Three Rides on the Vijayawada to Guntakal Section

by Ian Manning

1969, 1981, 2023

Looking back over my records, I find that I have travelled west from Guntur on three occasions, the first time on New Year's Day 1969, then on 26 December 1981 and most recently on 31 January 2023. On all three occasions I was returning to Chennai after visiting the Godavari delta lines and was seeking an alternative route to that via Ongole.

In 1969 there were no expresses between Guntur and Guntakal but four daily passenger trains were timetabled, the fastest taking 14 hours 10 minutes and the slowest 15 hours 15 minutes. This meant that no train covered the section in daylight. To see the line, I accordingly left Guntur on No 225 Passenger at 1645, alighted at Vinukonda and spent the night on the platform there before catching No 221 Passenger, which was timed out of Guntur at 0325 and into Guntakal at 1755. It ran reasonably close to right time and connected with No 9 Bombay-Madras mail. By giving a little bakshish to a sweeper I gained a luggage rack and so returned to Chennai in comfort.

Guntur was originally built as a metre-gauge station, towards the eastern end of the line which stretched port-to-port from the west coast at Vasco da Gama to the east coast at Machilipatnam, mostly along the 15th parallel of latitude though its eastern end was a little further north. In 1969 Guntur's main and island platforms were accordingly metre gauge. However, since independence in 1947 the line between Krishna Canal Junction and Machilipatnam had been converted to broad gauge and broad-gauge connections into Guntur had been provided from both Krishna Canal Junction (parallel to the metre gauge) and Tenali. These two connections came together and terminated in a constricted pair of bay platforms at the eastern end of the station. Only one broad-gauge express served Guntur, the Circars Express, which was allowed 25 minutes to reverse. Though the metre gauge was still laid out for through running, only goods trains continued to Krishna Canal. Passenger services on the line to the west, and also on the Macherla branch, originated at Guntur, either from the long through platform or from the island platform, reached by footbridge.

On the first of my three trips, I reached Guntur from Macherla mid-afternoon on New Year's Day. A WP looked somewhat out of place shunting in the little broad-gauge yard. At 1600 another WP left for Machilipatham, having failed to connect with a local passenger from Repalle which was timed to arrive at 1545 but came in late behind a WM tank engine. Meanwhile, on metre gauge, a goods doubleheaded by a YB and a YD blocked access from the loco depot to the platforms. As soon as it moved, the YB which was to provide the motive power for No 225 Passenger arrived from the depot. At this time Indian Railways had a policy of one engine, one crew. Though the accountants probably thought this policy hindered capital utilisation, it provided a strong incentive for crews to take pride in their engines and even to decorate them for special occasions. Bearing a Happy New Year headboard with strips of bunting down to its buffer beam, our YB cruised along platform 3 then waited while a YD shunted a carriage rake onto its tender. In due course I left for Vinukonda, spent the night on the platform and continued to Guntakal the next day.

On the second trip I took rather more extensive notes. Having arrived in Guntur by bus in the evening of 25 December 1981, I wandered through the streets and eventually took a cycle-rickshaw to the station to find the booking hall full of people, stretched out on the floor. Nobody was sleeping on the platforms on the other side of the ticket gate, which remained much as they had been in 1969. Guntur now had two broad-gauge expresses, of which the Circars Express had already departed for Madras, leaving space for the Golconda Express to arrive from Secunderabad via Kazipet- a WDM2, a dozen bogies and a sprinkling of passengers.

Though it was not due to leave for several hours No 221, the morning train for Hubli, was docked on the main metre-gauge platform. At 0200 on Saturday 26 December I bought a ticket to Guntakal, selected a second-class compartment and laid down. A YB steam loco coupled up ready for an on-time 0325 departure, but this was not achieved. Our train had failed its brake inspection. There was hammering under the carriages. More than once the train jerked a little way along the platform then stopped for more hammering. We eventually left without ceremony an hour and a half late, all set to lose further time. No 221 was timetabled to spend 24 hours and 20 minutes on its 625-kilometre journey to Hubli.

By dawn on Saturday 26 December, having travelled 46 kilometres, we were at Narasaraopet, where the platform had a patchy concrete surface and the station building consisted mostly of veranda, thankfully sheltering a stall which served idlies on dry, crackly leaves. We gained a group of college students, a badminton team travelling to Vinukonda, who preferred to sit on the luggage racks except when the train stopped, when they stood outside. They asked me the usual list of questions: nationality, income, age and marital status. Unusually, and with some diffidence, one of them even phrased a question: 'You don't mind, but may I know your caste?'

