To Purna on the Meenakshi
by Bharat Vohra
Photos from this trip can be seen here: Trip on Meenakshi Express
After Mohan's exemplary account of our recent trip, this report would only pale in comparison. However since I had decided last September as a personal endeavor to pen down every trip that I did, the Jaipur - Purna trip should be no exception. For those of you who've had your fill of the Meenakshi Express I must let you know that the only new parts in this report would include our journey from Delhi to Jaipur and then making it back to Delhi from Purna. For those who have the patience, read on..
Our 2nd trip for 2005 was to be in March covering the longest MG route in India from Jaipur to Purna on board the Meenakshi. It started of early one Saturday morning at New Delhi station where we met in time for the 0610 departure of the Ajmer bound Shatabdi Exp. Tuglakabad's (TKD) WDM3A 18854R was at the head of a near empty 11 coach train. Although we had booked relatively early, coach 15843/A was no exception to the now familiar ill-patronised Ajmer Shatabdi service and with that we had the luxury of a choice of seating! Departure was on time and arrival at Jaipur after some half hearted running was about 15" late.
The MG traffic on the line running parallel to us till Rewari was heavy and that kept us glued to the windows. As many as 4 trains passed us and 1 was overtaken to - certainly more traffic than its BG counterpart. At Rewari, where the Shatabdi now has a scheduled halt, we were in for the 1st of many suprises - the MG diamond crossing had been removed and with that the erstwhile MG goods yard has been isolated from the rest of the MG lines. Freight stock that once occupied these lines was obviously missing in action but some stray wagons lay about in the wagon depot closer to the north end of the station - cut off from the network forever! The Accident Relief Train (ART) had been duly shifted to the steam shed area. Through freights bound for Shakurbasti would now be rooted through the platform lines.
Just short of Alwar we were made to wait at a wayside station to allow a supercrawler called the Jaisalmer - Delhi Intercity Exp to pass through on the main - great sense of priorities amongst the controllers we thought! At Alwar, I noticed for the first time a triangle to allow freight movements in different directions from / to Mathura. If you look to your right soon after Pf.1 at Alwar as your train heads south, you will see a beautiful old shed built in the traditional Rajasthani palace style complete with overhanging bougainvillea which now straddles a BG siding - possibly where the 2 coach set of the Fairy Queen is parked. Me thinks this may well have been the shed for the Maharaja of Alwar's saloon.
At Bandikui we were at the door once again to catch a glimpse of the famed railway colony there. Bandikui was an important steam shed and junction in the MG days and quite a large railway settlement best known for India's first bowling alley - an open air one at that - built adjacent to the steam shed. While we couldn't quite spot the bowling alley, we did see many grand old buildings and houses and tried to imagine what it must have been like there in its days of glory. The old MG steam shed has now given way to some sort of departmental siding.
Heavy freight action on the BG was noted south of Rewari - it seems to increase everytime I've traveled on this line. The Rewari - Hissar section and northwards to Punjab handles a chunk of this traffic thereby bypassing Delhi. Alwar is another such point where some of this traffic heading east is diverted through and more recently Bandikui. No less than 12 freights were crossed on our journey to Jaipur and these consisted mostly of a mix of containers and tankers -traffic that had most probably originated from Kandla. We were impressed!
We had about an hour and a bit to kill at Jaipur stn and after seeing our Shatabdi depart we climbed up to our favoured vantage point - the foot overbridge. After surveying the BG and MG yard from there, we made it down to the MG platforms where the Meenakshi had already been backed onto. After stocking up on some supplies and essentials we boarded coach WASCN 87014 which was to be our base for the next 32 hours. We were delighted to be in a MG 2AC coach and we seemed to have lucked out as well - it was a freshly overhauled coach and even though it was 18 years old, it seemed to be in good nick. The start of a delightful 32 hours we thought..
Train 9769 left Jaipur on time with Phulera's YDM4 6565 in charge of a 17 coach train. I was rather surprised to see a Phulera loco on this train as I was certain we'd get a Sabarmati shed link. I realised soon enough that Sabarmati locos could no longer make it to these parts as their only link through Udaipur - Chittor had been cut off thanks to gauge conversion!
