

Off to an early bedtime as I was to catch the 0615 flight to Bangalore.

April 19:Having had considerable experience with delays in Air Deccan over the past year, it was gratifying to see that Indian's flight took off and arrived on time.

April 20: After various activities in Bangalore, boarded the Kaveri Express to Chennai in the evening. 5 coaches including my AC 3T were put on here. I find that our coach was right next to the engine. Wasn't there some rule about a brake van or luggage van separating the engine from coaches?

April 21: Uneventful arrival at Chennai. Woke up while passing through Senji-Panambakkam; this would be of particular interest to internet users as its code is SPAM. Fixed up a meeting with Sridhar Joshi in the evening.

April 21: Checked into a hotel right opposite to Egmore, chosen so as to make a quick getaway on the Guruvayur Express the next morning. This needs some explanation. I planned to take the Tirunelveli-Quilon Express (a new irfca favourite) but also wanted to see the line south of Chennai in the daytime.

I had passed through Chennai many times before and the only tourist attraction I had not seen was the Snake Park near Guindy. So I went there by a local from Egmore. The local was racing with a long WAG-7 hauled goods right up to Guindy.

After returning to Guindy station, more time was to be passed so I took another local to Tambaram. While passing through Tirusulam, it seemed that some more steps needed to be taken to make it more convenient for air travellers (as this is perhaps the only place in India where local trains are convenient for airports; Kolkata may have caught up by now). Ideally there should be a bridge or subway across the highway to make it easier to reach the airport. Or even a minibus shuttling between Tirusulam and the terminal every 15 minutes or so? This was there between Egmore and Central in the 80s.

Reached Tambaram at the wrong time as there was no MG action at that time. A long row of Golden Rock YDM-4s were seen but there was no sign of the YAM-1 said to be still shunting there.

Returned to Beach. It was interesting to see the Hindi signboards along this route as they did not use Hindi words but apparently just copied the Tamil names. Some examples:

English Hindi
Chennai Beach Chennai Kodikarai
Chennai Fort Chennai Kotte
Park Punga
Park Town Punga Nagar
Chennai Egmore Eshambur
St Thomas Mount ????

However, Tambaram Sanatorium was indeed copied into Hindi

It was also seen that one platform of Chromepet station had the board "Cromepet". However, one station which really suffers from an identity crisis is Washermanpet/Washermenpet: the two names are shared 50-50 on the signboards there.

There was still some time to kill, so I took the MRTS train from Beach to Thirumayilai and back to Fort and finally returned to Egmore. Nice view of the sea. The three-coach EMUs seemed to be pretty crowded in the evening rush hour. It was interesting to see that some of the railway signboards referred to Thirumaylai as Mylapore and Tiruvelkeni as Triplicane. In fact, this was there even on SR's online timetable a couple of years ago.

Caught up with Sridhar Joshi at the food court outside Egmore; this may well be the only station in India where roast rabbit appears on the menu. Went with him to the famous Murugan's restaurant which is almost as well known as Bangalore's legendary MTR and met Poochi Venkat and Gowrishankar. We all look forward to seeing the Chennai convention in January

Jan 22: Boarded the AC 3T of the Guruvayur Express. Just before we left the Secunderabad-Egmore Express came in with a Guntakal diesel. This must be the only express between Arakkonam side and Egmore, although there are also some locals which run via Veysarpadi cabin-Washermanpet-Beach-Egmore. An interesting point confirmed by Sridhar was that all the sides and diagonals of the Chennai Quadrilateral have at least one passenger service-although you need to study the local timetable quite carefully to understand this.

Perhaps the convention could include a trek along the quadrilateral? Another idea for the Chennai chapter to consider is a day trip from Egmore to Chengalpattu by the Pondy passenger and its famous WAP4, followed by the Arakkonam passenger with its rare WDM7 and a final return to Central with a stop at Villivakkam to see the high speed runthroughs.

The quadruple BG track gave way to the double BG + single MG at Tambaram, and then single BG and MG from Chengalpattu. It can be seen that the Chennai-Kanchipuram/Tirumalpur EMUs have to reverse there.