The hills around Narasaraopet were light purple in the dawn mist, in which the sun blinked up as a red squashed lozenge only to disappear as the track took us into the shadow of a hill. A second sunrise took place when the train passed a gap in the ridge line. We were soon in broad daylight and paused at a loop cross No 226 Passenger, which had long been in the timetable and had recently been upgraded to Fast Passenger. After it had run through express behind a YP we moved ahead to the next loop to encounter a YB with No 228 Passenger from Donakonda, a service which had recently been introduced to serve the stations now skipped by No 226. The two locos stood abreast, taking water from a collection of elevated tanks.

Vinukonda turned out to be a small but pukka town in the lee of a purplish-pink rock hill topped by a temple with a white vimana. As we continued south-west, we passed isolated hills and rocky patches interspersed with fields to reach Donakonda, a major station with a locomotive depot. Here our YB was replaced by a YG, to provide power for the ghat section through the Nallamalai Range. Not realising that the ghat section did not begin for a further eighty kilometres, I kept anticipating it as we curved our way past various ranges of hills. The ranges round Cumbum looked promising, but we skirted round them alongside an irrigation ditch on the upside of cultivated fields. It was not till after Giddalur that we reached the ghat section.

This ghat section had all the trappings of a climb without the climb itself. There were speed limits and constant, sharp curves as we wound our way through hills covered in broad-leaf forest, but the gradients were no steeper than 1/100 and the total climb was not great. We rounded a U-curve into Bogada crossing loop to meet a YG on (I presume) No 256 Passenger and paused to load passengers and bundles of firewood. Shortly after, the ghat section sprang its surprise: we emerged from a short tunnel onto a hill slope facing south and in quick succession crossed three viaducts over ravines. After this the forest closed in again and we curved about blindly within it, stopping a couple of times at crossing loops to give the local wood-cutters the opportunity to sell to our passengers and also to our guard.

The excitements of the ghat section lasted for an hour or so, after which we emerged into open but still rocky country. As we approached Nandyal the train's vendors of peanuts, cooked oddments, biscuits and suchlike gave up hope of further sales and congregated in my compartment. An argument developed between a senior vendor and one of the boys. The boy lost his temper and the senior vendor parried his fist-thrusts, all the while smiling superciliously. The fighting ended when eventually we stopped at the far end of Nandyal no. 2 platform. This was a staging-point for goods traffic hauled by a mixture of steam YGs and diesel YDM4s and its yard was congested with wagons.

The next major station going west was Dronachellam, more recently called Dhone - one of the few Indian Railways stations to have had its official name shortened over the past few decades. The gradients were generally against us, but none was at all steep. The line dodged scattered hills and crossed patches of grey sedimentary rocks which could be quarried and split down to a thickness of two to three centimetres - not exactly slate, but in demand for built-in shelves. At several of the sidings self-described stone polishing works had produced stacks of slabs to await loading until the railway could produce the necessary wagons. The works were rather primitive and produced much grey dust but were bringing prosperity to their villages, resulting in the construction of new houses and temples.

At Dronachellam we waited at the home signal while a steam-hauled passenger train left for Kurnool - so much for connections. Our train was running three hours late and the sun had set so we continued to Guntakal in darkness. I missed the connection to Bangalore but no problem, there was a convenient lodge just up the hill from the station.

And now to the third trip, on 31 January 2023. I had stayed on for a couple of days after the Vijayawada Convention in order to ride MEMUs to Machilipatnam and Narasapur and now wanted to ride the new line from Nandyal to Kadapa, necessitating a connecting trip from Vijayawada through Guntur to Nandyal. In the 42 years since my second trip the line west from Guntur had been converted to broad gauge, electrified and partially duplicated. The trains had been speeded up, including the provision of express services - real expresses, not the up-labelling of stopping-all-stations trains as a dodge to raise fares. Not being equipped with an India-valid mobile phone, nor with the know-how to work the remote booking system, in the mid-morning I found a current booking window in one of Vijayawada's two booking halls and bought a second-class unreserved express ticket to Nandyal. Noting that the express from Hubballi would soon be arriving on platform 8 I made my way thence on the hunch that the arriving rake would form No 17330 Vijayawada-Hubballi Express. On arrival, the rake comprised SL cars with a couple of GS cars at each end. As expected, the GS cars attracted boarding passengers as soon as they had been vacated by arriving passengers. By departure time, 1350, our GS car had a seated load, plus young men on the luggage racks and standing in the doorways.