As we settled into the chilled interiors of our 2 AC compartment, we kept ourselves busy looking out of the window, calculating the speed of the train and watching the BG action race past us. In duller moments, Mr.network marketer kept us entertained as was best described by Mohan. Soon Phulera was upon us and with that we ground to a halt at the outer. Mohan and me rushed to the door soon to be greeted by twin WDG3's working hard on a northbound BOXN freight. With the diamond crossing now cleared for us, we made our way across the BG tracks into Phulera's island platform. We were on time here and in any case the halt there was a leisurely 20 mins so we made our way upto the foot over bridge and walked the width of the yard - all of 23 MG tracks and 7 BG tracks! The old stone building of Phulera station had a 1906 build date on it and this had now been usurped by the BG which had no less than 3 platforms leaving just 2 on the island for the MG. A WDM2 could be seen running around its freight with caboose in tow and in doing so would effectively reverse direction of the train which had either come in from the Jodhpur side or then was headed that way. The MG side on the other hand looked a little inactive given its sheer size and importance and other than our train standing on the platform, there was little or no activity there. Full length freight trains sans locomotives filled the yard and inbetween them one could see a colourful ART set with steam crane.
Phulera departure was right time and we moved out as soon as our pairing train had been received on the adjacent platform. It was beginning to get quite hot by now so we retreated to the comforts of our 2AC coach and settled down for some lunch. Lunch was heavy to say the least but we gulped it all down without the slightest bit of complaint. The Aravali range made its presence felt now with its hills surrounding us from both sides. There is a fairly impressive set of hills with steep hill sides and jagged rock faces just short of Madar station - akin to images of the Grand Canyon if you will. The vegetation all along - since are departure from Jaipur - was sparse and the trees though tall were restricted to stubby bushes growing on very short branches - think Lord of the Rings, 2 Towers. We were told that these were the ideal height to cater to the dietary needs of camels. The only evidence of which we saw in the form of carcasses!
Madar goods yard was soon passed and with that the BG goods bypass line made its exit. We would cross it again after leaving Ajmer. Within minutes we were negotiating the magnificent horse-shoe curve into Ajmer which is flanked by Madar hill on the one side and Taragarh hill on the other. Through this horse shoe curve, the railway line effectively envelops the town of Ajmer. We stepped out at Ajmer for a cup of tea and surprise no.2 was now in store for us. Mohan noticed that the YDM4 shunting workshop stock alongside had 'Mhow' stenciled on its shorthood and cab side. I was pretty stunned by that development. But if Phulera locos could haul the Meenakshi and Sabarmati locos had been cut off, Mhow diesel shed was only a logical development. With gauge conversion slated to hit the Ajmer - Ratlam section by 2007, the Ratlam - Khandwa - Purna section would be an isolated one and being a fairly lengthy section, it would have to be served by its own shed. We were told later on that as many as 40 locos from Sabarmati had been transferred to Mhow shed recently for this purpose.
Ajmer departure was 10" late and during the halt I managed to walk the length of the Meenakshi's 17 coach rake. This included a pantry car cum chair car coach - a combination I have not come across till date. Our train also had on it rolling stock built as recently as '04. A parcel van attached behind the rear SLR was a regular feature on this train and would get cut off along with 5 other coaches the next morning at Mhow. Our 2A coach would stay on till Purna though as against what we were led to believe earlier by IRCTC! The extension of the 2A service to Purna had been introduced earlier in the month - sensible we thought!
As we headed out of Ajmer station, one could see a freshly overhauled YDM4 with no shed markings on it hauling a consist of BC wagons which were just out of Ajmer workshops and looked fantastic in their fresh coat of paint. They were standing on a dual gauge track that would run parallel to the mainline for a few hundred metres before leading into the workshops. Literally a hundred or so metres behind them was a Vatva WDS4 hauling a set of BOXN wagons - waiting for the MG load to clear its path ahead. Both were headed to Ajmer station and made for an interesting sight! The endless expanse of Ajmer's workshops - the loco shop followed by the carriage & wagon were passed soon after and we now took a south easterly alignment out of Ajmer towards Ratlam. Minutes after the workshop boundary wall was passed we came up on the BG freight bypass which passed over the MG line in the form of an RORB.