Passed the large Ford factory near Singaperumalkoil; it was significant that it does not use rail either for raw materials or for finished products despite being right next to the tracks. Probabaly it came up in the pure MG days.

In general it could be seen that the MG side of most stations looked rather shabby and neglected compared to the BG side.

At Vikaravandi, just before Villupuram, a MG EMU rake with pantographs removed could be seen. What purpose is it serving? It seemed to be the same thing which I saw in March 2005.

Past Villupuram, the terrain grew dryer. As in most trains with a pantry car, there were a series of hyperactive bearers who passed through every few minutes. However, this is not always appreciated; I remember them starting their rounds at 4 am on the Sapt Kranti from Gorakhpur to Delhi. Perhaps there is a demand for tea at 4 am on this route?

Passed Ariyalur; this is one place which many non-railfans have heard of. Whenever there is a major accident the Opposition starts a parrot-like cry to the Railway Minister saying that "Lak Bahadur Shastri resigned because of the Ariyalur accident-so you too should resign"

The accident in question was the derailment of the Madras-Tuticorin Express at the Marudaiyar bridge between Ariyalur and Silakkudi in November 1956 in which 154 persons were killed. This was when the approaches to the bridge were washed away by floods. There had in fact been two similar accidents with over 100 deaths in the past two years, which may have been why Shastri felt the need to resign. It did seem to improve his standing, though it is unfortunate that he didn't live too long after he became PM

That same bridge near Ariyalur must be jinxed: in 1987 the Rock Fort Express was sabotaged there by extremists with considerable loss of life.

Passed Golden Rock and the suburbs of Tiruchi. looked out for the parallel MG line after Dindigul but the alignment seemed to be some distance away. After Kodaikanal Road the MG line crossed under BG and continued side by side to Madurai.

We were running a little late when we got to Madurai, but didn't lose any more time after that. There was some interesting company in the form of an elderly Malayali lady who had spent much of her career teaching chemistry in the wildernesses of South Africa.

From the map or timetable, you may imagine that Virudunagar and Vanchi Maniyachi are important junctions, but they are actually rather small once you get there. Maniyachi was in fact renamed in the 1980s, in the memory of a freedom fighter named Vanchinathan who had shot the Collector of Tirunelveli as he sat in a coach at this station in the 1930s.

Finally we pulled into Tirunelveli for a night halt before taking the legendary train across the Ghats the next morning.

From Tirunelveli to Quilon and beyond

Apr 22 evening: Having reached Tirunelveli (TEN), I checked into the Aryaas hotel (which is listed in the TTDC website as TEN's only 3-star hotel). It had been checked out by a prominent irfca writer a few weeks ago. It had some features which you won't find in much costlier hotels, such as a 24-hour cyber cafe tagged on to the STD booth.

Went back to the station to buy my ticket for the Quilon Express the next morning and to look around. TEN is unusual in that the MG lines are next to the main entrance while the BG trains are some distance away. Compare this with other places where the MG lines are far from the main entrance (eg Kanpur Central, Bareilly) or have a separate entrance (eg Jaipur).

The timetable lists the Quilon Express as having FC and SL, although reservation cannot be made on the PRS. In fact you cannot even buy a FC ticket from the counter, so I got a regular unreserved ticket and planned to pay the excess once I boarded the FC coach.

Apr 23: At the station, the first sight on the MG platforms was a rake with what was marked as a sleeper coach but was actually a 2nd chair car with cushions. The train board said Tirunelveli-Quilon but this did not mention if it was a passenger or express. As is usual on mixed gauge stations, the announcements and electronic displays were only for the BG trains and ignored the MG trains altogether. After a few passengers including myself got on to the bogus sleeper coach a porter told us that the express was on the next line (ie on a middle line with no platform). I finally got on to the FC coach which was very well maintained. One one side was the afore mentioned rake which was for the Quilon Passenger which was to depart later. On the other side was the Tiruchendur passenger.

A row of Golden Rock WDP-3As were seen along with YDM-4s from the same shed. One of these (6664) was from the Devil's collection; the Devil's personal loco 6666 is at Mhow shed and was seen on the Purna-Ajmer passenger a few months ago.

