Metre Gauge Journeys Part III: Pandyan Express

by Hariharan Subrahmanyan


It is weekend again and I get this urge to write again spurred by encouraging words from IRFCA members to my earlier posts. This is heavy on nostalgia and a long trip report.

In this instalment I would like share some pleasant experiences of my journeys in the cherished Pandyan Express between Madurai and Madras Egmore.

In this report I would also like to share some interesting trivia that some IRFCA fans may already know too.

Most people know very well that Madurai was the seat of the Pandyan Kingdom and I am only assuming that this train was named in honour of that. IRFCA veterans would know the background of naming the train as such and confirm my theory.

Some of my fondest memories are walking over the pedestrian footbridge right across the Madurai Junction and do the obvious thing-train watching from the pedestrian bridge.

In Madurai, the railway overbridge was a public-access area and served as a vital connection between two areas in the city. Many a time I have watched Vaigai pull into Platform 3 around 8:15 pm -having accomplished some of the fastest runs in MG at that time.

But this post is more about Pandyan Express than Vaigai Express.

Any rail-traveller from Madurai prefers Pandyan because of its convenient timing. It is another matter that it took nearly 11 hours for the 493km journey between Madurai Jn and Madras Egmore. I have heard that there is a concept called "Chairman's Trains" which meant that the operation of such trains has to be reported on a daily basis to the Chairman of the Railway Board. I really do not know if such a thing exists or was just a legend. I have heard it being said that Pandyan Express was one of those.

If I remember correctly, Pandyan's departure ex-Madurai Junction was 7:35 pm. As one enters the Madurai junction- there is a bus stop bang opposite the Junction-, one can pay obeisance to the little Ganesh temple at the entrance. The facade itself resemles a temple tower. I have seen plaques mentioning that Madurai Division has repeatedly got the award for best maintained station in SR.

In Madurai Jn, one would have noticed that the first class coach (in later years AC II Tier) being positioned exactly in front of the main entrance to platform # 1 . As one enters we can see the Higginbothams book stall to the right of the entrance to the platform. Time to get some magazines for the journey.

One can see the vendors with their pushcarts plying their wares, fruits, food, fruits , cool drinks(before the days of Coke and Pepsi,it was GoldSpot) . I would intently watch the red turn into amber and my father would urge me to leave the platform and get into the train.

The train would gently pull out of the station and pick up some speed and we could see the train leave the city behind. Near Vilangudi about 10 kms out, the track runs parallel to National Highway 7 for about 5 kms.I would watch the long-distance express and omni buses run parallel. I would silently pray that our train run faster than those buses. By this time, our fellow passengers would take out their packed dinner usually brought from home. The toilets were clean, the compartments were clean to and one could not really find anything to complain about.

The TTE would make his rounds and they are probably the only people in that area one would find wearing a tie and coat in those parts and would present a refreshing sight to an enthusiastic kid. I have often thought that they had the best jobs to be able to travel in a train everyday.

Sometime within the next half hour, one could see Vaigai Express thunder past towards Madurai on the adjacent track. I think it would be in Vilangudi.

Dindigul would arrive just around 9 pm - yes Pandyan was slow by today's standards- and most people would get ready to go to bed. Some may prefer to get a glass of milk in the Dindigul station before retiring for the day. I would have been in a state of excitement to go to sleep so easily.

I would fiddle with the overhead reading light and try and read for sometime. Climbing the upper berth was another thing to look forward to.

The steady rythmic sounds would lull me into sleep and occasionally I would hear the whistle from the gangmen(is that right term??) signalling the track is clear.

Sometime thereafter an attendant would make the rounds taking orders for morning coffee . I have only vague memories but I remember that coffee used to be served in typical railway flasks in Chingleput probably around 5 am in the morning. That coffee in contrast to most coffee in trains used to be decent too.

The TVS Group for a long time used to be able to always find reservations for its executives and lower level people who had to travel to Madras on business. I had a classmate (he captained the India Under-19 cricket team in an Australian Tour when we were in high school) who used to take the Pandyan to play in the weekend senior division cricket league in Madras and return the next night.

The train would pull into Mambalam station just after 6 am in the morning - a perfect early start to a busy day's work in business.

It is possible that these are all very mundane details that most people go through over a day in and day out.

However these seem particularly important to me now living in the US where train travel is restricted to only certain cities and simply does not command the respect or the support of the public as it does in other countries. For a variety of reasons , mass transit -subarban or long distance- on rails is just not an option in the US. But I guess that is a separate topic in itself.

Having said that, I cherish every opportunity to take the train -commuter or long distance in recent years- even in cases where it may not be convenient.

It is now time for some trivia: my father once said that the father of chess champion Viswanathan Anand was a GM in Madurai Division. I remember reading somewhere that V.Anand got started on chess during his early years when his father was posted in Manila on some sort of deputation.

I have heard about one passenger train that would not stop at Madurai Junction but actually go straight to the Madura Coats Factory nearby . It was ferrying workers in a township south of the city.

Then there was this daily passenger from Madurai to Bodinayackanur in which University students would travel. I have travelled on this train many years back, when it was still powered by a steam loco.On one such trip, I actually saw the train hit a PRC local bus on an unmanned level crossing. I remember running to the nearest post office about half a km away to call the ambulance.

My next trip report would hopefully be the Shaan-E-Punjab between NewDelhi and Amritsar.

Happy rail fanning!!!

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