At Hatundi we had our 2nd crossing for the day where the return working from Nasirabad waited on the platform loop while we went through on the main. The Aravali range which had kept us company thus far now started receding as we approached the cantonment town of Nasirabad. The station at Nasirabad is a neat and tidy little one and the approach and exit to it are marked by sharp curves giving one some fine photo ops. At the south end of the station was a small yard meant for filling tank wagons with water to serve the drier areas of this vast desert land. At Jharwasa we passed the 1st of many cement rakes that we would see along the way. A lot of these lay stranded at midway stations awaiting a pick up from locomotives but almost all had freight labels on them - showing clearly that revenue earning freight continued to originate in the region. A couple of stations south of Nasirabad was Bhandanwara where a scrap and cutting yard for MG stock is located. Am pretty certain that on closer inspection one could easily find a few forgotten gems there.
Between Mokhampura and Bijainagar we noticed construction sites for at least 3 bridges and were not sure wether these were replacements for the MG or then signs of the evident gauge conversion - after all 2007 isn't to far away. The only river of any substance that we crossed through the day was the Kothari river. This had some semblance of a water channel through it while the other so called 'major' bridges on the route consisted of bone dry river beds. After the Aravalis had deserted us, the landscape had little or nothing on offer to someone peering out the window save for the occasional Palas (red tree) which reminded us of the splendid Madhya Pradesh coutryside we had traversed on the Satpura lines only a month ago. The countryside here was arid, monotonously flat and had almost negligible signs of any crop or plantation. What was interesting though was the way the locals had made effective use of cactus as fencing for their farms and houses.
The national highway possibly heading to Chittor or Udaipur kept us company throughout and it was crossed by us quite a few times enroute. The highway quality seemed pretty good to spelling sure shot doom for the MG line! Some more cement freights were encountered at Mokhampura and further on at Rupaheli and with that we were slowly but surely drawing into the country's famed cement belt. At Bijainagar we had our 3rd crossing for the day in the form of a 12 coach passenger train which waited on the through while we were brought into the platform line for a scheduled stop. The MG line serves no less than 5 cement plants in the Chittor - Neemuch belt belonging to the likes of Birla, Vikram and JK Cement. These cement rakes are eventually headed for Shakurbasti (Delhi) or Neem Ka Thana (Haryana). Some of these serve regional hubs along the way as was evident from what we saw at Khandwa and beyond. Other freight traffic on the line includes the rare food grains train and a couple of departmental workings.
At Mandal we came up on our 4th crossing where a 17 coach train waited for us. This turned out to be the now curtailed Chittor - Delhi Express which once ran through from Ahmedabad. The next station Bhilwara, best known for its textile mill and the only other notable station (apart from Nasirabad) on the Ajmer - Chittor section was reached soon after and we stepped out for some kulhad wali chai. The platform at Bhilwara was abuzz with activity at the time and the station yard itself - all of 6 tracks - seemed like it had seen busier days to. The landscape changed for the better after Bhilwara - there were more plantations, green patches and water bodies - all that the route north of this point had been bereft of. This was also a sure sign that we were moving closer to the Madhya Pradesh border. Darkness had descended on us by now and we waited anxiously for Chittaurgarh to arrive which would rid us of our traveling companions and allow us our rightful privacy and comfort which only the delightful MG 2AC can offer!
Even within the confines of the 2AC coach and the dark tinted windows, one could not miss the lights of the nearby cement plants and that had us bolting to the door soon enough. The darkness brought with it a pleasant breeze as well and we savoured the sights and sounds of cement country from the door as the MG train lurched on towards Chittor. Chanderia, a few kms north of Chittor was host to at least 2 such cement plants and an adjoining holding yard for MG cement rakes. After Chanderia we were on the look out for Bedach Cabin where we would be able to see the BG route from Kota join us from the east and the erstwhile MG route from Udaipur join us from the west. Gauge conversion was well in progress on the line to Udaipur and there was little evidence left to suggest that the MG even existed here. I thanked the lord that I had done the journey from Ahmedabad to Delhi via Udaipur while it was still all MG and in the luxury of an FC compartment all to myself! I had always wondered then why there was a reversal at Chittor and tonight I was to find out just why!
