Friday, March 14, 2014

An Alco-Holic Journey

        On Board 15657 Sealdah-Guwahati Kanchanjunga Express - An Alco-Holic Journey

Confusing title again?!? Well..a lot of the diesel locomotives plying on Indian Railways are manufactured by the American Locomotive Company (now defunct) abbreviated Alco. My train, 15657 Sealdah-Guwahati Kanchanjunga express, was also hauled by diesel locomotive made by Alco and hence the title!!

Upon reaching Kolkata, completing half of the journey, I was feeling very excited because I was inching towards my destination, although I was equally enjoying the train rides. The Guwahati bound Kanchanjunga express was scheduled to leave at 6:30 AM but I arrived at the station 2 hours before the train's departure. This was for the first time, in my numerous trips to Kolkata, I was traveling via Sealdah station and I kind of felt that I was in one of train stations in Mumbai because even at 4:30 AM, it was crowded. After meandering around the station building interacting with some locals in my not-so-good Hindi accent, I returned to station as my train was announced and it had, in fact, already pulled into the station (shunted). I wasn’t surprised to see huge crowd waiting to board the unreserved and non-AC sleeper class coaches considering this train has got a large number of stops and is pretty slow, hence frequented by local travelers than end-to-end ones. My coach, again an AC-3 tier class, was right in the middle of the train; adjacent to the only AC-2 tier class. There was some confusion related to coach numbers and as soon as I settled in, I was informed by one of the passengers that I was on wrong coach; this surprised me because I had boarded correct coach# B -2. Later I learned that the railway officials have had changed the coach numbers, replacing B-1 with B-2 and vice versa, at the very last moment. I didn’t understand the logic behind it and it certainly didn’t  make any sense to me, and for that matter to other passengers, as well.

An AC-3 Tier Coach of Sealdah-Guwahati Kanchanjunga Express
I was skeptical about the on time departure of the train due to all of the confusions but I felt assuaged upon seeing the starter signal’s aspect changed to Yellow from Red and that the train did leave on time. A very few passengers boarded my coach but I knew that it would fill up at Barddhaman Junction. I was lucky that I got an opportunity to check out the train's loco link, it was hauled by a WDM-3A #14020 (An Alco diesel) class loco of Barddhaman shed.  My co-passengers were from different parts of India and one of the families was from my mom’s hometown in Kutch, Gujarat. I didn’t even remotely think that I was going to travel with a Gujarati family on a train bound for Guwahati from Kolkata!
Usually, I avoid the early morning starts and one of the reasons I avoid it is because I feel very stuporous and, as a result, cannot really enjoy the train journey but I did not have other options this time. After negotiating the speed restrictions, the train struggled to maintain speed and it didn't even cross 60 KMPH mark albeit it was rolling over the high speed HB Chord line, hence we reached Barddhaman Jn. 20 minutes behind schedule. I saw a huge crowd was getting ready to barge onto the train but I was hoping and praying that they shouldn't board the AC coach but the God had some other plans!! Although I knew that a lot passengers would board the train but I certainly didn’t anticipate the unauthorized ill-mannered people boarding AC class coaches. I was told that this was a regular feature and nothing much could be done about it. This, however, really beleaguered me because they had completely blocked both the doors with their baggage and I couldn’t open it an inch, so I asked them to vacate the place and move to unreserved coaches because they were not bona-fide passengers. Besides, I conscientiously spent a lot of time at the door on any train journey, and this was no different albeit I was tired and feeling sleepy, so it didn't matter to me who they were, I shooed some of them away! It was very cold outside with temperature as low as 8 Degrees Celsius but I was enjoying the cold wind impinging on my face as the train started to gain speed and got diverted on a non-electrified route bound for Guwahati from high speed HB Chord line. Still some people standing right behind me unmannerly squalled at me asking me to shut the door……but I did not listen to them! I think they swore at me in Bengali, too but I didn’t understand and I continued to be at the door. I would have shut the door, had they been a little genteel but they seemed roughnecks, so I totally ignored them.
A little over an hour into the journey, the train came to a sudden unscheduled halt at a remote station named Bataspur. Upon inquiring, I learned that a freight train had been stuck due to loco failure on the same line and that an indefinite delay was imminent - not a big deal if you travel on any Guwahati bound train! This, however, was, for a change, a blessing in disguise for me because a delay of about 2 hours or more would ensure that I reach Guwahati after dawn. Eventually, the train was given a go ahead after about an hour of unscheduled halt.
The train arrived at Malda Town, a major halt station, 2 hours behind schedule. The loco changed from WDM-3A class (diesel) of Barddhaman shed to another WDM-3A class (diesel) of Malda Town shed. A diesel-to-diesel change just didn’t make any sense to me and it wouldn’t have made any difference, had the WDM-3A class loco of Barddhaman shed continued hauling the train till Guwahati. The train pulled out after a 20-minute halt, delayed by over 2 hours with a new loco and a fresh set of crew at its helm.
               It was 4:30 PM but it became too dark and very cold outside and I couldn't continue doorplating as the weariness was gripping me, so I decided to return to my seat and interacted with some other fellow passengers. There were a lot Indian Navy cadets traveling on an adjacent non-AC sleeper class coach and it was also very interesting to interact with them, as well. Learned a lot of things from them as I always enjoy learning! For most of the time, I sauntered around the train, interacted with many passengers and until we reached New Jalpaiguri junction around 9 PM – 3 hours behind schedule!  After New Jalpaiguri, it was only about 10 hours to reach Guwahati and an additional 3 hours to reach my destination, Shillong – My long journey was about to be concluded!
             The next day I woke up to see the train closing in on Guwahati station, delayed by over 3 hours. Had the train been running on time, I would have arrived at 4:30 AM and thus it would have been difficult to find a cab/bus to Shillong. Upon disembarking, I was lucky to find an Assam State Transport bus bound for Shillong waiting right outside the station. The journey between Guwahati and Shillong was even more captivating with the feeling of joy, and excitement to be in Shillong once again. 

The Assam State Transport Corporation Bus Bound for Shillong from Guwahati

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