The Krishna River bridge just south of Vijayawada is a bottleneck on the East Coast main line and we therefore responded promptly to the colour-light signal at the end of the platform when it indicated that our time-slot for the bridge was open. Once over the river and its offshoot irrigation canals, we picked our way through Krishna Canal Junction to diverge from the main line and head south-west to Guntur. The hill which constricted the Krishna and made it bridgeable had several little brothers, but the country was generally flat and in a messy process of conversion from rural to urban - the new capital of Andhra Pradesh was not far away to our right, not that the railway took any notice. Rows of old palmyras bordered fields of cholam and cotton, mixed up with rows of walk-up flats and overlooked by blocks of high-rise flats. Odd plots of land awaiting urbanisation had reverted to acacia scrub.

Not surprisingly, Guntur station has been completely rebuilt when its metre-gauge tracks were replaced by broad. It now had long island platforms. Spinning fans dangled from solidly-built platform awnings. We came in on a platform thronged with intending passengers and soon all the seating and floor space in my carriage was taken. A young woman with baby curled up at my feet with another sitting beside her with her toddler. My seat was on the left, platform side of train and fortunately for me, a biriyani man set up his stall near my open window - I did not have to leave my seat to buy refreshments. Thanks to the crowd, I no longer had much view to the right.

Leaving Guntur, we passed compounds of schools and colleges till the town petered out into new subdivisions and old fields. With a squeaking of brakes we stopped at Nallapadu, junction for Hyderabad. One of two freight trains refuged here consisted of vans converted from integral carriages.

Continuing westwards, with a little bit of south, we were either on double track or on double on single track with a second line under construction. The line crossed a plain studded with sharp little hills, each with a ring of blue-metal quarries chiselled into its lower slopes. The occasional favoured hill had a staircase to a temple on top. Many of the fields between the hills were irrigated for cotton, sugar cane, tobacco, oilseeds, cholam or even wheat, while a few fields were reserved for drying red chillies and other dry fields bristled with the stalks of harvested paddy. We passed straw haystacks, mango topes and patches of scratchy acacia scrub, along with occasional agribusiness factories - godowns, sheds, tanks and chimneys, and the sites of former factories. At Perecherla an intending passenger arrived by motor bike and sprinted across the platform to force his way into the front carriage.

Narasaraopet was an old-established town with cinemas and a convention centre. I thought people would be getting off but no, our passengers were bound for places further west. We overtook a freight headed by two WDG7s and picked our way through trackworks, watched by a very blue Krishna from his niche in a suburban temple. The country started to undulate a little and the fields were now mildly terraced, bearing crops of cholam and chillies. There were even chilli fields with little plastic signs at the end of each row of plants, presumably naming the variety. We passed a group of women sorting red chillies heaped on a yellow tarpaulin.

The trackworks continued through Savalyapuram. The new cutoff line to Hyderabad would have been to our right, among the trackworks. At Vinukonda there was a moderate passenger exodus - the town was growing with new blocks of flats. From here line trended south-westerly across tobacco fields where the lower leaves of each plant had already been harvested, leaving a light green stalk with a topknot of leaves. The railway significance of Donakonda was much less than it had been when it had had a metre-gauge steam depot, but it still warranted a two-minute stop for people to board and alight.

The day had always been hazy and with the onset of dusk the sun disappeared into the haze. The country became rougher, with fewer cultivated fields and more open grazing and scrub. The grades steepened a little and there were cuttings, newly opened out for track duplication. A faint red tinge in the murk of cloud ahead sufficed for sunset. Markapur Road station was dimly lit, but the lights popped on to assist passengers to board.

By the solid black shapes around us we could tell that we were among hills, but we found our way through by gentle curves which didn't affect our speed. Eventually a series of rock cuttings took us into the tunnel which had replaced the metre-gauge ghat section through the Nallamalai range - our younger male passengers raised their voices to augment the rattle of the train in the tunnel, from which we emerged with open country to the left. After a further short tunnel we coasted down onto a plain, notable for the loud singing of its frogs.

At 2045 or so we stopped at Nandyal Platform 2. In former times, when my itineraries were prepared by Dr Sivaramakrishnan, he would have had me leave for Kadapa before dawn but on this occasion I took a day off before heading south.

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