Just short of Chittor station, Mohan pointed out the famous fort located on a hill in the distance and the tower of victory which I strained my already weak eyesight to try and spot! The BG yard wore a desolate look and Chittor is one of those last few BG-MG junctions akin to Phulera where thankfully the MG holds sway. Chittor has an interesting platform arrangement wherein a terminus platform serves or rather would have served trains on the Udaipur line, an island platform serving through passenger trains and the main platform located further ahead of the terminus platform serving the expresses / longer trains. At the time the terminus platform was occupied with a passenger working bound for Ajmer, 1 of 2 island platforms had on it a an empty rake headed by a YDM4 and our train was allotted the main platform of course. To our surprise, this was scheduled loco changing point for the Meenakshi and Mhow's 6239 took over for the journey south. This loco change was possibly to contain Phulera locos within a certain geographical area. Alongside our train was a cement rake which was powered and waiting to be overtaken by us. Chittor departure was 20" late and as we made our way through the yard I noticed for the 1st time an MG wagon depot which was closely followed by a diesel trip shed for the MG locos. These 2 maintenance facilities would possibly serve the cement traffic originating in the area.
The next few cement plants were encountered at Nimbahera and Jawad Road. At one of these locations we saw an almost haunted cement factory which I thought would have made a perfect set for a thriller or horror film!! At both locations though 1 thing was in common - multiple cement rakes were parked at both yards and this highlighted well the MG's contribution to these parts. This line and the Lumding - Badarpur section on the NFR are possibly the last 2 revenue earning freight routes for MG in the country. We stood there at the door with some sense of relief - that MG freight had'nt quite died just yet.
Neemuch was reached a little later and with that came one of the biggest suprises of our trip..as I was surveying the yard from the door and trying to decipher the lines of the steam shed in the distance - I had visited Neemuch last when the shed was still in operation - and Mohan who casually glanced at the same scene immediately spotted right there in front of us 3 rusting YG's!! Obviously I had been completely oblivious of them - I don't know if it was the weak eyesight or then the aperitifs that had anything to do with this!! YG's 4379, 3509 & 4x43 stood there as the survivors of Neemuch. They had been withdrawn from service years ago, stored and bore some markings which I'm pretty certain contained the word 'condemn' somewhere! This had to be the 4th place on the WR network which still has MG steamers lying about rotting away - Wankaner, Rajkot and Mhow would make up the other 3! With the crew change done, the loco horn sounded and soon we were on our way leaving behind these workhorses that even time had forgotten.
Dinner was had soon after Neemuch and at Mandsor when we stepped out to witness yet another crossing Mohan made his 3rd discovery for the day - the rake of the Royal Orient was parked on one of the loop lines. What on earth was it doing here we thought? Was MP tourism its next taker? What with most of Gujarat and almost all of Rajasthan having been cut off from Ahmedabad?? In fact the last I saw this rake was at Ahmedabad in Dec'04 where it lay rotting - all 22 coaches of it - in Kankariya yard! The aperitifs were slowly catching up and so was our exhaustion - it was time now to enjoy one of the last few overnight MG journeys left in the country and that to in 2AC comfort - hit the sack we did!
Our phone alarms rang just in time for the station short of Mhow where we put on the loop to allow for a crossing. This enabled us to do as many quick morning rituals as were possible as also to pack our bags. Mhow arrival was at 0510 in the morning and while the rest of the through passengers slept through, Mohan and I were the only 2 active souls on that coach! We handed over our bags to the attendant to keep securely till Khandwa - we were to footplate from Mhow till that point. We bought our tickets (our 2AC had only been booked till Mhow) and sipped on some tea as we waited for our locomotive to reappear from the shed - it had gone there to replenish itself with some fuel for the long haul ahead to Purna. Meanwhile another YDM4 busied itself detaching coaches from the rear of our train - 6 in all - and then reattaching the rear SLR to complete the 11 coach formation for Purna.