We set off almost on time. The line to Nagercoil branched off to the southwest; it was BG/MG gauntleted which seemed strange since this line was built as BG. A range of hills was seen to the south.

This is one of the few remaining MG routes which is fit for 75 km/h, and the crew did their best to reach this with a small train of about 7 coaches. Occupancy of the FC coach never went beyond one person per compartment. We had a few stops like Ambasamudram (once a punishment posting for executives of Madura Coats) and Kila Kadaiyam (although no fort was seen). In no time we were approaching Tenkasi with the BG track from Virudunagar curving in with our track for about 1 km.

Tenkasi is another of those stations which are considerably smaller than what you might expect from the timetable. It gets some tourists heading for the famous waterfalls at Courtalam. The Podhigai Express had just come in on the BG line, although its board called it the Chennai-Tenkasi Express.

On to Sengottai. There was no sign of BG conversion on the 8-km stretch. Sengottai appeared to be somewhat larger and boasted a carriage depot. It was once important enough to have a passenger train from Egmore and even a sectional AC coach on one of the Madras-Trivandrum trains.

The climb started almost immediately after leaving Sengottai. After Bhagvathipuram there was a long tunnel which was a little before Aryankavu, the first station in Kerala. The scenery was not really spectacular but there were plenty of sharp curves. The highway from Tenkasi to Quilon ran along the tracks for most of the ghat section. Anyone wanting to take good pictures of the line would probably be advised to travel by road from where they would get ample opportunities to snap the trains, particularly on the antiquated bridges which are next to the road.

The express skipped some of the smaller stations. The main intermediate station seems to be Tenmalai. There was a brief crossing halt at Punalur to let the counterpart express by. Although the signalling was hardly state-of-the-art with semaphore signals and manual exchange of tokens, we never had to wait more than a few minutes for crossings.

After Punalur the line was quite level. The steepest gradient I had seen was 1 in 60. Apparently bankers were used in the days of steam. There was some sign of impending BG conversion after Punalur.

As we came into Quilon, the double electrified line from Ernakulam kept us company for a couple of km. We reached a few minutes before time. I thus had a few hours to pass at Quilon until the Vanchinad came in. I could have travelled on an earlier train but chose to give a bigger margin in case I reached Quilon late. I had not reckoned with the efficiency of the MG.

Quilon has some places of tourist interest, but they are not close to the station. This had a considerable amount of action on BG, such as the Trivandrum-Chennai Mail with a single WDM-3A and the southbound Parasuram with a rare FC coach. Typically for Kerala, the Hindi and Malayalam boards had one name (Kollam) while the English board said something else.

Finally I boarded the AC chair car of the nortbound Vanchinad. It was the high-tech coach which Jimmy Jose had written about a few months ago.

My original plan had been to take a day train from Quilon to Mangalore and then the fictitious new train from there to Bangalore. But as the latter remained on paper, I decided to terminate my train journey at Ernakulam and then fly in the eveningto Bangalore, as the train and bus connections were not suitable for an 0615 departure.

Apr 23 evening: Left Quilon in the high-tech CC of the Vanchinad Express. Unlike most other CCs, the two halves of the coach had opposite facing seats and these were divided by a table-rather like the Jan Shatabdi second class coaches. There was also an electronic display board which showed the stations we passed through. Interestingly it even showed the small halt stations and others where we did not stop.

After Quilon I kept a lookout for the Ashtamudi Kayal bridge where the Island Express disaster took place in 1988. A small shrine can be seen on the Quilon side. This accident has entered folklore with the highly creative explanation (by the Commissioner of Railway Safety) that a tornado had blown the train into the water. The only proof for this was that one passenger said that he had heard a roaring sound as the accident occurred. Of course, tornados may be common in some parts of the world but are as rare as tsunamis in India.

So one wonders why the CRS discredited himself with such a weird theory. The general feeling was that it was to cover up some failing of the railways.

The line from Quilon to Kayanakulam is double and electrified, though I did not see any electric locos here. At that time no long distance train seemed to be running on electric south of Ernakulam. Locals and goods are running on electric down to Kayanakulam, both via Alleppey and Kottayam. A few days later Jimmy reported seeing an electric goods south of Kayanakulam.

