Nandyal to Kadapa

by Ian Manning


Nandyal gets its name from a nearby circuit of Siva temples where Nandi is particularly revered. To emphasise this connection, the four-pillared portico of its railway station is surmounted by a Nandi facing east while a newer Nandi in the station forecourt faces north into a small bazaar. This leaves arriving passengers in no doubt that Nandi gives his name and patronage to the town, though the road from the station to the town centre is graced by a small Christian cathedral and the town has a mosque whose calls to prayer are timely, tuneful and brief. I was therefore mildly surprised to find that a town named after the sacred bull has few cattle but abounds in monkeys, to the point where the human population, or at least the young male portion of it, is in a state of undeclared war against the simian population. Nandyal bazaar even boasts a stall devoted wholly to catapults and slingshots.

On the morning of Wednesday 1 February 2023 I spent a couple of hours at Nandyal station. With no passenger trains expected, the platforms were quiet save for a few urchins armed with catapults and, I suspect, pockets filled with stolen ballast. The boys' carefully-aimed stones kept the monkeys jumping about in the framework of the main platform veranda, which faced south across three tracks to an island platform complete with another monkey-sheltering veranda.

Nandyal is a crew-change point on the line from Vijayawada to Guntakal and Hubballi. When I arrived at the station by share-auto a train of oil tanks, topped and tailed by guards vans, was ready to leave westbound. A train crew walked from the barracks at the east end of the main platform and popped into the sign-on sign-off room in the station building. Formalities completed, the guard walked back to his van and the enginemen walked forward, took charge of the train's pair of electric locos and soon had it moving. This train was followed through the refuge sidings on the far side of the island platform by a double-header composed of standard vans, and again the train crew signed off and walked to the barracks while their replacements walked from the barracks and signed on. While this was happening their train was overtaken by a single-headed priority freight which was privileged to use the track between the two platforms.

At 0500 the following morning, when I left my hotel by auto, visibility at ground level was reasonable but the cloud was low overhead and there were no stars. On arrival at the station, I bought a ticket to Kadapa and learnt that the 0550 train would be one of two DMUs waiting at platform 3. A kind lady carried my bag up the stairs to the footbridge - why is it that ladies, without being asked, carry bags for elderly strangers? The lady pointed me to the DMU at the western end of the platform; the one at the eastern end would leave for Kurnool at 0605.

We departed on time, heading westwards into the dark. I expected a lurch to the left as we diverged south but failed to detect it, and with the train travelling steadily through 100% darkness I began to wonder: perhaps we were going to Kadapa via Dhone and Gooty? The first station stop failed to confirm or deny my wonderings, since the place was in darkness apart from a green hand lamp in the Stationmaster's office, and so also at the second station. However, by 0630 the low clouds began to redden to our left, reassuring me that we were indeed travelling south on the connection, opened as recently as 2016, to Yerraguntla on the Mumbai-Chennai main line.

This line, though single track, was built to a high standard with gentle curves suitable for high-speed operations. Though I was travelling by DMU, the line was electrified. I didn't calculate the DMU's speed, but as we approached stations there was a whiff of Ferodo brake blocks. The first station after dawn, Koilakuntla, turned out to be typical for the line: two long loops with side platforms, one each side of the main line, one equipped with a substantial station building and the other with an open veranda, with the two platforms connected by a covered footbridge. As directed by the colour-light signals, we would stop at the platform with the station office. At many stations the other loop was occupied by track machines or surplus rollingstock.

The horizon in all directions was grey and misty - we did not see the sun till an hour or so after dawn, by which time it was already high in the sky. We found ourselves traversing gently undulating country typical of the Deccan, save that this was Rayalaseema and the underling rock was not basalt, as in Maharashtra, but various sandstones and limestones. Occasional wet paddy fields with bird-scaring flags were watered from concrete-lined irrigation channels but most of the fields were dry, bearing cotton, chillies, tobacco, oilseeds and cholam. The oilseeds were harvested by sickle and shaken out onto tarpaulins. The country as a whole was drained by watercourses wandering among acacia scrub in shallow valleys, easily bridged, and its villages were low-profile, with colour-washed walls and trees which scarcely grew above roof-height.

For the most part, the track was built on a low embankment and eschewed level crossings, with bridges over cart tracks and the occasional black-top road. Despite the view afforded by the embankment, our passengers concentrated on their mobile phones - a Muslim girl carried on a cheerful conversation and a young man tuned in to some kind of drama, complete with loud soundtrack to amuse and annoy those of us who couldn't see the pictures.

Leaving Sanjamala station the earthworks of an unbuilt siding diverged to the right, while coming into S Uppalapadu an electrified siding converged from the right - it served a Dalmia Cement works about 5 km away. We stopped to await time and were temporarily relieved of radio drama as the young man promenaded on the platform. The station building here was unlike those at the other stations on the line. It was small and pillared. The internet subsequently told me that the S in the station name stood to Saalevari and that S Uppalapadu considered itself a smart village.

We continued on embankment across fields to Jammalamadugu, where the station lay on the outskirts of a small industrial town. The signs of encroaching urbanisation included plots fenced with stone slabs, additional roads, a boom-barrier level crossing and a scatter of triple-storey factory buildings. After heading south-east for fifteen kilometres the line curved right into Prodattur station, which was several kilometres west of its town centre. Despite this location and the infrequent train service, there were passengers to alight and board. The station had a main platform to the left and island to the right, with extra loops.

The line left Prodattur by crossing the Penna River, which was flowing braided on sand between wet paddy fields and required a bridge the best part of a kilometre long. A small rocky hill appeared to punctuate the horizon ahead. Among the fields, heaps of loose rock stood by old quarries - the local limestone, especially its black version, was in demand as a building material. The Mumbai-Chennai main line came in view and we curved left to join it, after pausing at Yerraguntla Junction home signal.

Having been the only train on the line, we now had to find our place among the rush of traffic. A mineral rake overtook us while we waited at the platform and an empty Tirumala Express rake perplexed me by heading the other way - surely this wasn't its route. The remaining 31 km to Kadapa were on the main line with the Penna River out of sight to our left. Hilly country was closing in on this, the southernmost part of the Rayalaseema plain - south of Kadapa the Penna flowed through a gap in the Eastern Ghats and the main line to Chennai followed it down onto the coastal plain. En route to Kadapa we crossed several tributaries of the Penna, ranging from dry creeks to the Papagni River where the water was carving complex curves into a bed of sand. We passed the wasteland fringe of an airport and crossed one last grassy watercourse to reach Kadapa at 0905. Here our DMU dropped its passengers on the main platform to the left, before moving forward to reverse to the island platform and prepare to return to Nandyal.

The station building at Kadapa was substantial and had been listed in twentieth-century timetables as *V (vegetarian refreshment room, departmental), S (tea, coffee and light refreshment stall, contractor) and N (non-vegetarian refreshment room, contractor). Sadly, these facilities seemed to have disappeared. Being in want of tiffin, I took an auto to the bus stand, where V was definitely available. Once there, rather than return to the station and take my chances on unreserved accommodation on whatever express turned up, I spent from 1000 to 1300 on an APSRTC bus to Tirupathi. It was much less spacious than the railcar from Nandyal and its reclining seats did little to soften a rough ride. I could have done the whole trip from Guntur through Nandyal to Tirupathi overnight on the Guntur-Tirupathi Express, but the intervening country had been too interesting to miss and the early morning railcar ride had been, for me, Indian rail travel at its best.

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