Departure was eventually 35" late and Mohan and me waited anxiously for some more light to enjoy the ghat section ahead. We moved out of Mhow station with the town and the rest of our train still fast asleep. From the mainline we tried to look towards the shed for signs of any steamers but it was way to dark and the yard was poorly lit. In fact we couldn't even make out the bright lights that are common to modern day locomotive sheds. The yard looked a lot bigger than I had ever remembered it to be and consisted of the ART train, a few passenger rakes and a solitary goods rake with commercial tags on it - we wondered where that was headed or rather where it had emerged from. It was flat out running from there till Patalpani - the start or end of the ghat section depending on which direction your traveling. In our case we were headed down hill and I couldn't help but wonder how such a flat terrain would suddenly lead to a sudden ghat section. Mohan informed me soon enough that we had been on a plateau all along and now was the time to descend it! The morning air was pleasant bordering on nippy and made the ride all that more enjoyable - all we needed now was more light!! The 1st of many 1 in 41 grades can be seen as soon as you leave Patalpani station and from then on it's a continuous descent through to Kalakund. I had done this section last in the cold January of 1998 riding in the coal bunker of a YG heading tender first to Kalakund to bank a train back to Mhow - it was a most unforgettable experience and I was going to relive that today - albeit on a diesel locomotive. Almost immediately out of Patalpani the limited daylight revealed a stunning deep gorge to our right which had the Choral river flowing through it - mostly dry I might add. We soon realized the kind of altitude we were at just by looking down to our right at the sheer drop. The raw mountain side could best be described as harsh with an almost vertical face plunging deep down towards the river. Although we would have preferred more light, the dawn like conditions only added to the spectacle that was to unfold for the next half hour or so. It was raw and harsh alright but breathtaking all the same. We could notice umpteen paths where waterfalls would flow in the monsoon and the crew informed us that this place is absolutely gorgeous in the monsoons - we believed them. The waterfalls used to flow all year round apparently till a damn was built nearby recently.
We soon came up on the 1st of 4 brake testing halts each of which somehow seemed to precede a tunnel. Correspondingly there were 4 tunnels on this section of which the last appeared to be the longest. The Patalpani - Kalakund section is about 10 kms long and takes 20" to 30" to cover while going downhill. The max permissible speed on this section is 20 kmh and on that day we wished it could have been slower! 4 major bridges are crossed including a spectacular and very tall girder bridge which had recently been painted and looked resplendent in its setting. The train takes a sharp curve right soon after the bridge and great views can be had by looking back. There was a short halt at Kalakund where we noted a rather nice looking station building and a lone YDM4 awaiting its next banking duty. The grades ease up after Kalakund with the 1 in 60's kicking in soon after and eventually giving way to the 1 in 100's. Although officially, as Mohan mentioned, the ghat section ends at Kalakund it is almost equally spectacular for quite a few kms beyond till the station of Choral. Lots of deep cuttings akin to the ones we had just traversed, slightly lower hills, dense forests and the river valley almost matching our alignment. The Choral river is in fact crossed twice in the span of a few kms. At Choral we had our 2nd crossing for the day with the 11 coach passenger bound for Ajmer. All trains that we saw on this line seemed to run with an 11 coach or less configuration - may have something to do with the ghat section.
While the grades ease up after Kalakund and Choral, the MPS is restricted to a suprising 30 kmh. There are long sweeping curves complete with guide rails and continuous 1 in 100 grades of the 'ramp' variety that John Lacey enlightened us about recently and this might explain the restricted speeds. The forests, cuttings and hills finally leave us near Mukhtara Balwada where we noticed the token being picked on the fly at a point near the home signal as against the customary station area. I hadn't seen this practice before. At Barwaha we had our 3rd crossing for the day with an Ujjain bound passenger train. The Narmada river is crossed between Barwaha and Omkareshwar Road stations - all of 800 metres long and with no speed restriction to hold it back, it was a pleasure being on the YDM4 as it trundled over with the Meenakshi. The Narmada looked fabulous that morning and yet very different to what we had experienced at Mandla and Jabalpur only a month back. There are 3 bridges that one can spot in the area and the railway bridge is the tallest of the lot giving one an aerial view of what's happening around. The newer road bridge is ugly to say the least and was thankfully further away from us. The old stone arch bridge which still carries traffic looked grand in comparison!