We now entered the notorious Kayanakulam-Kottayam-Ernakulam section, which is the southern counterpart of the Mathura-Delhi "graveyard". It is electrified (though expresses are still diesel) and partly doubled.

Why a graveyard? This should be clear from the following table, adapted from the 2005 timetable. This shows the distances of some of the compulsory stops on this route:

Station Distance from Trivandrum, Km
Quilon 65
Karungapalli 92
Kayanakulam 106
Mavelikara 114
Chengannur 126
Tiruvalla 135
Changanacheri 143
Kottayam 161

Take a closer look at the statioms between Kayanakulam and Kottayam. In this 55 km stretch almost all expresses (including superfasts like the Kerala Express) have to stop at the "Gang of Four", ie Mavelikara, Chengannur, Tiruvalla and Changanacheri. With the average spacing of 11 km, how are you going to get improved speeds even after introducing WAP-4s or even WAP-5s?

There is some logic behind this, I suppose as these are small but prosperous towns which must be generating considerable traffic. Those who are more familiar with this area may comment.

The Alleppey line is not so bad as there are some trains which manage with a single stop at Alleppey, and the Rajdhani skips even that.

Predictably, the Vanchinad became increasingly late and reached Ernakulam at about 2230. Even though it is supposed to have a pantry car, it did not appear to have anything other than tea and coffee. A saving grace was the powerful air-conditioning.

Apr 24: Contacted Jimmy Jose who was kind enough to spare the time to show me his favourite railfanning haunts. Appropriately, the first stop was the "haunted" station of Ernakulam Goods which was once the main station in Kochi area but is now totally overgrown with vegetation. The last train must have come in a decade or more ago. I hope Jimmy's photos are up on the gallery.

We also went round the yards of Ernakulam including the proposed site for the electric loco shed. The electric trip shed included an unusual visitor from Kanpur shed.

Apr 25: Spent some time looking up on old acqaintances from my previous stay in Kochi. Many places which were important in the 80s had vanished. The city and its suburbs had grown beyond recognition. It was symbolic that a person I used to know as an assistant to a stockbroker was now the CEO of a financial services company with a turnover of several hundred crores.

Air Deccan was upto its usual tricks. The flight was to leave at 1900 but I got a SMS saying that it was delayed to 2145. Further, it seems that the only credible way of reaching the airport from central Ernakulam was a taxi ride costing over Rs 400. The determined railfan, I suppose, would take a train to Angamali and then an auto.

The taxi took about an hour through the endless urban sprawl to the north of Ernakulam. I reached the airport and then had to wait till the flight finally departed at about 2345 and reached Bangalore around 0030. The huge domestic terminal at Cochin was quite deserted at that hour. There was nowhere to eat and drink except at an overpriced restaurant.

There are other fairly large airports like Bagdogra which have the same problem, except that their restaurant is not so overpriced. Compare this to most medium-sized stations in India where you can generally get something to eat or drink at any time.

Apr 26: Spent the night at the Bangalore arrival hall. The Indian flight left on schedule, but landed at Delhi late due to congestion. As I left the baggage are some Go Air passengers were fighting with the airline staff about their lost luggage. At least Air Deccan hadn't done this to me yet. I waited at the airport till it was time to catch the Ashram Express from Delhi Cantt for Jaipur.

At Delhi Cantt the new BG lines were in place. The station staff said that trains would start running on them by the end of May. The Ashram Express was practically on time and the journey to Jaipur was uneventful.

Thus, in the span of less than 10 days I had got a chance to see a wide range of trains of various kinds, ranging from the Delhi Metro to the forgotten MG expresses of the south. Try doing this yourself-but look after your health. It is now easy to book tickets anywhere in the country by rail or by air. Even hotel bookings are easy with a little use of the internet or the Lonely Planet guide.

A similar venture is planned for the Northeast next year.

With special thanks to Jimmy Jose, Sandeep Mohan, Mohan Bhuyan, Sridhar Joshi and others from Chennai.

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