At Omkareshwar Road which looked to be a fairly busy station for obvious reasons we noted gantry style home signals and this was to be a norm for quite a few more stations on the line south to Khandwa. Once again since these are B class single line stations, they only have outer and home signals and are rid of any starters / advance starters. A couple of stations down the line at Nimarkheri we were upto our MPS of 75 kmh and somehow felt the little MG loco was capable of a lot more. The ride quality was great and the fine maintenance of the permanent way only added to our confidence. Between Attar and Ajanti the 1 in 100 grades seem to reappear and with them some thickly wooded forests and low hills. The national highway from Indore would keep us company off and on and we both thought what an excellent area this was for some trackside shoots / train chasing! At Ajanti, Mohan made his - I've lost count by now - umpteenth discovery of rails on the regularly used loop line dating back to 1896 and built by Barron Steel of England for the Rajputana Malwa Railway / BBCIR! It was unbelievable really! The oldest track I had seen so far dated back to 1898 - spotted at Farukhnagar on the MG branch from Garhi Harsaru and built by the same set of people / sold to the same railway company! This line was a lot newer so I wonder by what stroke of luck this landed here!!
The wait at Ajanti seemed endless - crossing with a freight we were told but no freight ever showed up and all we got was more heat from the close to mid day sun! We had made good time on the run south of Mhow and had by now lost all that advantage waiting at Ajanti. We suddenly got the all clear only after being told that there would be a certain and much longer hold up at Khandwa on account of a freight having derailed in the yard there. Great - there go our plans we thought! Khandwa's MG station looked busy with 4 of 5 lines occupied. The passenger from Ajmer to Purna had been the first victim of the derailment having waited at Khandwa for well over 4 hrs past its scheduled departure. 2 freight train sets occupied the middle lines while we were allotted the last platform at Khandwa. Since it was way to hot by then and we weren't sure when we'd get the line clear we stuck to the MG side of things and did not venture into the adjoining BG territory. The old MG steam trip shed was noted on the way in to the station and an equally old water tower with wrought iron spiral staircase was seen on the exit of the station - both remnants of a bygone era.
About an hour into our wait at Khandwa, YDM4 6667 brought in the ART unit and that meant we were only minutes away from the line clear now. At 1140, a good 1 hr 35 mins late we departed Khandwa. We crawled through a track which had several permanent way gangs standing alongside showing us exactly where the derailment spot was. The MG alignment first heads in a westerly directon and then cuts back east on a leisurely curve to cross the BG main line in the form of an RORB. We could see an MG cement freight being unloaded on the sidings that are common to the BG as well. Sweeping past the periphery of these goods sidings we now picked up speed and were soon over the Bhusawal - Itarsi CR mainline. At the 1st station outside of Khandwa - Mordar - we had our 1st crossing on SCR territory. A very late running north bound 10 coach passenger train waited on the loop as we sped past on the through line. Not only had it become very hot by then as we drew closer to the tropic of cancer but the landscape had changed completely. It was now dry, arid landscape with little or no vegetation and flat for miles on end. But not for long. On the long section between Gurhi and Amala Khurd we encountered some medium intensity grades once again which were complimented by low hills, deep rock cuttings and some fairly thick forests with notably taller trees than what we had seen before. We were amongst low rolling hills now and the grades increased to 1 in 123 and add to that some very very sharp curves which necessitated a caution of 40 kmh through the section. On one such sharp curve we saw the remains of a capsized Sabarmati YDM4 and 2 coaches which had obviously been on the wrong side of 40!
The 300 metre long Tapti river bridge was crossed just short of Tukaithad and while the bridge itself was an impressive girder construction the river let us down quite a bit with a very narrow channel of water through it. I guess it was inkeeping with its rain starved harsh surroundings! Between Dabka and Dhulghat we crossed another stretch of thick forests and low rolling hills and the trees here stood out for more than just their height - they were stark and devoid of any foliage whatsoever. It seemed to us that nothing would survive in these parts and that forest fires must be common in this area. The guard and conductor both informed us that what seemed hot and intolerable to us that day - temperature in the range of 40C - was nothing in comparison to the real summer months where temps easily crossed 50C but were never reported - simply cause there was no one to report it! We thanked our stars we were back in the comfort of the 2AC coach and dreaded to think what it may have been like on the cab at this time of day. To give you an idea of just how hot it was on that day..we would stand for no more than 5-10 mins at the doors and then scurry back inside like 2 spoilt brats! At Dhulghat we crossed our pairing train for the 2nd time and it was rather rare and nice to see the camaraderie between the crews of the 2 trains - everyone from the drivers to the conductor to the guard and even the pantry staff. The Meenakshi still held some sort of prestige on the line we thought!
Now came the part we were eagerly waiting to see - the spiral or loop between Dhulghat and Wan Road. This is possibly the only loop anywhere in the country outside of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and while there are some artificial loops like the one at Ratlam, this one was necessitated by mother nature. The loop can be seen for some distance before the train actually goes under it - the terrain leading upto it is flat when compared to the hills behind it which in turn necessitated this loop. The alignment after Dhulghat is north facing, crosses under the loop, gains height through a constant 1 in 80 grade complemented by a sweeping curve and eventually loops itself over heading south all over again. The speed on this section is restricted to 20 kmh and sensibly so. Once the train has ascended completely, the panorama of surrounding hills is absolutely spectacular. Not a soul to be seen for miles on end, no signs of civilization whatsoever, just acres and acres of undulating land, steep hill sides, and thickly wooded forests. The MG line blends in to all of this beautifully and would probably only stand out in the monsoons when shades of green appear on the trees and hillsides. A 300 or so metre long tunnel came out of nowhere soon after this loop and took us by surprise. There is a longer one after Wan Road but that caught us completely unawares as we had retreated to the comforts of our 2AC compartment by then. Shame on us we thought! The deep rock cuttings, sharp curves and forests continue for a few kms more after Wan Road and closer to Adgaon Buzurg the scenery changes quite suddenly from all brown hues to shades of green, sunflower plantations and normal looking trees. The southern Satpura range which we have now left behind forms a distinct backdrop to it all.
At Adgaon Buzurg we crossed a north bound YDM4 hauled 17 BC wagon freight. Once again we wondered where this had originated from and everytime we saw freight action away from the cement belt it brought a smile to our faces! Station names south of Khandwa were sounding more and more exotic now and at the next station of Akot we crossed another passenger train - also running exceptionally late. A power nap was had between Akot and just short of Akola. We awoke at Akola to find that we were now running 1 hr 50 mins late and by this time we were getting rather skeptical about making our connection at Purna. Akola was baking hot - especially after that 45 minute snoozer in aircon comfort - and we quickly stocked up with water and got ourselves some tea. The departure from Akola revealed a rather large and once busy MG yard complete with goods sidings, ART units and a steam shed - the latter of which was obviously no longer in use. We noticed not 1 but 2 steam cranes at Akola and at least 1 of them was a part of the ART consist. The 2nd crane had on it Purna markings which showed clearly that Purna must also have been an MG steam shed in its heyday! It was time to cross the BG mainline yet again and we gained height through a gentle grade and a generous sweeping curve to reach the summit in the form of an RORB!
Mohan informed me that we weren't done with the hill sections just yet - the Sahyadri Parvat or the Ajanta range lay ahead and would be crossed near abouts Amanvadi. This range consisted of much shorter trees than what had been seen in the southern Satpuras and with gently sloping hill sides running off low hills. We were close to sundown as we drew nearer to Washim and at the station we were met by our last and final crossing in the form of a 10 coach passenger train led by YDM4 6710. We stood at the door - more bravely now than before - with the temperatures having plummeted and eventually retreated to our compartment around 7 pm which is when it was pitch dark. Mohan insisted that he had to see the Penganga river crossing and dutifully made his way to the door yet again while the more exhausted me sat inside and reflected on life and the journey on the Meenakshi. Dinner was served by a cheerful lad from the pantry car at Hingoli Deccan and this was one stop I wished I had seen in daylight hours and stepped out on the platform - the name conjures up some grand images in my mind!
Purna arrival was eventually an hour and 50 minutes late but the Meenakshi had made it there in time for our connection and more importantly by not alighting at an earlier point like Akola (in fear of us missing connections ahead) we had completed in right earnest what we had set out to do in the first place - travel the longest surviving MG route in the country!
While Purna's MG station has been relegated to a mere 1 platform affair (it was evidently 2 till they ripped the other line out recently) the BG is a more thriving one enjoying its rightfull or otherwise share of 3! Once we got there we realized we had a choice of 2 trains to catch - the first would apparently have had to wait for us irrespective of how late we were as it formed the logical connection for passenger who would otherwise have traveled through to Secunderabad on the Meenakshi if the MG was still around south of Purna. Today, on account of gauge conversion, passengers would be forced to change trains at Purna and continue on their journey south to Secunderabad. Maula Ali's WDM2 16388 was at the head of a puny 3 coach Purna - Kacheguda Express. This train would run amalgamated with the Manmad - Kacheguda Exp from Parbhani. The 2nd and direct train we could have boarded but chose not to at this point was the Nanded - Manmad - Daund passenger which was standing alongside (running late) behind Pune's WDM3 18605R. The 3rd BG platform was also occupied at the time with the Nanded bound Express from Bangalore behind a Guntakal steed.
Even though the departure of the express was more than an hour late, it managed to make up time on the short run to Parbhani and came in there about 45" late. Its connecting train was already standing there and after we alighted to wait for ours we stood on the overbridge and watched the 2 trains being merged. Parbhani and Purna both seemed like fairly big yards and we wondered what they may have been like in MG days. Clearly Purna was the bigger and more important of the 2 and carrying on with the tradition today housed a full fledged BG coaching depot and an ART and ARME unit.
The 1604 passenger to Daund departed 50" late from Parbhani and with that started a most challenging journey for us - tired and exhausted as we were - in the hard seats of a GS (open plan) coach. Somehow we even managed to sleep through for a bit and awoke just in time to take a peek at Ankai Quila (fort) and the famous thumbs up rock as we rounded the curve into Manmad. The morning air was chilly and necessitated a sheet (while sleeping) or sweat shirt while standing at the door - a bit discomforting at that hour but a welcome relief from the heat we had experienced the previous day. Manmad arrival was only 15" late and the Pune WDM3 had done a super job overnight. The few times that we sat up awake at the window we found us doing a very good speed and noted a fair share of passenger traffic to with frequent crossing en route.
Manmad was full of activity at the time with trains arriving and departing, light engines going up and down to facilitate loco changeovers and several freight trains passing through on the through lines unheard. We alighted and first got ourselves a much needed cup of tea and then proceeded to book a retiring room for the few hours that we were there. Retiring room was thankfully available and had clearly seen better days. We had a much needed bath and after freshening up appropriately to make an appearance for breakfast we headed to the refreshment room for some omlettes, toast and tea. While we sat there the Panchvati Exp for Bombay departed right in front of us. While service at the refreshment room left a lot to be desired, it had some leftovers from the British Era - old tiles, flooring, suspended fans and high ceilings. In fact many corners of Manmad's station building had the tell tale signs of the glory days of the GIPR. After breakfast we made our way to the yard to have a look at the old MG steam trip shed as well as the old BG steam shed which we observed from a distance and which has now been converted into an ART maintenance shelter. The elegant building of the senior railway institute now sadly run over by bureaucracy reminded us of some of the relics we had seen at Bandikui on day 1 of our trip. We headed back to the retiring room to pick up our bags as it was time to board our train to Delhi - the Goa Exp. Pune's WDM3 17897R brought in the Express about 5" late. We were expecting a loco change here but it was not to be. This loco would continue to Bhusawal eventually giving way to Gaziabad's WAP1 22045. With only 4 odd cautions thrown in and no unscheduled halts we covered the 160 km stretch from Manmad to Jalgaon non-stop in a little under 2 hours. Bhusawal was reached a full 20" early having made up 25" since our departure. I had not seen such an exemplary run by any train on IR for many many years now - Rajdhanis and Shatabdis move over! Full marks to the section controllers, the crew and of course Pune's star WDM3 - a real cracker of a locomotive!
After that very satisfactory run, a sumptuous lunch served by Goa's pantry and us being allotted the berths of our choice (we had separate ones at the time of booking) it was time to catch up on some much needed sleep and I was only to be awoken again by Mohan at Bhopal which was close to dinner time!! A few words about our 2A coach - even though it was '95 stock, SCR (now SWR I think?) had made a lot of improvements to it - carpeting in the corridors, berth no. indicators on the night lamps, mobile phone chargers in the galley, retiled and re-paneled toilet interiors and such - a commendable effort indeed! Delhi arrival the next morning was expectedly late at 40" past the ETA.
And with that came to an end a thoroughly satisfying trip on an MG route I would recommend to anyone & everyone. Go for it!